When Preaching Becomes An Idol
By Heath A. Kirkwood
We were minutes into our drive home when my friend grinned and said, “I saw you grimace when he said what he said.” We were at an all-day preaching workshop and at one point our leader looked at us and bluntly said, “Never forget, you were first called to preach!” Yes, I grimaced, and more obvious than I meant.
My original call when I was twenty-two years old was more generic: serve God and love his church. At age thirty-one, God led my family to serve him and love our church in the Lead Pastor role. So yes, God called me and led me to be a pastor, an under-shepherd to Jesus, and that fits within my original call to serve and love.
The preaching task fits nicely within the pastoral role. It is possibly the most visible task of the pastor, so it is significant. Yet, our workshop leader came off as assumptive in ways that I have also noticed from others since my early years.
Growing up in the independent and fundamental tradition, I saw pastors practice their roles as if their only work was to preach, to the point of neglecting pastoral care. If they preached well and received a good offering, not much else was discussed.
As a young minister, this trend was noticeable in our small Baptist association. Pastors were kept, disposed of, or rated more because of their sermons than their pastoral care. During my seminary experience, I met many talented young preachers who believed their preaching was the main and only focus for their upcoming lifetime in ministry.
Preaching is a significant task, no doubt. At the same time, please allow me to humbly suggest that we have made preaching (and at times the Preacher) an idol. When we elevate something above where it belongs, we have made that something into an idol.
Preaching Belongs In Pastoral Ministry
In Preaching and Practical Ministry, Ronald Allen notes that preaching is most effective in a congregation when it connects with all other aspects of the faith community, and that it also “diminishes when the sermon has little relationship with other things that happen in the local church” (Allen, 1). The preaching task has great importance, but it is not an end in itself.
As one who supports having multiple preachers within a congregation, I can say it is obvious that the reception of the preacher’s sermon is linked to the effectiveness of his or her pastoral work. Being a pastor to people develops a pastor’s preaching. A youth pastor’s animation may catch attention, but his or her participation in students’ lives is what keeps them listening week after week.
Every sermon, whether on Sunday morning, in a funeral chapel, or within small-group discussion flows out of one’s pastoral ministry. People want to hear good preaching, and they want to hear it from someone who cares for them well. Preaching belongs in pastoral ministry and it flows from it, not the other way around.
Preaching Belongs In Church Community
Acts 2:42-47 has been one of the most formative passages to me as both a Christian and minister. After Peter preached his impacting sermon in verses 14-40, the author gave us a clue that this new community of believers practiced many things together. One of these was the apostles’ teaching, closely followed by fellowship. These preachers gave sermons to and within the gathering of Christ-followers!
Today, preaching is available in all types of formats and personalities, many outside of church communities. While I like some of these preachers, it is concerning that consumers will prefer (and even idolize) a preacher outside of their church. TikTok, online, or TV personalities are easily idolized over those who are growing sermons in local soil. Why is this concerning? This takes the preaching event from being a dialogue in a church community to becoming a monologue from a device to a person.
A local preacher might not be as trendy, able, or qualified as a preacher whose following is larger and broader, but that is not the point. Preaching belongs in church community because it births from a local fellowship and matures within that same group. I would say that preaching outside of a church community is useful, but it is within a church community that preaching continues to breathe into peoples’ lives.
Preaching Belongs In Its Place
I realize that what I write here is my conviction, and not necessarily yours. Please allow me to offer this final insight with a continuation on the Apostle Peter. Before he had his Acts 2 sermon, he had his John 21 experience. When Jesus reinstated him, he did not say, “Peter, your first call is to preach.” Three times, Jesus told him to feed and take care of his sheep.
Feeding and taking care of Jesus’s sheep, his people, includes preaching. A sermon is a feast on God’s Word. It includes preaching, but it is not only or primarily preaching. This is a true call to pastorally caring for people as a shepherd cares for sheep. The preaching call fits and belongs in its place within the pastoral call.
What happens when preaching or the Preacher becomes an idol? Simply look at Peter’s story in both Scripture and historical tradition, and you will see a pastor elevated by people above where he belonged. He belonged with people and on a cross at his life’s end. But there were those who hoped his shadow would heal them, and he was canonized. When preaching or the Preacher becomes an idol, they encroach on Jesus’s place.
A Final Word
As I write this, I wish you and I could take the time to sit, discuss, agree and disagree, as well as go deeper than these paragraphs can go. For now, please let me clarify something in a final word. The reason I grimaced that day was not only because I believe my call is to serve God and love his church, or because I feel that preaching belongs within pastoring. It is because I do not want to elevate myself above where I belong.
I have witnessed and experienced the tragic impacts of preachers who were elevated or elevated themselves above where they belonged, all in the name of preaching Jesus. Rather than following Jesus’s example to serve instead of be served, they followed a destructive path and took people with them. Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but I have found it best to seek humility and flee from the potentials of prideful idolatry.
Serving God and loving his church must be rooted in humility. By seeking to feed and take care of Jesus’s sheep, the pastor will find preaching a regular opportunity among all pastoral opportunities to fulfill this call and task. When preaching becomes an idol, we move away from this fulfillment. When preaching is found within pastoral ministry and church community, it is living where it naturally belongs.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common