By Paul Koch –
I will never forget the time I had right before I left the seminary for the parish; I was happy that I was able to spend a few days with Dr. Feuerhahn before hitting the road. I remember being in his study and he was generously unloading some of his excess library on me. We were there because I had mentioned to him that one of the great fears I had about leaving the seminary, was leaving behind its incredible library. To walk away from the library was to walk away from the promise of answers held within its stacks.
I loved the smell of the old books and marveled at the massive collection of great theologians, past and present. I could get lost in the stacks below for hours and be quite happy. From ancient texts to contemporary journal articles, the library was a powerful tool to any who sought to be a preacher of the Word. Leaving such a treasure trove behind was a bit scary; it was like taking off the training wheels the day before a big race. (I actually photocopied every article by Dr. Norman Nagel I could find before I left.) The tools of the library would surely aid me in being a better preacher, so I was shaky about leaving it behind.
Dr. Feuerhahn told me that when he visited a pastor in the parish, often he could immediately tell what year this man graduated simply by looking at his library. His point being that there were no new books purchased since he had graduated. The personal library of the pastor looked like a snapshot of the curriculum’s required reading for whatever period of time he was at the seminary.
Now with the accessibility of the internet and the great amount of quality material in digital form, his point may seem a little dated but his sentiment is quite true. At least when it comes to the task of striving to be better preachers, most pastors’ libraries haven’t changed much.
A great danger facing many of us, pastors, is that we are lazy. Now please understand, I’m not saying that we are not busy. Most pastors are swamped. But we tend to be lazy with regard to trying to better ourselves in our task as preachers. After a few years in the parish, we figure that we’ve got the whole preaching thing figured out. What we do on Sunday from the pulpit is good to go, so we focus on other things.
I remember a few years back when I was a circuit counselor and I actually got the district to buy a copy of Wingren’s “The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church” for all the pastors in the circuit. When we met for our first time to discuss the first few chapters, I found that only three of my brothers actually read it (though they all brought their books along). I jokingly prodded as to why they didn’t even crack the cover, and one of my brothers actually said, “Well this is all about preaching. I thought we were going to be discussing something more relevant.” This is the point at which I completely lost my shit and said things for which later I had to ask forgiveness.
The reality is, the vast majority of conversations I have ever had with my colleagues in the pastoral ministry deal with very practical things. Our discussions deal with stewardship, youth ministry, confirmation, evangelism, mission strategy and the like. More often they deal with particular issues with particular members. Sometimes we will even argue doctrinal distinctions and exegetical struggles in a particular text. But it is rare when the discussion turns to the task of preaching. The quest to be a better preacher seems to be low on the agenda. This point is proven by the schedule for almost every pastor’s conference I’ve ever been to.
It’s time for preachers to dust off the old books and buy some new ones. It is time that we engage in conversation about how we preach and how we could do it better. A few of my colleagues did this recently when at a circuit gathering after the worship service they sat down and invited critique of the sermon – actual open and honest critique. It’s time to reclaim the craft of preaching. It’s time for preaching to move to the top of our agendas and not get shuffled behind stewardship programs and leadership seminars.
I leave you with this quote from C.F.W. Walther:
“How pitiful is the young pastor who enters this office thinking: ‘Hooray, the time of hard work and drudgery is over. Now I have come to the haven of rest and peace! I will enjoy that! I am my own boss and need not take orders from any person in the world!’ This is just as pitiful as the pastor who looks upon his office as his craft, or trade, and thinks: ‘Now all I have to do is to set up for myself a nice, comfortable parish! I will be really careful not to make enemies and do everything to make everyone my friend.’ Oh, what a pitiful man! These pastors plan to use their spiritual assets for worldly gain. They are not true ministers of Christ, and on the Last Day He will say to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:23).
“But blessed is the pastor who starts his official work on the very first day, determined to do everything that the grace of God will enable him to do, so that not one soul in his congregation would be lost on account of him. A pastor like this would resolve that by the grace of God he would do all he can, so that, when the day comes for him to lay down his shepherd’s staff, he may be able to say what Christ said to His Father, ‘Here I am. Of those You gave me, not one is lost.’”
-Law & Gospel, Twentieth Evening Lecture