Question: Where have all the great preachers gone?
Answer: They are where they have always been … few and far between.
This question/answer dialogue was given to a preaching class by Professor James Heflin when I was in seminary. Evangelism Professor Roy Fish said something similar when he remarked there was only one Elijah, not ten such men, when Elijah served as God’s prophet. The same was true of Martin Luther or Billy Graham. The point being that most preachers and servants of God are more ordinary in their gifting, and that’s the way it’s always been.
I have a concern that the 10-talented among God’s servants are not simply applauded for their ministry, but held up as the standard of what is laudable. It is counter-cultural to say this, but what the church needs today is more “reasonably-gifted” leaders who love God with all their hearts, love people, and who are able and willing to persevere in ministry. We need to bless and celebrate these servants of God. We need more pastors, not just better pastors. We need more witnesses for Christ, not simply better witnesses. We need more faithful financial stewards, not just a few who have more money to give.
Not that we shouldn’t bless and be grateful for the 10-talented, but they are few and far between and thus while we can learn from them, and be grateful for them, we should not consider them as “the” acceptable standard for ministry. For example, I’m grateful for the ministry of the mega-church, but they represent far less than half a percent of all churches. In addition, they are largely a modern phenomenon, mostly happening in the last 40 years, and quadrupling in the United States in the last 20 years. Are future church-attenders in the U.S. going to increasingly be found in the mega-church? I don’t know, maybe. But I do know that most places in the world where the church is growing it is doing so through a multiplication of small churches with reasonably-gifted leaders and a miracle-working God “who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). The church is growing in China, Cuba and throughout much of Africa through ordinary Jesus-loving people sharing the joy of God’s grace and mercy with neighbors who need a Savior and Lord.
Something else to consider is that most of the ministries that have experienced explosive growth have unique advantages not afforded to the average church or ministry leader. One ministry leader that has been held as an example of what’s possible has a dad who was a seminary professor and mega-church pastor. He’s also enjoyed strong support from another well-known mega-church pastor, including very significant funding, and this brief list doesn’t exhaust the unique advantages he has. I don’t recount this to diminish or demean what God has accomplished through him. I thank God for him. But it’s not helpful to the Kingdom to compare other church planters and pastors to a man who has a background and support that are unique.
Too many believe that to lead God’s people you have to know the systems, strategies, and best practices of the few who are “highly successful.” I disagree. To lead the people of God you must hear from God. To lead God’s people you must know His mind and heart. The men of God in the Bible not only knew God’s heart, they embodied His heart and mind. Certainly this was true of Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, not to mention Joseph, David, Paul and so many others. This isn’t to totally discount what we can learn from the 10-talented and “highly successful.” It is to say that most of God’s work is done by ordinary people who seek His heart and mind and obey Him. As Henry Blackaby used to remind us, “Look for where God is at work. Listen for His voice. Then join Him in His work” (paraphrase).
Remember, Elijah wasn’t the only person of God who didn’t bow before Baal. There were 7,000 others. They are nameless and faceless, but faithful too, even as was the one superstar among them, Elijah.