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Preaching as Soul Care

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast it’s such a delight to have with us pastor Kevin DeYoung. I’m so grateful for this brother and his work at Christ Covenant Church as the pastor there in Matthews, North Carolina. He’s also an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina which, by the way, is one of our ACBC training centers. He has been a pastor for a number of years, since 2004, previously in Michigan and now in Charlotte. I’m so grateful for this brother, the voice that he brings to our evangelical community, and the way in which he speaks is with clarity, with grace, but with the authority that comes from the Scripture and I’m so grateful for this.

I invited him this year to speak at our ACBC Annual Conference on a very important topic, this issue of preaching as soul care. Listen guys, in ACBC we have this tendency sometimes to think about counseling and it’s a wonderful thing, but we cannot forget that counseling is never intended to be some professionalized ministry. It’s never intended to be something that separated from the ministry of the local church and it’s intended to flow out of all the functions that God has given to the church. Primary among those, in following Christ as the head, is the proclamation of the Word of Christ and this is something that, as a faithful brother, Pastor DeYoung does every week as he preaches the Word to his people. So, I wanted to invite him to speak on this subject because I think it’s a critical explanation of the beauty of the purposes of preaching. It’s exaltation of Christ and the beauty of the way in which the Word cares for the souls in that ministry. So, brother, I’m so grateful for your time in sharing with us and the way in which you talk about this idea of preaching as soul care. So, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much.

Kevin DeYoung: Yeah, thank you, Dale. It’s really good to be here. When you invited me to speak—well, one, it was almost in my backyard so I was glad to make the short trip over. And I’ve been grateful for the work of ACBC and lots of their resources, lots of people connected to the biblical counseling movement. Now I did think, well, I’m not a counseling guy and what am I going to say? But I love the topic you asked me to speak on, preaching as soul care. I love it when people are into counseling, and that’s a really good thing, but also say, come and talk to us about preaching, because one of the concerns is that we would think of counseling rather than being following in the wake of good preaching, trying to lead or trying to come alongside or even in places to supplant. And I know we don’t say this. Our formal theology would say the right things, but I think in our hearts some of us think, well preaching’s good on Sunday and, you know, for mature Christians, they get something out of it. Maybe they learn about justification and maybe it even can save people, but the really hard stuff in life, the really nitty-gritty preaching’s probably not going to be sufficient for that.

Now, I totally agree. Preaching is not the only word ministry in the church and that’s why I love what ACBC has done for these years and I love people getting trained to minister the Word as effectively as possible. Every Christian should be ministering the Word in different ways to people and yet that should be, to mix my metaphors, downstream from preaching. That should be in the wake of good preaching. And we don’t want to think that preaching can’t really attend to the needs of the human heart. God has committed Himself to work through His Word and, in a profound way, to use the ministry of preaching. It’s always an encouragement that Paul, 2000 years ago, said it was the foolishness of preaching and it still seems like the foolishness of preaching. Come on, one guy standing up talking for 30-60 minutes. Is that really the best way? This guy goes to seminary, gets all this training. He spends all these hours, we’re paying him to do this, and then he gets up and—isn’t there a better way? But this is essential to God’s plan because think of all throughout the Bible that God ministers to his people by this public proclamation of the Word. It’s the Word. He speaks, let there be light. There’s light. It’s the Word that calls Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans. It’s the Word that comes to Moses in the wilderness at the burning bush and then the Word that announces to him at Mount Sinai. You can go throughout the Bible. It’s the Word at the baptism of Jesus, the Word at the Mount of Transfiguration. It’s the Word that calls the people of God to become the people of God.

So we need this public proclamation of the Word and we need it not just for the big glory picture stuff, but we need it for all the just as important glory, one degree of glory to the next, which is what biblical counseling is about. It’s not biblical counseling if it’s not about transforming people into the image of Christ and this is what preaching is supposed to be about as well.

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right and that’s what I want to talk about even further. Sometimes—and listen guys, in ACBC, we know that we can be guilty of this and this is not a healthy disposition. When we disassociate ourselves from the necessity of the preaching, we can do that in a couple of ways. Sometimes we say, well counseling is this dialogical thing and we’re going to engage in this dialogue, so we’re going to really help somebody. We’re going to get in the mud and the nitty-gritty with somebody. And okay, that’s great. That’s wonderful, but we cannot disassociate it from the overall work of the ministry.

