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Shepherding From the Pulpit

Truth in Love 325

Public proclamation of God's Word has to be more than just an exegetical exercise.

Aug 23, 2021

Dale Johnson: Once again, on the podcast, I am delighted to have Pastor Rick Holland here with us. He is a pastor of Mission Road Bible Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. He is married to Kim Holland for 26 years, praise the Lord for that. Summer and I love getting to know Rick and Kim and we’ve been blessed certainly by their ministry at Mission Road. He’s been there for a little over 10 years and man, just excited to see some of the things that the Lord is doing. And we get a front-row seat to watch what the Lord is doing among this congregation. It’s a fun thing. And as my own personal pastor, we’re not talking about hypothetical things here. It’s fun to watch how he and the other elders do this very thing that we’re talking about today, shepherding from the pulpit.

So Rick, what I want to do, if we can, is sort of transition into talking about this issue and it can be a delicate thing. I see so much with some younger guys where either there’s not a lot of tact from the pulpit or there’s just a fear to talk about some issues right from the pulpit. But I want you to just talk for a second. How do you, as the main preaching pastor, sort of process and think through good ways to shepherd the congregation that you serve through preaching and through your ministry in the pulpit?

Rick Holland: Well, that’s a great question. Thank you, Dale. We love having you and your family involved in our church. I know your background is baseball player, and when you look at baseball—I love watching baseball and my wife actually loves it as well—you look at a pitcher and a pitcher is usually judged by how many pitches he has. And it’s rare to find a guy without three pitches. Some guys have up to six pitches. And I think we need to remember that on Sunday morning, we have more than one fastball sermon. We have the announcements. We have the songs. We have the transitions. We have the Scripture reading. We have the pastoral prayer. All of these things are public declarations about our theology, and they’re all syringes in which we can inject good biblical thinking. And so probably inherent in your question is the presupposition that you’re being deliberate. You’re being intentional. That you think this through.

Now, let me back up. Every Tuesday, we have a service review time with our staff where we go through every single element, painstakingly, from the opening, to the announcements, to the songs, to the pace, to the pitch, to the volume, to the sermon, to the illustrations, to the application of the conclusion, to the prayer room. And we look at it all and say, how can we do better next week? And then we also look ahead at what’s coming. Aaron’s looking at what I’m preaching on and how the songs relate and who’s going to do announcements and what we need to say.

So some of it, we’ve learned the hard way. It comes down to being intentional and looking at the entire hour and fifteen, hour and a half. How can we use all of that for shepherding people and understanding that they can—each element can be used to shepherd a heart. So we can talk about the sermons. We can talk about announcements, but those are opportunities to address God’s people in God’s way. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s so important that you’re distinguishing not just limiting your shepherding from the time that you’re opening God’s Word to exposit. I mean, that’s certainly where our mind goes. And we’re doing that as pastors to a great degree from the pulpit, but it expands beyond that. One of the things that I think I’ve been struck by personally is how you guys as elders use that time to engage your people with issues that are going on, ways that you’re reminding the congregation to pray, or even moments where you’re standing up there before a host of a couple of hundred people, but you’re talking directly to one of your congregants to encourage them and to edify them and to build them up. You’re modeling a couple of things, but you’re also being such a great encouragement directly at that moment shepherding that individual. But you’re shepherding your people on how to go about ministering and that’s one of the things that I see maybe as a weakness of some pastors in knowing how to engage in that way. Almost fearing to engage in that way.

I want to commend you for that but then also just remind pastors, it’s okay if you do it in a tactful way, to address issues that someone may be going through that are already public, right? Somebody passed or somebody’s very, very sick or something like that, where you can engage those issues even in a public way that’s biblical and encouraging and truly shepherds the heart and models that for your people.

Let’s turn now where most people’s mind goes—to the preaching of the Word. How do you process the way in which your shepherding—I mean, if you think about it, you have multiple weeks of the year, right? 48 or so, or 50 weeks of the year that you’re standing and you’re proclaiming God’s Word to His people. How do you think through the process of using that time to encourage them with the Word, to truly shepherd these people who are sitting, that God has entrusted to you? 

Rick Holland: I think I’ve grown in that over the years, Dale. Early in my ministry, I remember my heart being so, I think rightly, pulled toward, you have to get the hermeneutics right. You have to get the text right. Preaching is public hermeneutics and you’ve got to get the text right, the text right, the text right. That’s completely a part of the process, but there’s one more element to that which is, looking at God’s providence, He brought this text to this people in this week at this time. And to think, how should and can the truth of this text land on our people practically and applicationally? Just recently, I was doing a sermon out of Ephesians 1 and I was struck by, and told the body, that there’s a false dichotomy that there’s the theology and there’s praxis and all theology has to be practical and all praxis has to be rooted in theology. And once we bifurcate those, then the sermon becomes a public Bible study instead of a shepherd’s crook. And so I’m always mindful that—you know, this last Sunday I preached on forgiveness—that there is not just being forgiven, but there are things, and this is just being informed with the congregation. I know that there are people who are struggling with being forgiven and people who are struggling with forgiving and so it’s exegeting your audience alongside the text without violating the authorial intent of the text.

