I wrote an article on preaching the other day. After finishing the last sentence I did what most of us bloggers do—I went searching for a picture to attach to the article. I went to my Google machine and searched the images for preaching. Though I’ve done this search numerous times, I noticed something on this I’d never noticed before. Most of the pictures were headless. Just a few arms holding a book and gesturing with their hands.
I thought to myself, “Wow, Google gets something that we preachers often fail to recognize—preaching isn’t about the preacher, it’s about the book he is holding in his hands.” But then I paused for a moment and wondered whether or not this is actually a biblical concept. Is preaching headless?
Is Preaching Headless?
My mind immediately went to Paul’s discussion of his ministry in his various letters. He didn’t seem to be headless. On more than one occasion he encouraged his readers to imitate him. To the Thessalonians he said, “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves…” That certainly isn’t without a face. Furthermore, Paul told his young protégés Timothy and Titus to not only watch out for their doctrine but also their lifestyle. If the preacher is just a headless entity expositing a book then his lifestyle doesn’t matter. The preacher is more than a mouthpiece.
There is also something to be said about personality and giftedness. There is a reason why in the qualifications for elders we read “able to teach.” Some aren’t gifted for standing in front of a congregation and expositing God’s Word. You need to be called by God and gifted for that work. There really is a personality to preaching. When I go to Together for the Gospel, most of the guys on the stage believe about the same exact thing about the text—but their delivery is wildly different. Piper isn’t MacArthur. In one sense it is absolutely impossible for preaching to be faceless.
I’m convinced James Denney was also correct when he said, “No man can give at one and the same time the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.” We don’t need more personality and celebrity in the pulpit, we need less. The best ministries are the ones in which the word of God is the only celebrity. Pastors are mere men, disciples like the rest of the congregation. The sooner we realize this the better.
I say something every Sunday as a reminder to myself and to the congregation. I spend a bit of time introducing the scripture passage and then I encourage the congregation to stand. As they stand I explain the reason. And I end by saying something like, “Because we believe this is God’s infallible word spoken to us, these will be the most important words you hear out of my mouth this morning.” My job is to exposit that word and to say, “Thus says the Lord…” That is where every ounce of my authority comes from. So in that regard preaching is indeed headless.
We do best when we follow in the footsteps of those like Robert Murray McCheyne who said, “Perish my honor.” Or to heed the counsel of Martin Lloyd-Jones:
‘What is the rule then? It is: Be natural; forget yourself; be so absorbed in what you are doing and in the realisation of the presence of God…that you forget yourself completely. That is the right condition. That is the only place of safety. That is the only way in which you can honour God. Self is the greatest enemy of the preacher, more so than in the case of any other man in society. And the only way to deal with self is to be so taken up with, and so enraptured by, the glory of what you are doing, that you forget yourself altogether.’ (Preaching and Preachers, 264)
I realize the irony in quoting men to make the point that preaching is headless. That really shows the difficulty of this whole thing. In one sense we’re absolute fools to not pursue being headless preachers, but in another sense we’re foolish if we think that we can and should be headless. So what’s my answer?
We should be mostly headless preachers but not headless pastors. The pastor steps into the pulpit and somewhere along the way there is a moment when he exponentially decreases while the Word increases. It’s those sweet moments when not only the preacher forgets himself but so does the congregation. In those moments the headless pastor gets replaced by the church’s true Head.
This isn’t perfect, because the Word is always the celebrity whether in the pulpit or not. But it serves as a reminder to me that the most public moment of my ministry is meant to be headless, the whole time I’m meant to be pointing to another. And it also serves to remind me that even though my task is still the same (pointing to another) our people don’t need an unknown preacher-dude theologizing over their dead family member. They need a face.
It’s maybe a bit overly simplistic, but for the most part preaching should be headless but pastoring shouldn’t. (And if you do a google image search for pastor I think you’ll see that Google agrees).
This article originally appeared here.