Preaching vs Pastoring: Asking Some Honest Questions

I came across this older blog post by Trevin Wax, Dear Pastor, Please Exegete Your Church.  In it he discusses the importance for pastors to evaluate what is going on in the lives congregants.

Sermon preparation does not end with good exegesis of the Bible; it always includes good exegesis of the local congregation. The preacher who can parse Greek verbs must also be able to discern the imperatives and indicatives his own people are living by.

Great preachers not only know how to preach a particular text; they know how to preach a particular text to a particular people.

And that brings us to the practical side of sermon preparation. In order to faithfully exegete our church, we must know our people. The church is not a preaching station where individual Christians show up once a week to hear great oratory. The church is a community of believers who live together under the lordship of Christ. The preacher’s role in this community is to know the Scriptures and his people well enough to discern (through the power of the Holy Spirit) how best to exhort them faithfully and biblically.

If our enthusiasm for ”good preaching” keeps us constantly isolated from our congregation in sermon preparation, we might be shortchanging God’s people. If we are to preach effectively, we must spend time with our people, understanding how best to use the Word to train them, rebuke them, correct them, and comfort them.

Biblical exegesis and church exegesis go hand in hand.

Whenever we study the text, the faces of our people who need a word from God should be leaping from the pages.

Yesterday, during a conversation with one of my classmates who is a pastor, we talked about what it meant to pastor. We talked about how pastoring is messy work because it involves being involved in the lives of people. Public speaking is not pastoring.

The church is not a preaching station where individual Christians show up once a week to hear great oratory. The church is a community of believers who live together under the lordship of Christ. – Trevin Wax


So it naturally leads me to ask a logical question that I’ve mulled over in my mind for some time regarding very large churches. How can the ‘pastor’ who stands in front of thousands of people but not involved in any of their lives be called a pastor?  Maybe that’s a bit too simplistic considering there is biblical evidence for appointment of others (elders/deacons). I also don’t want to caste dispersions on good preaching. Just because it’s large, doesn’t mean the preaching is bad or dishonest to Scripture (though we can cite hands down the ones who are). But in our culture of mega-churches and celebrity pastors, I think it is important to make a distinction since we tend to call preachers who orate in front of others ‘pastors’.

There’s also the illegitimate use of bishops that run rampant too. Thabiti Anyabwile addresses that here.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

15 thoughts on “Preaching vs Pastoring: Asking Some Honest Questions

  1. MikeB (@g1antfan) May 18, 2013 / 10:59 am

    Great post. I agree that it is important that messages and teaching are exegetically interpreted and then explained and taught with an emphasis on helping the community understand how this relates to them in terms of what they are dealing with. Picking books and texts that best fit what the church is dealing with and then helping people understand and apply the passage is an important part of discipleship.

    As for large churches, the early church was large (3000+) and was managed through a plurality of elders and eventually deacons. So we probably should not assume all mega/large churches are not doing this well. I would think a well functioning group of servant leaders could have a pulse on various parts of the congregation and then work together on what are the key issues that need to be addressed. I also imagine that there were no “pastors” as such in the early church, but the teaching, pastoring, etc was likely shared and rotated thru the entire group of elders.

    • ljrobinson May 18, 2013 / 11:30 am

      Mike, you’re right. It’s not that large congregations are a recent thing but how people are pastored has changed. I think part of the problem is when the preaching task was removed from the context of the church, it made public oration an acceptable substitute for pastoring coupled with muddled church structures fashioned after corporations rather than biblical models.

  2. Laura May 18, 2013 / 11:01 am

    Good thoughts/questions Lisa that I’ve had too. At these mega churches of thousands, it seems the title pastor shouldn’t be used – because they are not “pastoring”. It isn’t really possible for them to do so.

