Week by week, faithful preachers open God’s Word and speak. They speak to proclaim the truth and to declare the gospel. They speak to teach, correct, rebuke and train. They speak to equip the saints for the work of ministry and to do the work of an evangelist. They speak to encourage and exhort. And as they speak, they lead the church.
There is, arguably, no more powerful leadership position in the church than that of preacher. Not that preachers always realize that or always make the most of it. But they should, because leading through preaching is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of church leadership.
There is, arguably, no more powerful leadership position in the church than that of preacher. Leading through preaching is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of church leadership.
Albert Mohler observes that leaders are communicators. “Leadership doesn’t happen until communication happens” (Mohler, The Conviction to Lead, 91). Therefore, he says, “One essential requirement of leadership is the ability to talk, and to talk well” (92). Leaders need to speak, he argues, with clarity, consistency and courage. Given, therefore, that preachers typically have more public communication time than anyone else in the church, they are positioned to be highly influential leaders. If someone preaches in a church Sunday after Sunday, year after year, they will have a profound impact not only on the beliefs of the church, but on its convictions and culture, its vision and values.
Casting a Vision, Shaping Culture
As preachers open God’s Word they inevitably cast a vision—a vision of God and who he is and what he is like; a vision of humanity and who we are and what we are like; and a vision of our world and what it is like and what it is meant to be. The way they cast that vision shapes the way the church thinks about God, humanity and the world. It shapes the church’s sense of identity and mission.
Preachers also shape the church’s culture. Through the repeated influence of such things as: their tone (manner and style); their language (the way they articulate things); their emphases (what they stress as most important); and the battles they pick (what is in their firing line); they influence the tone, language, emphases and agenda of the church. It’s possible to create, from the pulpit, a church culture that is defensive, reactionary, inward-looking, cautious and suspicious—or to shape a culture that is missional, gospel-hearted, outward-looking and disciple-making. Preaching can also flavour a church to make it feel very reverent, devout, earnest, serious and intense; or very high-powered, pumped, excitable and exuberant. The preacher often sets the tone.
Preaching can flavour a church. The preacher sets the tone.
But preachers who care deeply about faithfulness to God’s Word might be a bit nervous at this point. We realise our words can shape the vision, mission, values and culture of a church, but how do we do that intentionally without twisting the text we’re preaching from or riding our leadership hobby horse in the pulpit? How do we ensure that we are preaching the Word, not preaching our church mission statement or the church leadership’s agenda?
Effective preacher-leaders have a number of sharp tools in the preaching toolbox for doing exactly this.
1. Key Theological Emphases
First, and most powerfully, in text after text preachers can return to key theological emphases. These are truths we accent because they are particularly important. They are important because they are pervasive throughout the Bible and so appear in text after text. We develop an eye to see them in the text, and we don’t hesitate to stress them as we preach.
But what are we stressing and how is that shaping the church? I’ve been in churches where the key accent, week after week, is that we are miserable sinners. This is highlighted in sermon after sermon as well as in the songs, the prayers and the entire tone of the service, so that a grand sense of our smallness, our vileness, our utter unworthiness shapes the culture of the church. The depravity of sinners is core biblical doctrine, but it is possible to preach this truth with an emphasis that will produce a more healthy culture. In the language of Tim Keller, we could have as a recurring theme-tune, “I am more sinful and flawed that I ever dared believe” but “I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope” (Tim Keller, Centre Church, 48).
The depravity of sinners is core biblical doctrine, but it is possible to preach this truth with an emphasis that will produce a more healthy culture. Where the accent falls will powerfully shape both the theology and culture of the church
Where the accent falls will powerfully shape both the theology and culture of the church. Last year when I was in the USA, I attended the church pastored by Zack Eswine, author of The Imperfect Pastor. From the very first words of the service I was struck by the fact that the emphases were identical to the book. He is intentionally creating a culture that says we don’t have to be everywhere, do everything and know everything. That is for God not for us.
Great preachers are frequently known for key truths that they famously emphasize. Albert Mohler says, “Powerful leaders are known for showing up with the same message, the same convictions, and the same principles every time they appear” (The Conviction to Lead, 95). As preachers, therefore, it’s worth stopping to think about what our main emphases are, whether they are the right ones to have constantly prominent, and how they are shaping the life of the church.
