Our responsibility as ministers is the cure of souls. In a sense we take the eternal life of our congregations—and particularly those not yet committed to Christ—in our hands every time we preach. We need to ask ourselves whether we are as serious about our responsibilities as those in the medical and educational fields are about theirs. Most of us have had some education (college and/or seminary) to prepare us for our pulpit ministry. But what have we done since then to ensure growth in our abilities to minister God's Word graciously, accurately, and convincingly?
In reference to growth in the ministry, Paul wrote some interesting counsel to his protege Timothy. Most of us are familiar with Paul's exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:15 to be diligent so that he could handle God's Word rightly, and Paul's advice in 2 Timothy 4:2, "Preach the word." I'd like to call your attention to another passage that has impressed itself upon me just recently. Paul wrote to his colleague in the ministry, "Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
"Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that every one may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim. 4:13-16, N.I.V.).*
Obviously, the oral communication of the faith played an important role in Paul's concept of the pastor's work. Notice especially Paul's desire that Timothy grow in his ministry: "Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress." The Revised Standard Version translates the first clause, "Practice these duties." + (This nuance accurately reflects another part of the range of meaning of the Greek word behind the translations.) And what is it that Timothy is to practice, to give himself wholly to? In what is his progress to be evident? It is the public reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching, that Paul spoke of in verse 13.
It seems to me that we, as Seventh-day Adventist pastors, also can profit by these words of instruction. It is true that the Spirit of Prophecy indicates that the best help a minister can give a church is not sermonizing, but planning work for the members to do (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 49), and that there should be less sermonizing and more personal ministry (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143). I think, however, that we may be in danger of misapplying these counsels in much the same way as Dr. Kress misapplied other counsels in his efforts to be a faithful health reformer.
While in Australia, in the early 1900s, Dr. Kress became convicted that, to be in accord with the church's health reform message, he should eliminate milk and eggs (and probably some other items, including salt) from his diet. He also was concerned with the laxness of others and attempted by the rigor of his example to encourage them to be more careful. He followed through on his convictions, eliminating these foods. His unbalanced application of the Spirit of Prophecy counsels resulted in meals that were so unpalatable and a diet so sparse and lacking in necessary nutrients that he almost died from his "health reform" practices! (He apparently developed pernicious anemia. By following the advice Ellen G. White sent particularly to him, and with the careful nursing of others, he was restored to health—and eventually lived to be 94. You can read most of Ellen White's letter to him in Counsels on Diet and Foods, pages 202- 206. It is included in a section entitled "When Health Reform Becomes Health Deform"!)
Dr. Kress's problem was twofold. He did not have a balanced understanding of the health reform principles he was applying to himself (although the principles were not intrinsically unbalanced themselves). And he applied indiscriminately to himself the counsels he was reading. By this I mean that he used the counsels without determining whether they were meant for his situation and without evaluating the results of his application of them. My point in this is that some Seventh-day Adventist preachers may be misapplying in much the same way Ellen White's statements that seem to denigrate preaching—to the detriment of their ministry and to the regret of their congregations!
I do not intend to present here a heavy study on E. G. White's evaluation of preaching. But let me highlight a few factors that I believe are important for us to consider as we try to understand what she has written.
First, we must apply these statements with discrimination. E. G. White used different expressions in reference to pulpit ministry. For instance, sermonizing always has negative connotations as she used it. She means by it focusing "on the sermon as an end in itself—void of any ensuing pastoral work" (R. Edward Turner, Proclaiming the Word: The Concept of Preaching in the Thought of Ellen G. White [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1979], p. 89). But, as we shall see, preaching can have very positive connotations. She also encouraged teaching and Bible study as better than preaching. But these were also forms of pulpit ministry, and today we would call them sermons. (Preaching likely referred to emotional, revivalistic sermons, while teaching and Bible study emphasized the need for content. Not only were sermons, in her view, to convict and convert, they were to instruct. See, for example, page 45 of Turner's book.) The historical context is important also. Many early American ministers traveled from church to church over relatively large geographical areas, holding services and moving on. And even those who were relatively station ary and whose responsibilities were more localized must have found keeping in touch with their members more difficult than we do today, with our telephones, cars, and good roads. And our age is an age of emphasis on pastoral visitation and counseling, lay involvement, and the administrative role of the pastor. We need, then, to apply Ellen White's statements carefully.
Second, we must see the balance implicit in these statements. Most of the time when E. G. White seemingly devaluates preaching, it is in statements that say, in effect, preaching alone is not enough. She encouraged the ministers of her day to combine visitation with their preaching. Visitation is just as important today. But our preaching must not be undervalued or neglected. We also must keep the balance.
Ellen G. White's true evaluation of preaching is best indicated by her conviction that it is "God's appointed means of saving souls" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 300), "and therefore always to be highly prized" (ibid, , p. 298). For this work "the very best quality of preaching is needed."—Letter 33, 1886. The minister must prepare himself to fulfill this function: "By earnest prayer and diligent effort we are to obtain a fitness for speaking."—Evangelism, p. 175. The discourses must be "carefully considered. . . . The preparation, both in preacher and hearer, has very much to do with the result."—Ibid. She urges ministers to "gain the reputation of being an interesting speaker" (ibid., p. 177), and says, "The one appointed to conduct Sabbath services should study how to interest his hearers in the truths of the Word."— Gospel Workers, p. 171; see also Evangelism, p. 178. And finally she calls for "anything but sickly discourses. These will do less harm where all are believers, but when the truth is to be proclaimed before a people who are not in the faith, the speaker must prepare himself for the task. He must not ramble all through the Bible but give a clear, connected dis course, showing that he understands the points he would make."—Ibid., p. 181.
Ellen G. White did not wish to devaluate preaching in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She assigned it the primary role in the carrying out of the church's mission—as long as it was accompanied by the minister's personal work with his congregation. And she encouraged the study and preparation necessary for the preacher adequately to fill this role.
In most situations, the minister touches more people receptive to con version or spiritual growth while speaking Sabbath morning than he does through the rest of the week. And with some planning, the Sabbath services could become a major part of the evangelistic outreach of the church. This opportunity is worse than wasted if the pastor is unable to influence his congregation positively at this time because of the poor preparation and/or delivery of his sermon. Not only has he lost, perhaps forever, an opportunity to reach some individuals but he actually may have turned some away from Christ. Many people will judge, consciously or unconsciously, how seriously we take our religion by our worship services. (I wonder whether most of the irreverence seen in some churches during worship services could not be attributed to the poor quality of those services. No one, preacher included, takes them seriously.)
The General Conference Ministerial Association began offering a continuing education course on preaching in last month's issue of MINISTRY. If you've begun taking it, great! If not, why not plan on using it to further your growth as a minister? It's not too late to enroll. But whether through this means, through some other course available to you locally, or just through your own personal reading and effort, why not work toward your potential in the pulpit, as well as in personal ministry? Why not regularly offer your congregation sermons that are well prepared and well delivered, sermons that will encourage them to take their Christian commitment seriously or challenge them to make that commitment?
In the passage to which I referred at the beginning of this editorial, Paul counseled Timothy not to neglect the gift that was given him when the elders laid their hands upon him in ordination. He was to "practice these duties," to give himself wholly to them so that others might see his progress. In a similar vein in his second letter to Timothy, Paul tells Timothy "to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands" (chap. 1:6, N. I. V.). Let us also take Paul's challenge to heart, and "fan into flame" the gift that is ours as we minister God's Word to His people. "—D.C.J.
* Texts credited to N.I.V. are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
+ From the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.