My father was dying. Doctors had given up and sent him home to be with his family. He got word to each of his four children that he wanted us to come. I was living in Texas and he was in Oregon. I couldn't afford the trip; besides, I was very busy. But of course I went anyway. Dad had first priority.
With his family around him, Dad slipped into a coma. There was nothing more we could do for him, and I left to fulfill a speaking appointment 2,000 miles away. Before my assignment was completed, word came that Dad had died, and the family was called back for his funeral. By now I was really behind in my work and even less able to afford the trip. But of course I went anyway. Dad's death had first priority.
It was then that, for the first time, I really understood Jesus' words in Luke 9. He had invited a man to follow Him, but the fellow excused himself by insisting that he must first bury his father. Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of Cod" (Luke 9:60, KJV). Jesus' words had always seemed a little heartless to me, but now I understood. He wasn't being disrespectful of family responsibilities; He was talking about priorities. He had illustrated the importance of preaching by comparing it to a father's burial, the very thing we naturally give first priority He had picked the thing that was the most plausible excuse possible for neglecting preaching and proclamation of His kingdom; He said that that excuse was not good enough. In other words, preaching must come before everything. With Jesus, preaching had first priority.
Jesus not only taught that we should give preaching a high priority, it was central to His own ministry. Preaching, or proclaiming, is mentioned three times in His Nazareth sermon where He lays out His methods of ministry. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18, 19, KJV). If preaching was that central to Jesus' work, it must be central to ours.
Preaching is important to church leaders because it is important to church members. A frustrated physician wrote to me on behalf of other worshipers, pleading that the one who preaches be "someone who senses the deep spiritual hunger we experience. Someone who has a kind of sensitive awareness of the devotedness of people who come to church week after week seeking food, yet too often whose efforts are rewarded with scarcely crumbs. Someone impregnated with the vibrant meaning of 'feeding the flock.'"
On safari in Africa, we watched from our vehicle as a pride of lions relaxed under the trees. I counted 1 7. Some were asleep with their legs in the air. The young were playing with one another and crawling over the adults. Why sucha peaceful scene? The guide explained, "When they're full, they're at peace. When they get hungry, they'll kill." You see hungry animals fight. If there's fighting going on between your church members, feed them. Hungry animals get weak and sometimes even die. If church members are growing weak or dropping out altogether, feed them. Good preaching feeds your people, keeping them strong and at peace.
Preaching is neglected by Adventists. It's not that we mean to. Historically, we have encouraged congregations to keep the pulpit at the center of the church platform to symbolize that preaching is central to our worship. But we may not have lived up to our intentions as well as we ought.
My father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. I literally grew up in an Adventist pew, always assuming that Adventists preached more sermons than other churches, and that our preaching was somewhat superior and exceptionally biblical. Then I began work on a Master's Degree and chose for my thesis to attend the principal worship services both in Adventist and other Protestant churches. I listened to and analyzed 50 typical contemporary sermons. I was a bit shocked to learn that SDA preachers did not quote from the Bible more than the average. Adventist congregations did not use their Bibles more in worship.
Later, in conducting preaching seminars for clergy of all faiths, I often asked how many sermons their congregations expected weekly. I typically got the most votes for three—Sunday morning, Sunday night, and prayer meeting. Adventist congregations may expect only one or two.
Actually, Adventism carries some built-in temptations to neglect preaching. One temptation is that our message is so exceptional that we worry less about tell ing it well. We seem to assume that the message is so strong that it's not too serious if the telling is weak.
A second temptation results from our having a monopoly on Sabbath worship. If Sunday worshipers don't feel fed in their church, they may start attending across the street at another Sunday church. Sabbath worshipers usually have no choice but us. We dislike using the word "competition" in regards to preaching. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, a little competition tends to improve the product. Communism's failure around the world has proven dramatically that, without competition, performance deteriorates.
Preaching is rewarding. It may be the hardest work you'll ever love. The sitting down to prepare is difficult for all of us. But when you step down from the pulpit knowing that God has used you to help someone take at least a tiny step toward Jesus, you thrill with excitement and know the rewards are well worth the work.
Preaching is important. But what about lay preaching?
Lay Preaching Is Important
On any given Sabbath around the world, perhaps as many as 80 percent of Adventist sermons preached are preached by lay preachers—usually, but not always, by local church elders.
All elders may not be preachers, but the Bible suggests that they should be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2), and teaching is a basic part of preaching. Paul further counseled elders, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). Elders are shepherds, and a principal work of a shepherd, is to feed the flock. However, lay persons have a serious disadvantage in preaching, for most have had little or no training.