2. Highlighting Mission
Second, as we preach the text we can highlight aspects of our church’s mission that emerge in the text. When the teaching of the text we are preaching from aligns with one of our core values, we highlight it. We underline it. When the text underlines a key aspect of the church’s mission, we accentuate it. We might underline love, or disciple-making, or gratitude, or God’s sovereignty, or mission, or some other conviction or value our church holds dear. In doing this, we’re not imposing it on the text; we’re exposing what is already present in the text and inviting the congregation to see it.
As we expound on an aspect of the text we might say, “You can see here why we are so big in this church on…”. Or we might say, “You can see in these verses why we are so concerned in this church about…”, or “Maybe you’ve wondered why we constantly emphasise this and now you can see why…” It is a powerful tool for leading the church because it enables us not only to articulate our key emphases but to explain the biblical basis for them.
It’s actually tremendously important to do this. If we can’t show our main emphases are coming from the Word of God, they shouldn’t be our main emphases! If they are worth having as central values they will show up in the Bible again and again.
3. Truth in Context
Third, we can frame what we say in a wider context. By zooming out from our text we give wider perspective. So the preacher might say, “Now we need to understand where this fits into the bigger picture of the Bible.” He then steps back and gives a wider perspective. The text about judgment is framed in the wider context of God’s mission to save; the text about guarding the gospel is set within the wider story of advancing the gospel; the command regarding moral purity is set within the context of relationship with a loving, faithful God.
Just as systematic theology teaches us to see the doctrine taught in any one text in the light of the Bible’s entire teaching on that truth, so this kind of preaching teaches the church to see every truth as part of the Bible’s one big story. As we frame everything in the context of God’s redemptive plan, the over-arching narrative of the Bible, we lead our people to see the big picture that drives our mission and culture.
4. Developing a Vocabulary
Fourth, preachers can develop language to help articulate key ideas. In shaping culture few things are more powerful than the words we use. As Colin Marshall and Tony Payne point out in The Vine Project, “Language shapes culture” (305). They go on to say that if we want to change the culture to a disciple-making one, “we’ll need to change the language people use…” (305).
Effective leaders think hard about the key messages they want to communicate and how to articulate them well. Similarly, preachers need to think hard about the way they will express themselves. How will we speak of God and the gospel? How will we speak of the world and society? How will we speak about people—about women, about children, about unbelievers? How will we speak about controversial moral issues? How will we speak about the church? How will we speak about the gospel, about sin, about disciple-making, and about evangelism?
The words we use are powerful and they shape the language of our church.
The words we use are powerful and they shape the language of our church. We give people words with which to address God, or articulate their faith, or converse with unbelievers. We give them vocabulary to explain core concepts or engage in difficult conversations. We provide language that will help them relate to non-Christians, to the community, or to the issues of the day.
5. Correcting Imbalance
Finally, a wise preacher will also lead his church by occasionally contrasting the emphases of the text with the predominant emphases of the church. We may have a range of values and emphases that we return to again and again. But sometimes the text takes us to a different place and we need to let it. So we may say, “Usually here we stress the importance of xxx but there is an important reminder here that we must never forget yyy.” We let the text sharpen us, correct us, challenge us. That’s essential because any vision we are casting or culture we are shaping needs to be constantly evaluated by the truth of God’s Word. We must allow the Word to provide correctives and, as we do that, we are leading our church not only to see our main emphases, but also to hold to those emphases in submission to God’s Word. We are teaching the church to respond to God and what he has said, not to us and what we have said.
These are some of the ways preachers can lead as they preach. They are powerful tools that help articulate, reinforce and enculturate the church’s theological vision. But preachers will only lead well if they are very intentional in their use of these tools. If they are not crystal clear on what their vision for the church actually is, if they are not highly aware of their main emphases and why they matter, if they are not passionate about those convictions and ready to articulate them compellingly, and if they are not constantly giving thought to the language they use, then though they may be leading the church, they will not lead it to clarity regarding its mission in this world.
Churches don’t just need preachers. They need preachers who lead well.
Photo: Steve Evans, flickr