No doubt pastors worldwide are in the same situation as we in Australia—they do not have the luxury of leading only one church unless they have a very large congregation. As such, this poses the following interesting scenario (I know that some pastors have more than two churches, but for our purposes I’ll assume that most have two): There are 52 Sabbaths in the year. A pastor with two churches has a maximum of 26 possible Sabbaths in each church. Take away 4 Sabbaths of annual leave and there are 24 possible Sabbaths for each church. Take away another 2 Sabbaths for camp meeting, another for annual workers’ meetings, and another 2 for retreats or training weekends. Let’s assume that the pastor rosters himself or herself off duty one Sabbath each quarter as a special Sabbath treat for the family. Furthermore, let’s be very harsh and allow that the pastor will take only one other Sabbath off because of illness, family crisis, or just to take a break.
We are left then with about 19 Sabbaths in a year when the pastor preaches in each of the district churches. This means, of course, that on the other 33 Sabbaths the pulpit is filled by others, i.e., retired pastors, elders, youth groups, lay people, or even by a speaker on the big screen.
When we look at it this way, we become acutely aware of the tremendous commitment of lay people—expected and willingly given. It is probably no exaggeration to assume that there may be more lay people than professional clergy preaching on any Sabbath.
In Australia we now have extra competition with the introduction of satellite broadcasts by the church. Although these satellite television channels are certainly not offered as an alternative to the Sabbath sermon at church, a number of people are staying home and watching these programs.
Sabbath television programs may never replace the weekly corporate worship experience, but that some members consider them even an occasional option should compel us to review each Sabbath’s presentation. The number of lay preachers in pulpits demands that serious consideration be given to properly equipping them. From personal observations, I believe that the majority of lay preachers (at least in our part of the world) have received little or no training and certainly no regular and ongoing support.
I am not suggesting that lay sermons are inferior to the ordained minister’s. We must continually strive to deliver God’s Word as well as possible. Nevertheless, though some lay preachers can research, prepare, and deliver a good sermon, the vast majority who preach only occasionally do struggle.
The pastor’s responsibility in lay preaching
Because many lay preachers speak from the pulpit only on occasion, we pastors have often not recognized our responsibility to ensure that the preaching continues as best it can be. When lay people preach, we pastors are usually at another church and, unless we hear complaints, we assume that everyone is happy.
With the pastor (or so we’ve been told) responsible for the pulpit, they usually have the final say on who preaches. Though this protects the congregation from, for example, critics and troublemakers, more involvement becomes necessary than just filtering who gets up to preach.
Some pastors have their own seminars that equip members for the pulpit, and some good preaching resources are available in book or visual form. While certainly not exhaustive, the following suggestions attempt to show how pastors can enhance the contributions of lay preachers.
Don’t just assume. Many times I have asked a lay preacher scheduled to preach the next Sabbath, “Is everything OK?” They usually answer, “Yes, everything is fine.” Two points we need to note here. First, we should getinto the habit of checking with the lay preacher more than one week ahead of the sermon. Second, don’t assume that everything is OK just because they say it is. Many struggle with sermon preparation but don’t bother us because they may think we are too busy. Often, when I have continued to question after the “Everything’s OK” answer, I have discovered their desire for me to read through their notes, explain a passage to them, or to lend them a book.
Plan the lay preaching year. When planning a sermonic year many pastors consider only the Sabbaths when they will be in the pulpit. If, as stated above, the pastor has only about nineteen Sabbath preaching appointments in each church, then this can hardly be called a sermonic year. I have discovered the benefits of including the lay preachers in the sermon planning. Meet with the lay preachers who will be asked to preach throughout the year, share with them the dates when you plan to preach and what you plan to preach on. Discuss other topics and themes and invite them to decide upon their preaching dates and topics. Assure them of your support in the stages of sermon crafting. You may even schedule a monthly meeting with your preachers to give guidance and instruction. Perhaps some of the following points could be discussed at these planning meetings.
Don’t separate preaching and worship. Help your preachers understand that preaching exists as an integral part of worship. Many times a church elects a worship committee and then assigns to them a few preliminary responsibilities. Impress upon your people that Sabbath morning should not be considered a worship service followed by a preaching service. Preaching should be viewed as part of worship when the sermon lifts up the One who draws people to Himself in responsive adoration and thankfulness. As the Spirit-empowered speaker communicates God’s love to the congregation, the people’s heartfelt response to the Savior has, indeed, become worship.
Be aware that preaching contributes to church growth. Do you make sure that someone counts attendance every Sabbath? I have found that this information helps in charting churchgrowth trends. The graphs produced from these weekly statistics, presented at the quarterly business meeting, keeps the congregation informed regarding our effectiveness in reaching people for Jesus. What happens in the pulpit is a factor in church growth.1 Help your lay preachers understand that they are not simply filling a blank in the preaching plan. Show them how their pulpit ministry becomes a vital part of church life as they seek to fulfill the gospel commission of Matthew 28:19, 20. Therefore, they should seek the help of the Holy Spirit in sermon preparation and delivery.
Explain the definition of a sermon. Help lay preachers sense the awesome responsibility of preaching. Explain the reasons for preaching and the blessings that come from God that they may communicate from the pulpit. With a sermon as a precious time for people to connect with their God, it also becomes an important opportunity for the preacher’s personal spiritual growth, and a blessed occasion to show a congregation the relevance of God’s written Word.
Explain what a sermon is not. When I first began preaching as a lay person, no one explained to me even the basics of sermon preparation. I had just been appointed as an elder in my local church, and it was expected that preaching was part of the elder’s responsibility. Looking back, I see that some of my early attempts at preaching were not really sermons but more like newspaper reviews—all good information but not very Christ-centered or biblically based. From conversations that I have with church members throughout our conference, I suspect that in many instances the Sabbath sermon is less than it should be. As pastors we need to convince lay preachers that the preaching time should not be viewed as an opportunity to push their own views or to criticize a congregation—and certainly not the place to preach doubts and fears.
Example of good preaching
Only when we as pastors consider our responsibility toward lay preaching will the best possible messages be delivered from our pulpits every week. Of course, we ourselves must model good preaching as our lay people will learn much by observing professionals. And that’s not just our preaching. Listeners observe, consider, and place in a good or not-so-good tray in their minds everything we do in the pulpit. From our response to the elder’s welcome, through the children’s story, through the sermon and even the benediction, lay preachers consider what we do and how we do it. What a responsibility to set a standard of Christ-centered, biblically-based excellence in preaching, as well as helping our lay preachers rise to the challenge placed before them.
No question, lay preaching continues as a crucial part of ministry, especially in multichurch districts. Thus, there’s also no question that, as full-time professional pastors, we must help them do theirs the best they can.
1 Roy B. Zuck, ed., Vital Ministry Issues: Examining Concerns and Confl icts in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1994), 132–138