Lay Preaching in New Testament Times
Christianity began as a lay movement. Even Jesus did not have formal theological training. The apostles were working men whose only training was on-the-job training. Yet Jesus set them aside "that he might send them out to preach" (Mark 3:14; see also Matthew. 10:7 and Luke 9:2.)
A few decades later, clergy made a sharp separation between themselves and the laity. It was eventually assumed that only clergy could be trusted to teach and preach. But the fire of Pentecost went out. Down through church history, when only clergy were presumed capable of speaking for the Lord, the church has always grown cold.
Lay Preaching Women
Women have historically played an active role in the mediation of salvation. Deborah, Judith, Esther, Priscilla,Tabitha, and Lydia are a few Bible examples. Paul insists that Christ has broken down every barrier that divides people, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Romans 16 lists many women whom the Holy Spirit had called to special ministries in the early church.
But were any women preachers? We know there were women prophets in the New Testament church. For example, Acts 21:9 says Philip had four "daughters who prophesied." Paul insisted that a woman must wear a head covering when she "prays or prophesies" (1 Cor. 11:5). Foley suggests, "This reference seems to indicate rather clearly that women not only spoke in the liturgical assembly but, since prophets, as we know from other early texts such as the Didache, offered the Eucharistic prayer and gave what we today call the sermon or homily, women prophets might well have filled these roles" (Foley, p. 66).
Whatever reservations Paul had about women preaching were not because of some Christian standard regarding women. Rather, he did not want Christianity to become unnecessarily controversial by going contrary to the standards of the surrounding society. When social standards did allow it, God reached down and picked women to speak for Him. One was Ellen White, whom He chose to be His special spokeswoman in the end time. Mrs. White never received ministerial training or ministerial ordination, yet through both pen and pulpit, God used her mightily. Who is to say that the Holy Spirit cannot do the same with other lay women preachers?
Historically Adventism Began with Lay Preaching
William Miller, though never a Seventh-day Adventist, is considered to be the father of the Advent Movement. And Miller was a farmer! Born into a frontier farm family of 16 children, he was able to attend school for just six years, and then only during the three winter months when farm work was slowest. Becoming a farmer, he began teaching the Advent message as a lay preacher. Although he eventually received a license to preach, Miller never really left the farm.
Like many other lay preachers, he stubbornly resisted the call to preach. For eight years he argued with God that he was not used to public speaking, that he was not educationally qualified, that no one would listen (Knight, p. 43). But when he acquiesced, God's calling was proven, for Miller's preaching produced conversions from the very beginning.
The list of lay preachers who joined Miller in preaching the Advent message is almost limitless.
Theologically, Adventism Supports Lay Preaching
Adventists believe that every church member should have received the Holy Spirit and that everyone receiving the Holy Spirit receives some gift(s) to be used in performing some ministry for Christ (1 Cor. 12:7, 1 1). To say we have no spiritual gift would be to say we have no Holy Spirit.
The three principal lists of spiritual gifts are found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. Among these gifts are those most helpful to preaching: teaching, probably the primary gift for preaching; exhorting or encouraging; wisdom; knowledge; discernment; and possibly even prophesying.
The purpose of spiritual gifts is "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Eph. 4:12). Peter says that each of us is responsible for making the right use of our gifts. "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others" (1 Peter 4:10). Laity given the spiritual gifts needed for preaching are responsible for using them.
It is theologically wrong and logically absurd to assume that only clergy have been given the gifts conducive to effective preaching. It is just as wrong to assume that every pastor has all the preaching gifts.
Laity given those preaching gifts that their pastors lack are responsible for using those gifts in such a way that the church body is benefited by every gift the Holy Spirit has placed in the congregation. No pastor is good at everything. Supportive congregations, instead of criticizing, find others in the church family who can make up for the pastor's lack by exercising the gifts the pastor was never given.
Practically, Adventism Needs Lay Preaching
The SDA church is growing as never before. It took us 107 years before our membership reached one million in 1955. Now, we are baptizing a million new members every two years. We have about 20,000 ministers available to serve approximately 14 million members. When we subtract those ministers in nonpastoral positions, it's obvious that we don't have enough pastors to go around.
Lay preachers are needed, but they need to take their preaching seriously so they can preach effectively. Ellen White encourages the lay preacher, "Thus the message of the third angel will be proclaimed. As the time comes for it to be given with greatest power, the Lord will work through humble instruments, leading the minds of those who consecrate themselves to His service. The laborers will be qualified rather by the unction of His Spirit than by the training of literary institutions. Men of faith and prayer will be constrained to go forth with holy zeal, declaring the words which God gives them" (Great Controversy, p. 606)
This article is excerpted and adapted from the practical resource, Successful Lay Preaching by W. Floyd Bresee, Ph.D. The entire book is available for purchase at <www.ministerialassociation.com>.