Listen, the church itself is intended to be the institution of soul care. Our other option is to say, well preaching is this ritualistic thing. We know the Bible talks about it, so we’re just going to keep that function sort of rolling and disassociate ourselves. Listen, that’s not the idea. Preaching is necessary. It is the proclamation of this gospel of Christ. Yes, people come alive. They’re made new in Christ, but then we also grow in the same way in which we receive the Lord Jesus by faith in this same gospel, as you mentioned, changing from one degree of glory to another. The beauty of this is, that’s what we aim at in counseling, right? Soul care. We want to see degrees of change. We want to see conforming to the image of Christ, but not just in counseling. That’s actually a primary goal of the proclamation of the Word in preaching ministry. 

Kevin DeYoung: So you’re good to call out the counselors. I’ll call out the preacher. Sometimes preachers can think the pulpit on Sunday morning is the inspirational rah-rah, go at it another week. Well, okay, we rightly can see there can be some of that. Or, this is intellectual information transfer. We’re going to teach you what’s going on in this passage. Well, that is part of preaching to explain a passage, but we also need this phrase, which I love that you use, of soul care. Well, what are you doing when you care for souls? You’re applying God’s Word to the issues of life—the fear of man, the love of the praise of men, struggling with thoughts of bitterness and unforgiveness, all of the anxieties that we have, the worries, living out the future before it gets here. So good preaching is attentive to all of that and we need we need both. Like you said, we need that dialogical, tell me your story, I’m going to ask a thousand questions. We also need, God’s going to speak to you now. God’s going to speak through His Word and He has something authoritative to say. We want preachers to be skilled so that every sermon doesn’t sound the same, it doesn’t all have the same mood. Some are sermons of warning, some are sermons of great comfort, but attending to the text with all of its intricacies to apply it to the human heart. Yes, we want you to learn new things, but as I was showing from 2 Corinthians 3:18, we become what we behold. And then you go over to chapter 4—how do we behold Christ? Well, by preaching Him. So, all of it fits together. It’s this whole orbed ministry of the church.

Dale Johnson: That was, I think, really good the way that you’ve preached that message. I want to do two things if we can. You talked about mood, the distinct mood of the passage and that’s the way that a pastor ought to preach. I think that’s really critical. For us as counselors, we would sit in the room and we’re trying to ask good probing questions. We’re trying to listen well. We’re trying to data-gather and as we gather that data from the person, we’re trying to see, okay, what’s the real issue? Are they somebody who knows the Word but they’re rebelling against it? Well, the Bible tells us to address those people a certain way with admonition, 1Thessalonians 5:14. Or those who are weary in well-doing, they need encouragement, the Bible tells us. Or those who are weak, immature, they need help and we’re told to be patient with them all. So we want to minister the Word appropriately for what the need of the moment is. I love the way that you described—preachers need to be aware of the mood in knowing their people and the mood of the text in the way they communicate that Word authoritatively from God for the need of their people and what God gives them today. 

Kevin DeYoung: It’s one of my burdens in preaching, and I do a little bit in my pastoral ministry class at the seminary in talking about this for preachers. We study for years to communicate the meaning of the text and that’s most important. What’s going on here? How do the words fit together? Diagram the sentence. Look at the original languages. What is this about? But we also need to be attentive to the mood because it is possible for preachers to say all things that are true and yet if we’re not aware of our own instincts and personalities—say you had a coach when you’re growing up. Some of us love the coach who wagged a finger in our face, told us, you get out there, you go do it or you’re going to drop and give me a hundred push-ups, and we like that. We like that in our face. So that preacher thinks, that’s how you motivate people. And then there’s somebody that said, no, I hated that coach. I was scared of that coach. He made me feel terrible all the time. And we like the coach who put his arm around us, you know, the players’ coach and said you’re going to be okay and you did a great job today. So we think that’s what everyone needs to hear. So we tend to project our own personalities on to our people and we think, everyone coming in here is just a leaky love tank and they just need to know how much God loves them and that they’re adopted and if they could just embrace that—or they think, these are sinners who are rebelling and what they need every week is they need to, you know—bad dog. Look at what you did.

We can’t fully get past our own personalities, but the Bible, if we’re attentive, will help us see certain texts have moods and some are meant to be comfort and some are meant to be warnings. I remember hearing a good brother one time preach a message and it was a passage about joy, and he was a very intense guy and it did sort of come across like, why aren’t you people joyful? Look at all the reasons you have to be joyful. Well, it wasn’t really communicating joy when the text was about joy. You know, sometimes sermons don’t have to have five points of application. You just lift people up into the glories of Christ and the effect should be joy but then other times it’s not wrong to preach imperatives. It’s not wrong to give warnings. It’s not wrong, and I don’t say this tongue-in-cheek, I say literally, to scare the hell out of people. There are passages that are meant to do that and good preaching will be attentive to those contours. 

