What Does a Preacher Look Like?

For several years, I traveled a lot for work. I flew all over the country meeting with various Bible colleges, Christian universities, and seminaries. As such, I spent a lot of time on airplanes. And any time you fly, you inevitably have that awkward conversation as they pack you into seats made for people smaller than the average American.

First you offer your name and they respond with their’s. Then the question of whether you’re traveling for work or for personal reasons comes. And then, the question that always provides the most interesting responses. “So what do you do?”

And every time I’ve answered that I am a pastor, I’ve received quizzical looks. Apparently, I don’t fit the general image in most people’s minds as to what a preacher is supposed to look like. I don’t know if it’s the shaved head, the beard (I had grown it out quite long for a while and looked like a bald cousin from Duck Dynasty), or that I don’t normally wear a coat and tie, but almost no one has ever heard me say, “I’m a pastor,” and said, “I can see that.”

Images of the Minister

Even as we think of the images associated with ministry, we generally approach the task with a particular image or images that guide us in our day-to-day actions. Those who view themselves as shepherds or prophets or teachers or evangelists or spiritual gurus or life coaches or servant leaders will all approach ministry in distinct ways. The one who sees himself as a shepherd is more likely to spend extended time with his people and view time locked away in a study preparing for a sermon as wasted time.

The one who envisions himself a teacher is almost the opposite. He would rather study and read and prepare his sermons, viewing the preaching ministry as the best manner through which to love his congregants.

The same is true as we approach the more specific task of preaching. How we view ourselves as we approach the pulpit determines a lot about what we will value and choose in the sacred task.

Images of the Preacher

The Pastor

Those who view the preaching task as primarily pastoral in nature concern themselves with the care and needs of their hearers. As they approach sermon preparation, they are acutely aware of the needs of those in the congregation and they aim their sermon carefully to meet those needs. Their preaching is targeted first and foremost at life-change.

So, they begin with the need and seek to bring God’s Word to bear upon it—What does the Bible say about this particular need or that particular need?

Before moving on, I think it is important to note that this is not a bad thing in itself. Many of us can learn something from this image and be reminded of the importance of the congregation in our preaching. I’ve met too many young preachers that handle the text well and preach a good sermon, but fail to connect it with their hearers—whether that be by speaking over the heads of their congregation by using too much technical jargon or quoting from their favorite lexicon or by using illustrations that were clearly intended for another kind of hearer.

Ultimately, though, I fear that the emphasis of the image of pastor opens us up to a host of potential downfalls, most notably that it lends to the authority of the sermon residing in the preacher himself. He is the one who discerns the needs of the congregation. He is the one who determines which passages speak to those needs. And, in order to avoid potential conflict and/or hurt feelings, he is the one who may decide to avoid difficult or controversial passages of Scripture.

So while the image of the pastor has some points to keep in mind, ultimately, it can lead to drift because the Word and the preacher can come to exist for the sake of the congregant.

The Poet

In college, I thought the Lord had called me to music ministry. So I majored in music right up until I realized that I wasn’t being trained for the ministry—I was being trained to do music and ministry was merely the outlet for it. So, I flipped my major and minor and became a religion major with a minor in sacred music. I had a friend who wanted desperately to become a famous youth-evangelist. That was his heart. But it struck me as odd that he wasn’t a ministry or religion major. He was a speech communications major. As he informed me, he didn’t need the tools to rightly divide the Word—he felt he had those. He needed to be a better communicator.

My concern was that he might become a better communicator of the wrong thing!

There are some who are so excited about the preaching task that the sermon becomes the central component to their overall ministry. For them, the Word and the congregation exist for the sake of the sermon.

They love Rhetoric! They love books on crafting illustrations and coming up with just the right play on words for each point in the sermon. The Word is the tool he uses to craft the sermon and the congregation becomes little more than his audience.

You should study Rhetoric. You should learn to craft better illustrations and select just the right turn of phrase. But not for the sake of highlighting your own creativity. Instead, you should equip yourself to better communicate the word of the King.

