(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
During the Christmas holidays in Australia is an excellent time to experience second-string preaching from our church pulpits. This is often the time when the senior pastor goes on holidays and assistant pastors and elders take over the role of preaching on Sunday. However, this also happens during the year, but on a more limited basis as the senior pastor takes over most of the main pulpit-based preaching activities.
The problem strikes hard during the extended holiday season. One predicament in listening to these substitutes (for the senior pastor) is that these alternate preachers bore Christians with God’s word. Howard Hendricks makes a habit of saying, “If you are going to bore people, don’t bore them with the Gospel. Bore them with calculus, bore them with earth science, bore them with world history. But, it is a sin to bore people with the Gospel.”
To be honest, some people go to hear these replacement preachers (who are lovely Christian men and women), but they are bored to tears with what they hear from the pulpit. Their presentations and content need a radical rethink.
1. This is what some people experience
This can happen especially during holiday periods or at any time during the year. Generally this does not apply to the senior pastor who is generally a capable preacher, whether an expositor or a topical preacher.
People provide me with examples of pastors / preachers who so bore the people that they begin reading or doing other things while “listening” to the sermon. I have done this myself on occasions. That happens is that these so-called preachers deliver sermons that have very little to do with the text they read and people tune out. They ramble in a some different kinds of fashions: (a) They can be over the top with their enthusiasm, (b) They could be laid back and uninteresting with their delivery, or (c) They can be tellers of jokes and have people in stitches of laughter.
I recently attended an evangelical church that has a high view of Scripture but I came home from church having been bored by the preacher. He presented enthusiastically but there was little biblical content in his sermon. Even though this was only a few months ago, I can’t remember the content of the sermon. It was not memorable!
Why is this happening? The preacher could preach with enthusiasm but there is no organised content in what he says. He could shout plenty of “Amens” asking for agreement on what he is preaching, but that can be a gloss for the lack of content. He can give lots of humour. These sermons can provide rambling content of enthusiastic delivery or boring complacency – both without substance from the text.
Many of these “preachers” can have excellent ministries in other areas such as evangelism, counselling, pastoral care, or teaching Sunday School children. But putting them in the pulpit to preach sermons can be a danger to church health.
Is this happening in the church you attend?
I recall friends telling of a church they visited and heard a preacher deliver an atrocious message. He did not know how to construct a sermon and to gain one’s attention when delivering it. Their comments were, “We won’t be attending that church when that preacher is on.”
They understand that he has gifts in other areas but they told me that they are of the view that he should not be asked to deliver a sermon as he is an example of another who bores God’s people with his poor delivery, mumbling in his beard when he should be projecting his voice, and doing nothing to grab and keep attention.
While their approaches may be different, these types of preachers suffer from a “disease” that can drive people away from the church. One can be very enthusiastic but essentially has no biblical content in his or her sermon. The other may be laid back and does nothing to gain and keep the attention of the people. A third could be in competition with the comedian. Organised biblical content is absent from these kinds of presentations.
Do any of you suffer from a similar dilemma in your churches, where people preach who have little idea about how to preach to get your attention and deliver content?
This is incompetent preaching. When these kinds of preachers are scheduled to preach, some people will absent themselves from the church.
This is not a problem exclusive to an occasional evangelical church. People tell me of other churches in various cities and towns where, when the pastor is on leave, he prepares a schedule of preachers (elders), many of whom have a similar lack of preaching gift to that discussed above. Many of these men and women don’t have a clue about homiletics (sermon construction) and bore God’s people with their delivery. People tell me of elders who read the Scriptures and they are embarrassments with the way they stumble through God’s word when they read it publicly, and thus make it difficult to listen to them
Holiday time is an opportunity to bore God’s people with His Word in some congregations in Australia.
2. What would happen in a secular profession?
If management took this kind of approach with employees in the power station that generates my electricity at Christmas time, I would have no operating electricity in my house. Fishermen who acted like this would not make a living. School teachers could lose their jobs if they were so incompetent as teachers that they were unskilled and bored the kids they teach.
But come to church and a different standard prevails in some churches. Why is it that people who don’t have the gift of teaching or preaching are let loose with their boring presentations on congregations? Too often these incompetent preachers are scheduled to preach by senior pastors who may be excellent preachers.
Many counsellors in my network are now checking on the progress of their clients through the use of the Outcome Rating Scale (ORS). They check on the quality of the counsellor’s sessions with clients through the Session Rating Scale (SRS). This client-informed practice assesses whether clients are improving (ORS) and whether the therapist is being effective with a given client (SRS).