Dale Johnson: I could not agree more with that statement. I think so many guys, and I don’t want to downplay this, they get the text right, but they’re speaking it in such a generic way, it doesn’t deal with the specifics of their own congregation and that limits their ability—in 1 Peter 5:2—to shepherd this flock of God that is among them. That’s one of the things that I think the Puritans did super well, is, you know, I talk about this in relationship to parenting. One of the ways is that I’m called to disciple my own children, and as I disciple my own children, one of the most critical pieces of the text that we see consistently—Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78 and Ephesians 6—yeah, we’re supposed to be doing lots of things, but one of the things that those texts assume is that we are with our children. And that’s one of the missing pieces I think, even in pastoral ministry. It’s yes, we’re to preach and to teach and to be faithful expositionally to the Word, and no one should ever downplay that at all in the technicalities of that. But being you with your people matters so much in the ways in which you communicate that truth in specific application to them and that becomes just exponentially beneficial in the shepherding role that you have, that you could communicate it in such a way. And that’s the beauty of a pastor engaging in counseling ministry. That’s the beauty of the pastor truly engaging his people outside of your normal church meetings. You have the ability to do that, to think about specific issues and dynamics in ways that you can communicate the truth of these texts that’s really edifying to your people and encouraging to them.

So, let’s think about this. We’ve heard, I think it’s Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said that he thinks about the the public preaching ministry as a sort of a corporate counseling-type situation. And while I agree to some extent, I wouldn’t think about it as some sort of “group therapy,” right? But there is this sense of which, in your public proclamation, you are engaging in soul care. Talk about the benefit of engaging in soul care as you proclaim the Word publicly. 

Rick Holland: Well, I think inherent in the question is the answer because public proclamation of God’s Word has got to be more than just an exegetical exercise. If that’s the case, get the Word Biblical Commentary, read it on Sundays and sit down. You know the people, you know the issues and—it’s kind of funny, Dale—I’ve had so many people over the years say something like, “Wow, it felt like you were preaching right at me,” and my answer is always, “Well, I was. And, you know, 600 others as well.” Now that doesn’t mean that you’re covertly, you know, preaching against the guy in row 3, but you have to know about the guy in row 3 and you have to know what’s going on in your church. And the wonderful part about consecutive exposition is, you don’t pick the text or the topic, the text and the topic picks you.

So, for example, this last week when I preached on forgiveness, I knew that there was an issue and there was a lady, not to belabor the point, who came to me yesterday after the sermon who wanted to talk about these issues. I knew about that issue and her bitterness and lack of forgiveness before the sermon. Now, was I preaching to her? Well, yes and no. Of course I was. But I was preaching to the congregation. Every text brings an issue that is, whether we want to call it counseling or discipleship, that is intended to care for the soul by increasing their theological acumen and also deepening their understanding of their need for that and self-identifying their sin that needs to be corrected. So that’s got to be in play as you’re thinking. And it’s not in competition with a getting the text right. It’s in applying the text. It’s finding the implication. What does this text imply? Not just apply, but imply for the believer sitting in the room and also for the unbeliever. It’s a great gospel opportunity. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s knowing in advance how your people are wrestling with this particular truth, you know, in their lack of obedience to this truth, or how they’re struggling in their own trial with this particular issue. And that allows you to say things a bit more specifically. I talk about this with my counseling students all the time, that when you’re doing data gathering, you’re hearing what’s going on from the counselee. When you identify a problem generically, then you will use the text generically and they will apply the text generically. And I think this is the deeper sort of expression of how we communicate the text because we know those nuances that people are wrestling with and the beauty—listen, let’s not dismiss the role of the Holy Spirit in all this—is, when we are faithful to publicly proclaim the truths of Scripture and then the implications or the applications of that, we see the Holy Spirit apply that in a thousand different ways to the variability of ears that are listening in their particular given situation. Now, as you think about the shepherding piece and even the public proclamation, guys who think like you and I do about expositional preaching, I see so many guys who sort of devalue the relationship between counseling/discipleship and the public proclamation and they sort of put those things in two different areas of expertise, in two different sort of lanes or arenas, right? But it makes sense to me. I think this is a part of the confusing piece to me, but it makes sense to me that the guys who believe in expositional preaching, that approach shouldn’t change when you get one-on-one.

Let me build a scenario for you. You and I believe that when we stand up and we proclaim the Word expositionally that God, through His Spirit, is going to take the truth of that Word, and the Spirit is going to do the work that Jesus talks about in John 14-17. He’s going to illuminate. He’s going to convict. He’s going to guide people into truth. He’s going to help them to understand. And we believe that that work is happening when we publicly proclaim. Why do you think it is, Rick, that when we leave that sacred desk on a platform where we’re preaching to, you know, 50 or several hundred people—why do you think our mindset as pastors change when we get into an office one-on-one with somebody or in a coffee shop one-on-one with somebody? Why is it that pastors, to some degree who think like us about expositional preaching, why do you think it is that they struggle in that moment to think that the same word can be just as effective one-on-one in terms of “counseling?”

