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Never Preach to One Person

When I first entered the pastorate I told myself never to preach to any one person in the congregation, and it seems like Providence confirmed this decision time and time again. I would be in the throes of my weekly sermon preparation and as my message would develop, I would begin to think, “Oh! This is a perfect message for so-and-so—they’ve been struggling with this particular problem, and this is precisely what he needs to hear.” Without fail, if such a thought crossed my mind it seemed to be an inviolable rule of the universe that the person would not be in church on Sunday.

After having this happen several times in my first two years of ministry, I picked up the phone and called a colleague to vent about my frustration. He chuckled and noted that the same thing frequently happened to him. But he also told me, “Don’t think that Sunday is when people are sanctified. Be prepared for a lifetime of ministry to your congregation, one where you will see them struggle with certain sins and shortcomings for years. Be prepared to labor at great lengths and be long-suffering. Over time, you will see Christ sanctify his people. It just probably won’t happen in one day because of one sermon.”Be prepared to labor at great lengths and be long-suffering. Over time, you will see Christ sanctify his people. It just probably won’t happen in one day because of one sermon. Click To Tweet

My colleague’s point was not to sit idly by as people wallowed in gross sin—of course not. There are necessary steps for the minister in such circumstances, such as church discipline. However, he was telling me that people might struggle with, for example, a lack of assurance, for years. Was I prepared to preach, in season and out, and wait upon Christ? This is something that I regularly prayed for—patience. I had to ask the Lord to give me the patience I needed to wait upon him so that he would sanctify people on his timetable and not my own. I noted the irony that in all of this, the Lord was sanctifying me—teaching me greater patience, long-suffering, and faith.

But the point still stands—never preach to one person in the congregation. The needs of one person, in my opinion, never outweigh those of the congregation. Preach the text that lies before you and think of the needs of your flock. If you decide to single out one individual (I’m not suggesting that a preacher would call out a name from the pulpit!), chances are you will leave the rest of the congregation behind. There is certainly a time when you leave the ninety-nine in pursuit of the lost sheep, but such action is best left for one-on-one counseling, when you can be direct but not give the impression that you’re out trying to embarrass someone publicly.

Preaching can be funny in that, if you preach the text, sometimes you’ll be surprised at the results. You may think that one person needs to hear its convicting message but then be shocked at what other people will say to you after the service. In other words, never forget that the ultimate application of your message is performed by the work of the Spirit, he who moves about like the wind, and whose activity cannot be predicted. In this respect it is a great relief that the efficacy of your message rests upon the Spirit of God.

This post was originally published on Dr. Fesko’s blog

J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS Jackson. He has been an ordained minister since 1998 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a church planter, pastor, and now teacher. Dr. Fesko has authored or edited more than twenty books including Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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