Something similar should be devised for people in the pew who are listening week in, week out, to preachers. That should weed out the competent from the incompetent preachers. It could also measure if sermon listeners are growing in grace, and in knowledge of the Saviour. Or is that too empirical for the Christian church?
3. What is the cause of incompetent preaching?
These are my personal observations.
1. Because somebody is on staff or is an elder, the senior pastor seems to assume that this staff member should be given preference in being the alternate preacher. Assumptions make for poor decisions in choosing alternate preachers in some churches. Most of the incompetent preachers about which I write could be lovely people personally. They are personable or laid back in their personalities. But they never should be preaching until they improve: (a) their abilities to outline a scriptural passage and, (b) can deliver God’s message with confidence.
2. “To equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11) is not taken seriously at many churches. Equipping (training) in preaching should be offered by all churches.
3. You might ask, “Why do people continue to go to these kinds of churches with incompetent preachers?” In parts of regional Australia, there are not many alternatives. Choice is a problem in some of these cities and towns.
4. Many people in the pew have become used to sub-standard preaching. Few people are prepared to raise practical issues about these lovely brothers in Christ who are not a preacher’s bootlace. Instead of complaining about the low standard of preaching, they would rather stick it out as a temporary form of “penance” than ruffle feathers in the leadership team. Those who complain could be regarded as whingers who are negative and what they say possibly will be discounted by those who do not like critiques of evangelical doctrines and presentations.
4. What does it mean to equip the saints for the work of ministry?
There is a lack of training in these churches according to Ephesians 4:11-16, which reads:
11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (ESV).
These verses teach:
- It is Christ who gave these gifts to the church when he ascended (see the context in Eph. 4:7-9).
- What are these gifts? Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (v. 11).
- Why were these gifts given? “To equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v. 12).
- What would this achieve?
- Building up the body of Christ (v. 12);
- Help to attain unity of the faith (v. 13);
- Increase the believer’s knowledge of Christ (v. 13);
- Attain maturity and fullness in Christ (v. 13);
6. The result will be that believers will:
- Not be tossed about by deceitful doctrine, human cunning & crafty schemes (v.14)
7. When we are equipped, we will:
- Speak truth lovingly (v. 15);
- Grow up in Christ (v. 15);
8. Then . . .
- When Christ is the head (v. 15);
- He holds the body of Christ together (v. 16);
- How? By every joint/gift which Christ has provided (v. 16);
- Working properly (v. 16);
- The body grows (v. 16);
- By building itself up in love (v. 16).
A summary outline of these verses could be:
A. Christ gave these gifts (vv 7-9);
B. The nature of the gifts (v. 11);
C. The purpose of the gifts (vv 12-13);
D. The results for the body of Christ (vv 14-16)
- Christ gave (vv 7-9)
- Gifts given (v. 11)
- Maturity attained (vv. 12-13)
- False doctrine refuted (v. 14)
- A healthy body of Christ (vv. 15-16)
An excellent equipping resource for preachers is Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005 2nd edn).
5. Some help from the Puritans
To address the problem of boredom in the pew from sub-standard preaching, it would be good to consider the approach of the Puritans of 16th & 17th century England and then the Americas, in the calling of preachers.
a. The Puritan’s double call to preach
“The Puritans believed in the divine call summoning a man to become a herald of God. There is a general call to repentance to the world, and wouldn’t the same God call personally those who will take his message to the world as his heralds and angels? Of course he would. The puritans give us a twin emphasis of outward signs and an inner sense, the so-called double call. Both were authored by the Lord of glory himself. Charles Bridges calls them two grand combining requisites indispensable for the ministry.
There are trends in the church today which oppose this double call”.
b. The inner call
“A disturbance in the realm of the Spirit’ is needed, said Martyn Lloyd-Jones. [John] Owen said God first gave men ability, and then they were set apart by church. [Richard] Baxter speaks of the necessity men must have to preach the gospel. Necessity has structured my life and message, he added. In 1753 when he was in his late thirties and soon to die James Durham wrote well on the call to the ministry, “with clearness therein.” The evidences are the gifting of the life, confirmed by examiners, singleness in ourselves to obey the call, and God’s providential leading. The Spirit leads us on by steps. We develop a growing desire to study divinity and have another desire to enter the ministry. Sanctifying efficacy, a constraint to yield to the call and submit to Christ, obeying God, a Word-controlled nature, and a gifting impulse – these are the marks of the divine call. The younger John Milton wrote strongly on how to remove hirelings from the church. His concern was focused on an inward sense of his calling and a strong obligation to preach the gospel free.”
