Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport?

SoloSport2The vast majority of churches rely almost exclusively on a solo preacher.  The vast majority of preachers prepare in isolation.  Who turned preaching into a solo sport?

Here are six factors that have influenced this situation.  None of them make a good case for going solo!

1. Tradition! – it is hard to overstate the impact of what you have always seen and experienced.  Pastors protect their pulpits and prepare alone.  It is what our fathers and forefathers before them have always done.  So it must be right!

2. Solitary Spirituality – the preacher is, after all, the anointed individual that climbs the stairs to the study and meets with God, alone.  We are much more into Moses on the mountain in Exodus 33/34 than we are into the Moses + Joshua in the tent with the LORD earlier in Exodus 33, or Moses and all the elders together meeting with God in Exodus 24!  Actually, if truth be told, we aren’t Moses.  We are members of the Body of Christ – and the New Testament description of spirituality is far more communal and shared than it is isolationist and solitary.

3. Clergy-Laity – the church has been a big promoter of a gulf between clergy and laity for centuries, but it is difficult to make a case from the New Testament for the distance that has been created.  A priestly class feels threatened by the invitation to share ministry with others, and a comfortable laity feels intimidated by the idea of joining in.  Perhaps we need to revisit the Bible regarding this assumption about the people of God.

4. Single Salary – since many churches only pay one person to be the pastor, there will be a pressure for that pastor to be the preacher.  Unless something is done about it, the default assumption of both congregation and pastor will be that the pastor should preach.  What are we paying for?  (Actually, much more than just preaching!)

5. Fallen Nature – preachers are human and suffer the same weaknesses others do.  This means they are likely to self-protect, both in terms of sharing the pulpit, and in terms of sharing preparation.  Human nature wants to be at the top of a pyramid, not sharing credit with others.  Human nature is such that I will assume my ideas are better than your ideas, so why should I hear your ideas anyway?

6. Insecurity – this one is massive.  How much spirituality is actually a mask for personal insecurity?  We don’t want to share our sermon thoughts with others until we roll out the finished article on Sunday, no matter how much it might help us to do so.  Insecurity will always seek to undermine ministry in team.  What if someone is better than me?  What if their input improves my message?  What if they are?  Praise God if it does!

On Monday I will post 10 Pointers for Preaching Teams.  This preparatory post is intended to stir our thinking.  Why do we prepare alone?  Why do we resist sharing our pulpits?

10 thoughts on “Who Turned Preaching Into a Solo Sport?

  1. Consistently when I read your posts here, Peter, it drives me to my knees to pray for my own pastors. I have prayed for them regarding isolation in the past, but this brings a fresh perspective to the struggles. Thank you.

  2. Number 3 actually resonates as quite a sound reason (at least for the homily). It’s not really so much as there is a gap between clergy and laity though. This has not been the case in the Eastern churches where the clergy have generally lived lives amongst the laity. The clergy have been specifically ordained for the purposes of serving the people to a holy order. If the homily is something holy rather than just normative, then the clergy should in fact be the only ones allowed to preach the homily. I myself have an Evangelical friend in the Nazarene tradition who is shocked that their laity are even allowed to touch the eucharist. It’s not because there is a gap between the clergy and the laity though but rather the clergy have been consecrated to specific purposes that the laity have not. I find number 3 to be a perfectly legitimate reason for restricting the laity from preaching the homily.

    • Thanks Daniel – this is an interesting comment. I suppose the commitments of our tradition will tend to give us comfort with the fruit of that tradition – in this case, the existence of a restrictive clerical class within the church. As you can imagine, this blog is read by folks from numerous traditions. I’m sure we all agree that we all need to examine our traditions in light of Scripture, rather than reading Scripture in light of our traditions. The challenge for each one of us will be to prayerfully search the Scriptures and wrestle with this kind of issue – is our tradition really representing what the Scripture is teaching?

  3. Peter,
    Good question.
    Michael Svigel in his book Retro Christianity mentions a phenomenon he calls “sermon-centered” worship. This as opposed to “Word-centered” worship where the Word is spoken, read, preached, and prayed throughout the worship gathering. This does not diminish the importance of good preaching but takes that part of worship off of it’s lofty apex. I wonder if the solo preacher model was bred by this sermon-centered phenomenon by requiring the the only persons qualified to preach are those with the most letters behind their names with a style worthy of only the best of preachers. Seems to me like a good idea (good preaching) run to an unhealthy extreme (solo pulpit).
    God’s peace to you.