The Herald

I will make it easy for you—I am convinced this is the proper image we should view the preaching task. Before there were newspapers and headlines, the herald was the one sent into the kingdom with the message of the king. When he opened his mouth, he spoke with the king’s authority because he was sent by the king with the king’s words. But that authority was derivative. His words only had authority as they communicated the words of the king.

He was entrusted with the message and charged with keeping the integrity of that message. And those who failed to maintain the purity of the king’s words did not keep their place long. They were sent as the emissaries of the king.

That, my friend, is the image I want you to have in mind as you stand and deliver het Word of God. You have been sent into your particular congregation with a message from God. But you don’t have to devise that message, discern the thoughts of the king. You have his written Word. And your task is to re-present that Word.

As such, Dr. Steven Smith used to say, we don’t preach sermons. We preach texts. The Word is the central component of the preaching task. The preacher is merely the mouthpiece; the congregation is the recipient of the Word and their’s is the responsibility to live in response to that message.

Now, I am not saying that the herald’s words are God’s words ex operato. The herald’s words are God’s words only as long as he faithfully and accurately presents them. Our God is a God who speaks. And we have the responsibility to speak his words after him.

In Jonah, chapter 1, we read that the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah and he’s instructed to go to Ninevah and preach against it. We all know what happens next. He goes the wrong way, away from Ninevah, gets swallowed by a great fish, and three days later vomited out on shore.

And then, in chapter 3, we read that the Word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time. And this time, he is instructed to “call out against the message that I tell you.” The language there is unique in the Hebrew. The same root is used for the verb and the object.

The Lord is being decisively clear on this point. He’s saying, “Jonah, go to Ninevah and preach the proclamation that I am proclaiming to you. Speak the speech that I am speaking to you. Talk the talk that I talk to you. What I say, Jonah, you say.”

That’s what it means to be a herald.

One of the benefits of the image of the herald is that it gives confidence to the reluctant. We all know that ministry does not necessarily mean preaching. Preaching is a component of ministry. Preaching is a specific responsibility given to some ministers, but not all ministers preach.

Which means that some of you don’t feel called to preach. Some of you dread the thought of standing before a group of any size, opening the Bible, and preaching. That’s okay. The key is to communicate God’s Word faithfully and accurately. As long as you do that—and that’s what we’re here to work on—you are standing not in your own authority, but with the authority of the Lord.

For others, however, the idea of standing on a stage is a bit too enticing. Our pride yearns for it to be about us. And to be given such a platform and the image of having the authority of God?!

The image of the herald emphasizes the holy responsibility of the preacher. Each week, the preacher stands before a congregation with the sacred task of bringing God’s Word to bear upon their lives; this is no small thing. There is no greater task, nor a greater responsibility. In that moment, the congregation’s ears are attuned to the voice of the herald in order to hear what the Lord says.

Many preachers, however, fail to grasp the magnitude of this moment and this responsibility. Striving to gain an audience and seeking to endear the congregation to themselves, rather than to God, they toy with foolish remarks and playful stories. They play tricks with words and spin phrases that diminish the gravity of the proclamation.

Each time the herald of God opens the sacred text and speaks, eternity hangs in the balance.

Only the herald who bears the Words and the authority of the king feels the weight of the responsibility that accompanies that task.

The God who Speaks and the Task of Preaching

Everything we know of God has been revealed to us by God. Humanity has not come to an understanding of who God is by its own efforts or study. Instead, everything we understand has come as the result of his own self-revelation. He is the God who speaks.

As we look at the world around us, we can see some evidences of God’s grandeur and majesty. How often have we stopped and marveled at the beauty of a sunset—whether that be over the ocean waves or the mountain-tops? How often have we shuddered to think of the terrific power of “natural disasters”—tornados, tsunamis, and hurricanes—which we categorize more properly as “acts of God?”