However, there is a reluctance to emphasise the inner call among some in contemporary Reformed church circles. Andy Ball puts this down to the following modern influence:
“Every element of guidance is considered as coming from without. There is present in reformed circles an overreaction to the charismatic movement, and a fear of the inward work of the Holy Spirit. There is almost a non-Trinitarian attitude and the Holy Spirit is rarely referred to in those who are cautious about a personal call to the ministry.”
No contemporary over-emphasis or aberration should cause Christians to move away from biblical truth. The Mormon use of extra-biblical revelation should not cause Christians to leave the authoritative Scriptures for extra-canonical writings such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter or The Apocrypha.
The extreme of “blab it and grab it theology” in charismatic circles should not influence the final decision as to whether the charismatic gifts are for today. That should be a biblical determinant. See:
- “Are there apostles in the 21st century?“
- “Tongues & the baptism with the Holy Spirit“;
- “St Augustine: The leading church father who dared to change his mind about divine healing“;
- “Are miracles valuable?“
One faulty Ford motor vehicle does not make every Ford vehicle a disaster. There are plenty of sub-standard items being manufactured but that doesn’t make the item you purchase to be a fraud. There are some better manufacturers than others and the best makers will be the ones with the most recommendations.
Paul, in addressing the Ephesian elders, taught that “The Holy spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28). This is the inner call that is also emphasised for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1. In Ephesus, even though there were elders with the inner call of God, “fierce wolves” of false doctrine would enter that church. What was the church to do? “Be alert” (Acts 20:31). The latter is an external requirement to keep heresy from destroying the church.
By this inner call or sovereign movement by the Holy Spirit in an individual, some of God’s servants become moved upon to preach. The apostle Paul wrote, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16; see also Gal. 1:16). However, we know that this call is not to all people as I Corinthians 12 makes clear: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers? … Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (vv. 28-29). The expected answer to the questions is, “No!” Teachers/preachers who have not been appointed by God and confirmed by the church, should not be preaching as they don’t have the gifts and calling of God.
This emphasis needs to be renewed in the contemporary church to overcome what I see as a crisis in preaching.
c. The outer call: recognition by the church
“Candidates must have some ecclesiastical call. Ordinary men must have the call from God, yes, but from the congregation too. Do not leave the choice to the men but approach able gifted men yourselves, says [James] Durham. We should even go so far that church discipline is considered to men who refuse the examination of the church. They should be censured for refusing to enter the ministry. God ordinarily calls through the church and so when it says, ‘Go!’ then we should obey God.”
Puritan, Thomas Manton, wrote: “The inward call is not enough; to preserve order in the church an outward call is necessary. As Peter, Acts 10, was called of God to go to Cornelius, and then besides that, he has a call from Cornelius himself.”
Another Puritan, John Collings, contended that”God’s law has not commanded me to hear everyone that speaketh a good discourse or reads a chapter. he must be specifically authorised to preach, or I am not obliged to hear”.
The Church of Norway believes that”God’s call to the ordained ministry is both an inner call to the individual and an outer call through the testing and confirmation of the church, which is expressed in the ordination.”
The United Methodist Church (USA) considers that the call to ministry involves “recognition of both an inner call and an outer call:
- The inner call refers to what a person feels, perceives, and believes about God’s activity and invitation in his or her life.
- The outer call has to do with the work of the church in becoming acquainted with God’s movement in a person’s life and then examining and validating this movement.”
What is the biblical basis of the outer call to ministry? One example is the sending of Saul and Barnabas by the church. However, this also involved the inner ministry of the Holy Spirit to the prophets and teachers of the church. Acts 13:1-3 states:
Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul. While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off (NET Bible).
Before being called to minister with Paul and Luke, it is said of Timothy that “he was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2).
After Andy Ball’s presentation, there was a time for comments from the floor of the conference. This perceptive analysis could point to what is happening with God’s people being bored by preachers in the 21st century church:
“There are a million men and women in Roman and Orthodox and Protestant churches today not called of God to be ministers. We know this because they do not preach God’s message. Yet all of them plead they have an inward sense of divine call to be ministers – the Spirit has led them, they say. Such a sense of call has authority only for that person himself or herself”.
My observation is that the Puritans were teaching something special that should be adapted by the contemporary church.