Dale Johnson: I think that’s critical and that’s an encouragement to those of you who are pastors who are listening, those of you who stand up regularly and proclaim the Word. It’s so important because you don’t know who the people are. That’s one of the most difficult things when you’re preaching. You don’t know all the issues that folks walk in the room with and you trust the text that God has given you today to shepherd the people well, to proclaim appropriately what God has said and the way in which God has said it.

When we think about soul care, we want to do soul care in the way in which God tells us and preaching is a part of that. Now, a couple of things that you said that I want to highlight here on the podcast that I think are really important. You gave a couple of takeaways for even counselors on how they sit and listen to preaching. So I want to reiterate a couple of those things. I think that will be important. But then also, for those of you who counsel, the way you listen to the Word matters and the way you encourage your counselees to be assimilated into the body, to learn to regularly hear the Word, to listen to the Word, to know how to receive the Word when it’s preached, that’s the proper means of them to grow and be cared for moving forward as they grow up into maturity into Christ. So I want you to describe some of those takeaways that you gave us that I think were very effective. 

Kevin DeYoung: I just gave two brief takeaways and nothing revolutionary, but sometimes the most important things are the things that we need to be reminded of. So, one, all of us, when we sit under the preaching of the Word, we need to listen humbly. That means we don’t go in with a critical spirit. Of course, we’re critical. We judge everything according to the Bible, but it’s very possible to go in ready to be disappointed and I’ll just tell you, no matter who your pastor is, if you are ready to be disappointed on Sunday, you will be disappointed. Or we go in suspicious.

Or, this is probably more likely for many of us engaged in ministry, we listen to those sermons for other people. We’re thinking about the next counseling appointment. We’re thinking about the next sermon. We’re not first of all saying, God I stand in need of your grace. I need something from this Word. We’re thinking, well, I’m a conduit of ministry. What do I have here? And we listen for somebody. Oh, somebody really needs to hear this. They’re going to be really convicted or they’re going to get this. To listen humbly means we need to do the work to prepare ourselves. So I said at the conference, probably the fastest way to make your preacher a better preacher—like this next Sunday he will be a better preacher—is to prepare your own heart. I know those people in my church, it doesn’t matter how bad my sermon is, they come and shake my hand—Oh Pastor, wow. The Lord was doing so much work. My sermon wasn’t any good humanly speaking, but their hearts are so fertile, so ready. Yet we all know people that we minister to—you’re preaching or counseling your guts out and it’s nothing. The best way to make preaching better is to till the soil of our own hearts. So, I said listen humbly and then listen expectantly, that is to be prayerful, to come to Sunday with some sense of rhythm that this is the Lord’s day, that this is a day to celebrate the resurrection. It’s not a brief interlude between college football and professional football. It is the highlight of the week and you come in with that mindset prayerfully. Lord, what do you have for me here? It sounds so simple, but we all know it really is amazing. If you have kids, you understand. When they’re excited about vacation, they’re ready for it—if they are coming in ready to be pleased and excited it’s bound to go well. We all know the trips that we’ve taken our kids on and they folded their hands from the get-go and they’re already determined, I will never admit that there was anything good because my parents are so lame. Well, we don’t want to do that with God’s Word. We want to be prayerfully expectant that this is God and however many gifts my pastor has—1, 2, 10, a half—if it’s God’s Word, there’s something that He has for me here. 

Dale Johnson: That’s good. Listen, for us as counselors, the best way that you minister the Word is when the Word has first ministered to you. So when you make sure that you’re sitting under faithful preaching of the Word so that the Word can do its work on you by the power of the Spirit as God applies that Word to your heart, for whatever the need of the moment is, it changes the way that you talk to people about Christ, about His Word, and the confidence that you have when you minister to someone else one-on-one in private ministry of the Word.

The faithful preaching of the Word is so critical and as you talked about, there’s an order. We want to do God’s work in God’s way. We want to do soul care the way that God intended and that is with the public proclamation of the Word being out in front and all the beautiful ministry that comes after in the ministry of the Word flows in the wake of that. I love the way that you described that. I know it will be an encouragement to our people. Brother, thank you so much for taking time to share with our people, to encourage our people, to edify them, and to bring the Word of proclamation to them.