    But even at smaller churches I’ve begun to notice a lack of pastoral work by pastors. I could give several similar examples of experiences we’ve had in our area over the last 5 years. Here is one: We attended a church of about 300 people for about 1 and 1/2 years. We exp no pastoring or pastoral outreach from the pastors. None. But the “small group” concept was heavily pushed, and from what we heard and observed – it seems that people being “pastored” (shepherded, cared for, etc) was expected to happen in the small groups. The small group leaders and individual believers were to be pastoring each other. Of course, Christians are to be caring for each other! No doubt there. But it seemed to us that the pastors had abdicated their responsibility to pastor, and placed all the responsibility on the small groups. That’s just our experience, but we are noting a pattern in our experiences. Pastors are primarily preaching and overseeing the church from a distance…even if the church is not that big.

    Also – I’m really rambling! haha. I like to do volunteer work, and often a application will want a pastoral reference. Ugh. You can be regularly attending but be totally unknown to the pastor/s. How am I supposed to get a pastoral reference then? So frustrating.

    • ljrobinson May 18, 2013 / 11:34 am

      Laura, I hear you. my former church was big on small groups and I led one for awhile. I had very little oversight and some spiritual concerns of some of the members went unnoticed or unattended by church leadership. I’m thankful to be in a small congregation where pastor/elders know what’s going on in people’s lives.

    • MikeB (@g1antfan) May 18, 2013 / 1:47 pm

      I think it is important for elders/pastors to be involved with the community. But the expectation/model used today that pastors “do all the work” and must know everybody is also wrong – especially if the demand is all placed on the Sr. Pastor in a medium/large church.

      Elder/Pastors are to equip the community. The small group model works well when the elder/pastors equip home/small group leaders who then shepherd their groups. This seems to follow Jesus/Paul model of investing in some so they can invest in others.

      That’s my 2cents. 🙂

  3. ryanroach May 18, 2013 / 12:40 pm

    Very good insight. Thank you!

  4. Rachel Musgrove May 18, 2013 / 12:45 pm

    Far too familiar with this situation in small(ish) churches. It does seem as if the term pastor is no longer being applied in the sense of shepherd, but rather ‘the one who teaches from behind a pulpit on Sunday mornings.’ It’s something that I’ve really struggled with because we, the congregation, are still expected to hold up to our part of the deal when it comes to being in submission to him and yet, I wonder, in submission to what?

  5. Nate May 18, 2013 / 1:43 pm

    On one of these evenings he [Dr. Buttrick] was asked by one of the students something about preaching. Something on the order of “What is the most important thing you do in preparing to preach each Sunday?” I think we were all surprised by the answer, at least I was. His answer: “For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighborhood and make home visits. There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about.

    Peterson, Eugene H. (2011-02-22). The Pastor: A Memoir (pp. 86-87). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

    Take heed to all the flock (Acts 20: 28). It is, you see, all the flock, or every individual member of our charge. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongs to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them? We must labor to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to. For if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.

    Baxter, Richard (2012-12-07). The Essential Works of Richard Baxter (Kindle Locations 862-867). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    Leading a church entails feeding, attending, and keeping a flock. It is depicted in the Bible with the Greek verb poimainō, which is translated by words such as “shepherd,” “care,” “rule,” and “tend.” Paul told the Ephesian elders to care (poimainō) for the church of God (Acts 20: 28). Along with the verb, we also find the noun poimēn (poy-mane), which is commonly translated as both “pastor” (Ephesians 4: 11) and “shepherd.” Jesus uses this word to refer to a shepherd in 1 Peter 2: 25, “You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd [poimēn] and Overseer of your souls.” In other words, you cannot pastor without shepherding. You cannot image the “great Shepherd [poimēn] of the sheep” (Hebrews 13: 20) without shepherding your flock (poimnē, Luke 2: 8).