    • Thanks for this comment. There are traditions that have other forms of service that aren’t quite so sermon-centric, but still are Word centred. It can be fascinating to trace their history and see where that goes well and where it goes wrong. Thanks for prompting the thought!

  4. Peter,

    Is it possible that your tradition of “no clergy-laity divide” informs your reading of scripture as much as catholic tradition informs mine? I think it’s generally inevitable. We interpret within our own boundaries and read what we’re ready to understand; which is why one will never read holy orders from *within* non-conformist, evangelical tradition.

    The way you paint priesthood as a ministry of “distance” that the laity have no part in is a very unsympathetic reading of the traditional position. It’s a caricature akin to saying that those who object to women in pastoral ministry object to them serving in any capacity. No, the ministry of the keys is given by Christ *for* the benefit of the laity, to feed them the gospel and equip them for works of service in their own common priesthood at work, school etc. What is it that you object to?

    Interestingly, it’s traditional christians that DON’T see preaching as a solo exercise. One of the main purposes of the lectionary is to give preachers the chance to prepare together with others in the deanery – not only for uniform doctrine but as a way of seeking God *together*. I see that as infinitely preferable to, and more biblical than, the evangelical way: to subject God’s people to the whims and idiosyncrasies of the lone-pastor-with-his-random-sermon-series.



    • Thanks for the thought-through comment, Steve. I won’t go through every point here, but I do think your final paragraph is worth pondering for all of us. As someone who has never been under ministry from a lectionary I can only ponder it from a distance. I have friends that would affirm it and I think you make a great point in respect to multiple ministers potentially preparing together. As for “whims and idiosyncrasies of the lone-pastor-with-his-random-sermon-series” – well, that might just be another example of a very unsympathetic reading of an evangelical position. Obviously the post is not written to engage in a debate over ecclesiology – there are plenty of others blogs that will chase those issues. Nonetheless, I do appreciate any comment that can provoke my own, and other readers’ thinking. Thanks.

      • Thanks for the response, Peter. And sorry if the tone of that last paragraph was a little strident; I was in the middle of playing the role of bedtime enforcer! I hope it’s OK to follow on with a couple of comments. Be great to hear your thoughts:

        By the “whims and idiosyncrasies of the lone-pastor-with-his-random-sermon-series” I mean the fact that modern evangelical pastors have no set liturgical structure or content with which to address God’s people. The select few (individual pastor, group of elders, worship leaders) are free to choose whatever they want, not only in sermons but within the whole liturgy. The content of divine worship belongs ultimately to the whim of the solo pastor with his select others, and not to the ordinary pew dweller, at least in any meaningful sense. It’s hugely ironic that this supposed “freedom” results in a far, far bigger clergy-laity divide and sacrerdotalism than the one evangelicals protest against. Those with set, common liturgies don’t afford our clergy that sort of unchecked freedom over God’s people — the content of worship belongs to us all, to the whole of Christ’s body, and not to individual preferences.

        I wonder whether my comment about the interaction of scripture and tradition in the first paragraph is as much a comment about homiletics as it is one about ecclesiology. Scripture is never read in a vacuum and the assumptions you bring from your tradition will make it highly improbable that you’ll preach/read anything outside of the those already-decided-upon assumptions. Again, it seems to be the traditional churches that address these realities with historic liturgy and catechesis as a nurturing process through which we correctly interpret scripture. How do you do it?



      • Steve, thanks for your comment! I think there are strengths both ways. I can see the advantages you are referring to, but I can also see real weaknesses in that approach too. I suppose the bigger issue for me is whether the local church leadership is responsible before God to feed, lead, care and protect the local flock, or whether they cannot be trusted to do these things. I think it is harder to make a biblical case for a centralised global denominational authority than it is to make a biblical case for local spiritual shepherd-elders in each locale. Some will certainly abuse the freedom to choose only certain “pet” Bible texts. But I know many that seek to teach the whole counsel of God and do so by making sure they preach from the whole canon over a period of time, while retaining relevance to the season, occasion and congregation.

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