There was a bit of a debate 10 years ago between those who wanted to emphasise the importance of pulpit ministry (the expository preaching of the Word to the gathered church) and those who were worried that this emphasis was to the neglect of other forms of gospel ministry – digging into the Word in Bible study groups and sharing the gospel through one-to-one conversations. I want to make two general points on this and then ground this biblically with a few thoughts from Acts 20:20.
Which is our greater temptation?
This is probably one of those issues where some of us will need to hear one thing while others need to hear something else. Some of us, who love expository preaching and are most comfortable in church, may need a kick to get out into the harvest field. We need a greater love for the lost. We need to be reminded that sermons are not an end in themselves; that one of the key reasons for the Sunday sermon is to equip us to go out and speak the truth in love throughout the week; and that a key task of pastoral ministry is seeking the lost who would never come within a mile of a church building.
Others, who are rightly passionate about workplace mission, street evangelism, talking to non-Christian friends and the church on mission in the community, may need to be reminded that there is something unique about the church gathered together under the authority of the preached Word. Not only does that Sunday ministry equip and empower all the weekday ministry, it is the place where God promises to specially meet with his people. It is the place where outsiders should be declaring in amazement, “God is really among you.” In the unity and submission of the church gathered under the Word there is a foretaste of the final gathering around the throne of Christ.
Flow not balance
It’s a classic case of Both-And. We desperately need Sunday sermons (faithful, cutting, encouraging, equipping, Christ-exalting preaching) AND we also need lots of gospel ministry all through the week in offices and shopping malls and pubs and sports clubs and online – encouraging fellow believers daily to keep living for Christ in view of his return (Heb. 3:13) and engaging and evangelising the lost (because we want to be Christ-like and that’s what He spent most of his time doing).
But it’s not as simple as saying that it is a balance. These two forms of gospel ministry are not exactly symmetrical. Rather, there is a flow from one to the other. Ephesians 4:11-12 gives a logical priority to corporate Word ministry in terms of its role in equipping of other ministries. So if we want to be sharp evangelists on Monday we need to be in church on Sunday. So for believers the flow is out from ‘Jerusalem’ into the world.
Pulpit ministry >>>>> Everyday gospel sharing
On the other hand the movement, from the perspective of unbelievers, is from hearing the Word in the world to hearing the Word in the church. It could be argued that we should just invite people straight into Sunday church, and there is certainly a sense in which, in a multicultural multigenerational church gathered under the Word, unbelievers are presented with a fuller picture of the gospel and what it means to be a Christian than when the gospel is shared one-to-one in private. So inviting people into our gatherings (and being ready to be culturally flexible) is still well worth trying, even in a suspicious post-Christian age. However, for most people in both the first and twenty-first century, the initial contact with Christians and hearing something of the gospel happens outside the church. We do want people to progress and to come into the gathered church – but usually it starts with hearing the Word in the world (which is passing away) with the aim of people hearing the Word in the church (which endures for ever).
Everyday gospel sharing >>>>> Pulpit ministry
Because there are these flows and interconnections we don’t need to say that there is equal priority (whatever that means) or that there should be equal time. Both are massively important but in different ways.
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. (Acts 20:20)
- Paul’s emphasis: ‘I have not hesitated… anything’. He has not spared himself. He has done everything he could for them. Paul’s concern is to clear himself of guilt (v26) and to set the elders an example of working hard to preach the whole counsel of God. Because that is what will be needed to gather and preserve the church of God as the wolves close in.
- I love the word ‘helpful.’ Mark Dever has spoken of this as a great thing to aim for in preaching – not to be thought clever but to be helpful. It’s a great thing to pray: “Lord, please would I be helpful when I speak.”
- ‘Preach’ here is being used parallel to ‘teach’ and, in the next verse, ‘declare.’ These words are not talking about different activities but different aspects of the same activity. Preaching is about bringing a message; teaching is about the purpose to form the hearer; declaring is about testifying as a witness to what is true.
- This preaching-teaching-declaring is to happen in a variety of contexts – publicly and house to house. Interestingly it is not that there is preaching for gathered church contexts and teaching for Bible study groups and declaring for evangelistic engagements. No, it seems that preaching-teaching-declaring is what Paul did in all contexts with all sorts of people, no doubt in slightly different ways and formats but with the same concern: to bring a message, to form the hearers and to testify to the truth.
- Conversations are great, but this isn’t what’s happening here. In an age where we are encouraged to ‘comment’ on everything, this preaching-teaching-declaring is counter-cultural. Yet it reflects the nature of reality – there is a God who wants to tell us something true we don’t know and need to know and his message is infinitely more important than what we have to say.
- The most important thing is the content of the message – which comes in the following verse: “that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” That call matters far more than whether it is declared at the weekend or mid-week, in a house or a bus or a street. I need to ask myself: 1) Am I making people uncomfortable (repentance)? and 2) Am I lifting people’s eyes to see the crucified, risen, glorious, returning Christ (faith)?
- Paul mentions two contexts –– 1) Publicly and 2) House to house. The first would include the synagogue, the market place and the lecture hall of Tyrannus – contexts where Paul spent a huge amount of time engaging and seeking to persuade non-believers – Jews and Greeks – those culturally like him and those culturally very unlike him. The second category likely includes Paul’s pastoral visits to individuals and families (Richard Baxter style) but it probably mainly refers to house church gatherings – the early church almost always meeting (from Acts 8 onwards) in the oikos of the private home where one family would host but be joined by several other families squeezed in, with people perched on window sills, listening to Word preached, taught, declared.
So a challenge for us personally – are we both passionate about the Sunday sermon and also prayerfully looking for opportunities on Monday to speak of the disruptive glorious Jesus to those who would never imagine walking into a church on Sunday?