    Thomas, Scott; Wood, Tom (2012-05-08). Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God (Kindle Locations 1502-1509). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

  6. bong May 19, 2013 / 2:01 am

    It is impossible for the pastor to know every member of his large congregation. His pastoring over them should be delegated to the leaders & fellow believers. One of the reasons a lot of pastors are burnt-out is the lot of work he does, including visitations. So the only way to unburden his heavy load is to delegate these to faithful men (2Tim2:2) — men discipled. Others called this process of discipling members of the congregation empowerment. The Lord chose 12 apostles to continue the work. Then they made disciples who will also disciple others. Spirit filled men & women should be involve in shepherding the flock. A small group is very important for in there people are being taught, guided, counseled, trained, etc. by cell leaders being equipped. It is the only way to take care of a large congregation. Also, every Christian should be taught & reminded that they are ministers. Those who have matured & equipped should be ministering to others. They should not wait to call the pastor for an appointment to do the ministering. Right there & there they should minister to those who need it.

  7. JoeJoe May 20, 2013 / 7:33 am

    I would say that preaching and pastoring are not one in the same. I would liken preaching more akin to teaching. Even if a particular message is more about uplifting or encouraging the body of believers rather than teaching some principle or bit of theology, I would still say that is closer to teaching than pastoring. Often, I think they go hand in hand, but not always. The Bible does after all say that God gave both teachers and pastors for the equipping of the saints. So I would think that these are not necessarily the same position of service, though they could be.

    A good example of this would be the early-mid 20th century preacher A.W. Tozer. I read a biography on him last year. Tozer loved to teach. He would would teach and preach from the pulpit, visiting sometimes several cities in a week. He was constantly traveling to preach the word of God, something he was very good at as God had gifted him. He was quite clear, however, that when pastoring his own church, he wanted to be a “teaching pastor.” He had no disire to counsel or pastor on a personal level that we typically associate with pastoring. He wanted the church to hire other pastors to see to those tasks. He felt his calling was to teach, not to pastor. Tozer had faults to be sure, but he was an exquisit preacher.

  8. Laura May 20, 2013 / 11:29 am

    Many interesting responses! Just to clarify, I don’t think all the responsibility for “pastoring/shepherding” should fall on the pastor by any means! Elders, deacons, small group leaders, and individual believers should all be playing a part. But, my personal experience, is that some pastors today are near abdicating their pastoral responsibility – even at smaller/medium sized churches.

    I love this two part post by Brian Croft over on Practical Shepherding entitled “How can I make sure I am regularly shepherding everyone in the church?”. Link here:
    Note in part 2 he addresses how this can work even in LARGE church settings. I really appreciate the shepherd’s heart that Brain Croft demonstrates. I guess this is what I see increasingly lacking in the modern evangelical church.

  9. Lora May 20, 2013 / 1:02 pm

    Thank you for posting this great article, Lisa.
    Easy for me to use the term “preacher.” However, I am very careful with the term “pastor” I only use it when I am referring to a pastor who reflects the behavior of Elisha towards the Shunammite woman in II Kings 4.
    More insight in Ezekiel 34 🙂

  10. Dave Z December 27, 2013 / 12:20 pm

    In a large church, the model has to switch from “pastor leading congregation” to “pastor leading leaders.” It’s true that sheep need a shepherd, someone to go to when they need help of some sort, so multi-site churches have campus pastors who care for that portion of the flock. So people need a pastor, but why does it have to be the teaching pastor? 1 Tim 5:17 tells us there are others in the church who can fill that role, whether they’re called elders, shepherds, or overseers. Though they may not fill the primary teaching role, they’re still shepherds.

    Regarding the pastor’s teaching being able to address the specific problems and situations the congregation faces, once the congregation reaches a certain size, you’ll encounter all the “standard” issues; marital problems, general moral issues, struggles with faith in difficult situations; and those can be addressed in general ways. Even if the pastor knew specifics about people, those things shouldn’t be addressed from the pulpit out of privacy concerns. I’ve seen that happen in small churches, and it was not a good thing.

  11. Lisa Robinson December 27, 2013 / 12:38 pm

    Dave, I think that is the standard position in larger churches that pastoring occurs through hierarchy. But I’m not convinced that leading leaders is the same as shepherding the flock. I dunno, still wrestling with that one. Regardless of size, no ones personal business should be the fodder for pulpit gossip.

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