There is the inner call to teach/preach as the impulse from the Holy Spirit and there is the outward recognition by the church. This outward call needs to not only have input from the church leaders but also include feedback from the congregation.
e. Summary from the Puritans
If unsuitable people preach in our pulpits, the work of God and the cause of truth will be negatively affected. I fear that that is happening when God’s people are being bored by incompetent people who are attempting to preach God’s Word.
Paul to Titus said, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15 ESV). Peter wrote:
Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:10-11 NET Bible).
Both inner and outer calls to ministry have biblical precedent.
I commend an article to you by Malcolm Watts, “Called to the Ministry.”
6. Some questions that need answering
I’m of the view that when I expound a passage of Scripture, I should be addressing some of the scriptural, theological & contemporary controversies that arise from this passage. If we take Ephesians 4:11-16, what could be some of these questions?
- How do we define the controversial gifts such as apostles and prophets? I also need to define evangelist, pastor and teacher biblically.
- When did these gifts cease? There is a theological position called cessationism that raises some interesting issues.
- If they are still being given today, who are examples of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors & teachers in the contemporary church?
- Why do some churches not take seriously the required ministry of equipping the saints for the work of ministry?
- What kinds of false/deceitful doctrines are appearing in churches in my country/community today?
- Could the existence of false doctrine be associated with a failure to accept the equipping ministry promoted in this passage?
7. There is no excuse for being an incompetent public speaker
Every person who has a gift of teaching/preaching can be taught to be a more competent public speaker through attendance at public speaking clubs. When I became a radio announcer for the breakfast shift at 4BU Bundaberg many years ago, the manager recommended that I improve my on-air fluency by attending a local Rostrum Club.
This was one of the most beneficial moves that I ever made. It has equipped me with public speaking presentation abilities that I would not have learned elsewhere. There are not as many Rostrum Clubs around regional Queensland today as there used to be in the early 1970s. However, Toastmasters seems to have taken over some of that role.
I am convinced that every developing, inexperienced or incompetent public preacher/teacher should join a public speaking club. These would help develop gifts of preaching-teaching OR eliminate those who bore people with poor quality speaking gifts.
Therefore, some of the incompetent preachers that people hear could be improved through joining one of these clubs. Or, the club would discern whether the speaker is capable or not of being a good or reasonable public speaker/preacher.
We may need to accept the fact that there are some in the pulpits of today’s churches who should not be teachers/preachers. Attending a public speaking club will not overcome the difficulty of a lack of gift as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher (Ephesians 4:11). Not all Christian people are destined to manifest public preaching/teaching gifts. They may be better suited in evangelism, pastoral care, social ministry, administration, counselling or some other aspect of church life.
This we know for sure: “For the body [of Christ] does not consist of one member but of many… Earnestly desire the higher gifts” (I Corinthians 12:14, 31 ESV). Every one has a spiritual gift from God and it is the Christian’s responsibility to find that gift and function in it. Being an active member of the body of Christ will assist in causing that gift to be recognised and manifested.
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:27-28 ESV).
God’s people should not be bored by incompetent preachers and teachers. This could be eliminated by: (a) Only those with acknowledged gifts of teaching/preaching to be allowed into the pulpits of churches and as teachers in the church, whether at Sunday School, Youth Group or Bible studies; and (b) Those with inadequate public speaking gifts should be encouraged to join a public speaking club before they are allowed to preach and teach in a public setting.
The ministry of equipping God’s people for ministry is clearly taught in Ephesians 4:11-16. Churches that ignore this passage will suffer the consequences of boredom of some people in the pew, exit of people from the church, and false doctrine entering the church.
Howard Hendricks hit the mark:
“If you are going to bore people, don’t bore them with the Gospel. Bore them with calculus, bore them with earth science, bore them with world history. But, it is a sin to bore people with the Gospel.” 
This is a period from about mid-December until the end of January and generally coincides with school holidays.
 The Free Online Dictionary defines “whinge” as meaning “to complain or protest, especially in an annoying or persistent manner”, available at: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/whinger [Accessed on 9 January 2010].
 Andy is from Netley Christian Fellowship, Southampton, UK.
 Andy Ball 2005, “Puritans and the divine call of preaching,” The Westminster Conference 2005 (2), The Banner of Truth Trust, available at: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?957 [Accessed 16 January 2010].
 Treasury of Puritan Quotations, provided by lrschrs at Christian Fellowship Forum, The Fellowship Hall, “It’s a sin to bore God’s people,” # 56, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?webtag=ws-fellowship&nav=messages&msg=119929.56 [Accessed 16 January 2010].
 Andy Ball, op. cit.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 25 September 2016.