Each of us have an understanding of right and wrong, based on the power and conviction of our consciences. Intuitively, we know that hatred is wrong. We understand the value of human life. We have to be taught to ignore those instincts (and many of us are), but we are born with them nonetheless.

But it is important to recognize that we know nothing of the love and mercy of God apart from divine revelation. We may know that a god exists, but we do not understand his character nor do we know his name apart from his own self-revelation. We know nothing of the three-in-one, Triune Godhead apart from divine revelation. And we know nothing of the hope of our salvation apart from his own attestation. Eternity hangs in the balance of his voice and he is not silent.

In the Old Testament, he speaks into the empty void and brings something out of nothing. He calls out to Adam in the Garden and tells Noah how to survive the flood. He gives Abram his marching orders and calls Moses from the burning bush. He thunders from the mountain, shows his power in the whirlwind, and whispers in the silence.

In the New Testament, he sends his Son—the eternal second person of the Triune Godhead, the Living Word, and active agent of all creation—to clothe himself in humanity and live a sinless life. He preached the arrival of the Kingdom of God and died a sacrificial, penal substitutionary death, and rose on the third day defeating death, hell, and the grave granting eternal life to whosoever believes. His invitation lingers, “All you who labor and are heavy labor, and I will give you rest.”

Our God is a God who speaks.

And because our God is a God who speaks, his words—the form of his communication—the Living and Inscripturated Words—matter . . . and they move.

Notice that in Acts, as the church is born and begins to expand, the Word of God is seen as the active agent: “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied . . .” (Acts 6:7), and, “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Yes the Word is preached by the Apostles, but it is no mere passive instrument in the establishment of the Christian church.

As we approach the task of preaching, then, we must understand the centrality of our convictions concerning the Word of God in our doing so. That which we believe about the Bible will determine the manner and method of our preaching. If it is nothing more than a book of pithy moral teachings or a collection of mythological tales, the manner in which we approach the pulpit will follow and the Bible is nothing more than another collection of the stories of Zeus or Apollos or Odin or any other mythological deity.

But if the Bible in our hands is what it claims to be—the very Word and words of God—then the pulpit becomes the Sacred Desk and our task becomes a sacred task.

The Bible is inspired.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes that all Scripture is θεόπνευστος (inspired, or literally, “God-breathed”). Of course this refers to the Old Testament writings that were read, studied, and taught by Jesus and the apostles during the New Testament, but it is extended to the New Testament as well. Peter wrote that in Scripture, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). And Peter himself placed the words of his contemporary, Paul, on par with those found in the Old Testament, writing, “There are some things in [Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16).

The Bible is not man’s words about God nor mere words about man’s interactions with God. The Bible’s source is the very breath of God. We have a God who speaks. And the Bible we hold in our hands is the very words and Word of God. And if it is God’s Word—breathed out by him, it must be inerrant.

The Bible is inerrant.

If the Bible is the actual words and Word of a holy and righteous God—himself the standard of perfection and glory—it cannot mislead, but rather must be “truth without any mixture of error.”

Lest there be any doubt in our minds, consider Jesus’s approach to the Old Testament. By all means, he considered the statements of the Old Testament as factual, chronological, and historical. Jesus compared his eventual death, burial, and resurrection to Jonah’s experience in the great fish (Matt 12:39–42). To cast the shadow of doubt upon the historicity of Jonah is to do the very same to the death and resurrection of Christ! Though he often corrected the interpretations of the religious leaders of his day, not once did he correct the words of the Hebrew Bible. Modern disputes as to the authenticity, dating, and authorship of the Old Testament were never hinted at in Jesus’s teachings.

If the Bible is God’s Word, it is inerrant. And if it is inerrant, it must also be authoritative.

The Bible is authoritative.

If the Bible in our hands contains the very words of God, it must therefore be true. God is not the author of confusion, but of order. Therefore, if God’s Word is inspired and inerrant, there is no other proper response apart from our submission to it. We are not called to correct or adapt the Word of God, but rather to conform our lives and doctrines to stand in accord with it.