Rick Holland: Yeah, there could be a lot of answers to that. My own experience is, early in my ministry it was hard for me because I’d been trained so well, I think, in expository preaching, it was hard for me to ditch the notion that my sermon was a speech. It was a proclamation, which it is. But the mindset over the years changed to, this is a shepherd’s crook. This is an on-ramp into people’s thinking and minds. It’s corrective. It’s noutheteo. It’s building up. It’s also correcting. It’s encouraging. There’s many parakaleo, coming alongside, natures, aspects of that that come along with that. It was thinking differently about that proclamation. And some of that, honestly, if I’m going to be brutally honest, is just pride where you have to ditch this is a speech for which I’m going to be evaluated and change the mindset to, this is a chance for me to talk to people about their hearts and God’s and to bring those two together, hopefully, so that they’re joined well enough that you walk away and there’s a connection there with them. So I think it was subtle for me over the years, but to change the mindset from a public speech to a public proclamation that’s helping the soul. It sounds pretty simple, but it was just a mindset difference that changed. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah and I agree. Let’s take that a step further. Last question on this one, but take it a step further and when we see effective preaching ministry, what we see is the effect of the spirit in terms of comfort, in terms of conviction of sin, in terms of correction. And what I love about the beauty of the preaching of the Word in the church is it actually raises to the surface the need for consistent, one-on-one pastoral shepherding and one-anothering because the Word begins to draw out of the human heart things that we can’t do with anything else. I mean, the Word is the only thing by the power of the Spirit that brings that stuff out of Hebrews 4:12-13. It’s true, right? It unveils the things that are hidden. It cuts sharper like a two-edged sword, division of joint and marrow, soul and spirit, thoughts and intentions of the heart. I mean, this is what the living Word of God does. So Pastors, don’t disconnect this idea of your faithful preaching and what it brings to the surface. And oftentimes that actually raises the ante for your elders to make sure that you’re shepherding well because of what the Word brings out of people It now demands that we engage at a higher level in shepherding. Sort of talk about that relationship, Rick. I mean, you’ve been doing this for a lot of years where you’ve seen, faithful preaching is not in competition with counseling and soul care. It enhances it. It becomes necessary because you’re dealing with a lot of those issues corporately, but it also raises a lot of those issues and empowers the congregation to then care well for one another. So just talk through that.

Rick Holland: Yeah, again, another subtle shift that’s happened in my mind since when I graduated seminary which—I loved my seminary education. You know, “preach the Word” is a strong imperative. But so is “shepherd the flock” and I’ve shifted a little bit, Dale, from thinking of myself as a preacher who does pastoral work. I really feel like I’m a pastor who preaches. I’m a shepherd who preaches. There’s a whole lot more time between Monday morning and Saturday night than there is on Sunday. And so they feed each other. Hopefully, my pulpit ministry invites people to come into my office. And what I do in the office, or many times Kim and me on our couch in my house, invites them to have credibility in the pulpit. But there’s the other dimension you talked about with the elders. I don’t want to be solitary and the only expert. So, most of the time Kim and I will meet someone once, twice, even up to a half dozen times. And then we want to give them to someone who can give them long-term care, so that I’m not the only clinician in the church who can provide soul care and that also includes another whole podcast someday about training your leaders, training people, training shepherds, extending pastoral care through care groups, discipleship, whatever. But the pulpit feeds to counseling. Counseling gives credibility to listen to you in the pulpit. 

Dale Johnson: That’s so good and I hope that’s an encouragement because—I’ll just say one brief thing about that—you’re right, we could go into a whole different podcast. One brief thing about that is, so many pastors who agree with us about the text, they believe in expositional preaching, but they hear the idea of biblical counseling and it makes them nervous. Like, you mean, I’m the one? How am I going to study the text in my 20, 30 hours a week and then do all this counseling. What you just described is one of the critical points, to say you don’t have to engage in every aspect of counseling, right? You engage and then you can empower other leaders to now walk alongside those folks, but it gets you engaged in the ministry on that level and that does change the way in which you preach as well. And then you’re multiplying yourself in that process and so it actually divides the workload, to be honest, appropriately in the way that we see happening in Scripture.

This is encouraging to me, I think for us to just think about the beauty of preaching because, when I talk about counseling ministry, some people may get the impression that we’re denouncing or, bringing preaching, the proclamation of the Word on a Sunday morning as being central down. Please, never ever, ever hear that. I love the way that you just described that as you are called to preach the Word, but also shepherd the flock and what it means to be a pastor. Let’s think about that in its full-orbed expression, the way that the Bible describes it and highlight both where it’s appropriate. This has been great, Rick. I’ve appreciated this and I know so many of our pastors are going to be encouraged by our discussion here.

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