Wise, convicting words from Kevin DeYoung:
But what if your elders didn’t pray more than five minutes at their meeting last month? Would you know? No one would, not right away. What if your pastor hasn’t prayed for weeks? What if the elders are not deep into the word? With almost everything else in the church someone will says, “What’s going on? Why didn’t you show up? What’s the problem? Why didn’t this get done?” But who knows when the pastors and the elders forget Acts 6:4?
Most pastors won’t tell you this, but they can preach a passable sermon with almost no preparation. We know how to string sentences together. We know more about the Bible than almost everyone in the church. We can cheat our prep time and no one will know. Not right away.
But over time, church members will think to themselves, “Something’s missing. There’s some power not here that used to be here. There’s some gospel connecting no longer at play. I can’t put my finger on it, but pastor doesn’t preach like he used to.” It happens slowly but surely. Maybe the emails seem more pressing this week, or maybe it’s a meeting, or this administrative thing. It’s not one massive thing, but a mountain of molehills. And then one day, Acts 6:4 is gone. The elders don’t pray. The pastors don’t study.
Life is busy, and no less so for pastors and elders. With all that needs to get done–and especially, with all that needs to get done within a church–DeYoung is uncomfortably accurate in his assessment of the way in which we prioritize our work in ministry. I freely confess to this temptation, and I sometimes feel that I must constantly repent of my own neglect of the Word and prayer as I shepherd the flock that God has given me.
In order to fight this particular temptation, I find it crucial to remind myself why the Word and prayer are so necessary. These are not tasks chosen at random from the range of our duties and arbitrarily elevated above everything else that we need to be doing. Far from it.
Rather, we depend upon the Word and prayer because Gospel ministry is impossible apart from them–and apart from the Holy Spirit.
We Study the Word Because God’s Message is So Much More Important Than Ours
Neglecting personal and corporate Bible study generally arises from one of two false beliefs. Either (1) we do not value God’s Word sufficiently; or (2) we think that we already grasp God’s Word sufficiently.
But the Scriptures are the power of God unto salvation. The Scriptures announce the good news that God’s own Son has died in our place so that we might live through him. There is no more pressing, vital message than what the Word of God announces, and it should go without saying that we ought to get out of the Gospel ministry altogether if we do not absolutely treasure the Gospel that we proclaim in our ministry.
The greater temptation for pastors and elders, though, is not to devalue the Word altogether, but to assume that we have sufficiently grasped it for the purposes of our ministry. After so many sermons, so many lectures, and so many books, we begin to think that we have largely mastered the material.
May God forgive us for our arrogance.
The Word of God is terrifyingly powerful, thundering over all creation, shattering the cedars of Lebanon, and forcing all in his temple to their knees, crying “Glory!” (Psalm 29). The Word of God is breathed out by God himself, infinitely and continually profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:14-17). The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints, and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
We could not possibly master, control, or tame the Word of God. May God grant us an unquenchable thirst for the Living Water that he freely offers us in his Word.
We Pray Because God’s Power is So Much Greater Than Ours
The year before I headed off to seminary, I read through much of Charles Spurgeon’s book Lectures to My Students. In it, Spurgeon relates this legend that I have never forgotten:
A certain preacher, whose sermons converted men by scores, received a revelation from heaven that not one of the conversions was owing to his talents or eloquence, but all to the prayers of an illiterate lay-brother, who sat on the pulpit steps, pleading all the time for the success of the sermon. It may in the all-revealing day be so with us. We may discover, after having laboured long and wearily in our preaching, that all the honour belongs to another builder, whose prayers were gold, silver, and precious stones, while our sermonisings being apart from prayer, were but hay and stubble. (Lectures to My Students, p. 47)
My own eloquence is nothing. My own intelligence, creativity, and hard work can accomplish nothing in themselves.
Even my own Bible study is nothing on its own. I could perfectly parse every verb, track down every allusion, outline every phrase, and yet never communicate a thing of value to those who listen.
Why? Because unless the Spirit of God gives eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand all that is contained in the Word of Christ, my labor is in vain.
So when we pray, we do so to ask God to send his Holy Spirit to accomplish what is impossible for our own abilities.
We Minister Through the Word and Prayer Because We Depend on the Holy Spirit
At its core, Gospel ministry is not about what we can accomplish for God, but about what God accomplishes through us. Real, life-changing Gospel ministry does not happen until God’s Holy Spirit gives life to dead sinners by pointing them to Christ through the Word.
So, we preach the Word of Christ, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will give life to the dead.
Spurgeon continues in his Lectures, turning up the heat:
The minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. Yet what a baseless pride to conceive that our preaching can ever be in itself so powerful that it can turn men from their sins, and bring them to God without the working of the Holy Ghost. If we are truly humble-minded we shall not venture down to the fight until the Lord of Hosts has clothed us with all power, and said to us, “Go in this thy might.”
The preacher who neglects to pray much must be very careless about his ministry. He cannot have comprehended his calling. (Lectures to My Students, p. 48)
The temptation to neglect the Word and prayer is fundamentally a misunderstanding of what we are called to do. If we are called to be God’s busybodies, bringing the Kingdom into this world by our own labor, then perhaps the Bible and prayer would not be very important.
But if God alone can bring his Kingdom, through the Word of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then we are fools to look to any other methods, resources, or means apart from the Word and prayer.
God’s Kingdom will be built by God’s Word, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, for the sake of–and through the work of redemption fully accomplished by–God’s only Son Jesus Christ.
Our role is simply to announce that Word as we pray for God’s Holy Spirit to open eyes to see the radiant glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through that Word.