For those who love theology—who love to read heavy, dusty books written by dead guys—that means that we dare not explain how this verse “fits” into our theological grid. But rather, we must show how our theological framework incorporates and adapts itself to the text of Scripture. We must be submitted to the text. The text is the authority because the text (and not our own interpretation) is without error.

The Bible is sufficient.

If the Bible is inspired by God and, as such, is absolutely true and trustworthy in all that it claims; and if the Bible is true in all that it claims and, as such, we must be submitted to all that is taught therein, then it must be sufficient for salvation and all that is necessary to live a life pleasing to God. The Scripture is all that has been given or needs to be given in order that we know the way of salvation and the path of obedience.

We do not need more special revelation. The canon is no longer open. Because while God still speaks, he does so through the preaching of his servants.

Martin Luther has written that “Every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness. . . . For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”

In like manner, John Calvin stated, “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit . . . it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

To be clear: the preacher’s words are not God’s words ex opere operato. Just because it is stated from the pulpit does not stamp the authority of God upon it. The preacher’s words are God’s words only as long as they are faithfully and accurately proclaimed.

Conclusion

Our God is a God who speaks, and preachers of the gospel—those tasked with the accurate and faithful proclamation of the Word of God—are the means by which we still hear his voice. Such a task—proclaiming God’s very words—should cause the preacher to tremble under the magnificent weight of his responsibility. Nevertheless, the preacher must stand confident that the Holy Spirit will overcome the failures and faults of such a brittle mouthpiece. The One who has given us this sure Word will ensure that it does not fail.

Defining Text-Driven Preaching


As a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, I have been asked several times to provide a definition of text-driven preaching, especially what distinguishes it from expositional, or expository preaching. Generally, my answer to this question is simple:

Text-Driven Preaching is the Purest Form of Exposition

Those aren’t my words, though. That is the explanation given by David L. Allen, who wrote the book on text-driven preaching and serves as the first dean of the Southwestern School of Preaching.

But even that needs to be examined. What does that mean?

The Meaning of Words

There was once a time when theological Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention had no need for the term inerrancy because terms like infallibility and authority sufficed to communicate the belief that the Scripture was genuinely true and without error. But those terms became so misapplied and misused that the intended meaning of their use became altogether distinct from genuine truth without error. This created the need for the term inerrancy—it made clear that which other terms once included.

A similar situation has developed in preaching.

There once was a time when there was no need for the descriptor text-driven. Terms such as expository preaching and exposition sufficed to communicate the belief that the sermon should expose and explain the text. But those terms have become so misapplied and misused that their intended meaning has become murky. And when expository preaching describes all preaching, it in fact does not describe any preaching. And this state of things has created the need for the term text-driven—it makes clear that which other terms once included.

The Meaning of Text-Driven

In text-driven preaching, the text itself provides the substance, the shape, and the spirit of the sermon. (Let this be a reminder that if you allow Southern Baptists to define a term, the definition will be alliterated.) The substance, or the message, of the sermon is that which is conveyed in the text. The sermon is not a collection of verses on a topic nor is it a number of observations stemming from the text. Instead, the sermon explains the message of the text to the congregation.

The text also provides the shape, or form, of the sermon. Rather than determining the main idea of the text and then discerning what form of sermon might best communicate that idea, those committed to text-driven preaching maintain that the manner in which God delivered that main idea matters—that the text’s meaning is inseparable from its packaging. So text-driven preachers shape their sermons in the manner corresponding with the shape of the text itself.

Finally, the text provides the spirit of the sermon. The sermon should not be a dry lecture about God’s Word, but should convey the same emotions evident in the text itself. At times that will mean warning. Other times that means preaching through genuine tears and heartbreak.

So what is text-driven preaching?

It is the purest form of exposition.


To explore text-driven preaching further, check out these titles: