So far in this series on pastoral character, we’ve considered the role of the pastor’s piety and the pastor’s holiness upon his ministry. Those articles have largely been cautionary, warning pastors against the particular temptations that come in ministry. But what should a pastor cultivate positively in order to grow in pastoral character? Spurgeon’s first answer would likely be the importance of cultivating communion with Christ, expressed in the pastor’s private prayer.
The Problem: Ministerialism
One of the greatest dangers that the minister faces is the danger of what Spurgeon calls formalism or officialism or ministerialism. Listen to his description:
The worst [snare a minister can face] is the temptation to ministerialism — the tendency to read our Bibles as ministers, to pray as ministers, to get into doing the whole of our religion as not ourselves personally, but only relatively concerned in it. To lose the personality of repentance and faith is a loss indeed…
I hate ministerialism, yet I often find it creeping upon me. One gets inside a pulpit, and begins to feel that he is not as other men are; but I like, if I can, to preach as a sinner to sinners; as one saved by grace to tell the love which Christ had towards me, the chief of sinners, and “less than the least of all saints.” I do not doubt that, as soon as you get out your little book to take with you, you feel like a missionary, and not simply like a sinner saved by grace. But, I pray you, do not feel like a missionary; feel like a sinner who has been washed in the precious blood of Jesus. You will never do good if you go to your work simply because of your office, [rather than] because of your soul being in it, because your heart yearns toward sinners, because you must have them saved. Strive not against any habits that are good; but against that evil tendency which, somehow or other, Satan, who is exceedingly crafty, manages to cast over our very best habits.
In other words, even as we pursue holiness and fight sin, we have to keep the gospel central. We have to cultivate a deep awareness and sorrow over our personal sin and the temptations of our hearts. We have to live in dependence on God’s grace in Christ. And then we speak as sinners saved by grace. This is how our holiness becomes warm and attractive.
Apart from our own personal grasp of the gospel, all our efforts at piety and holiness will become a stumbling block to our own sanctification and ministry. The strange thing is that people don’t always notice ministerialism in their pastor. The unspiritual people in the congregation won’t mind that their pastor doesn’t demonstrate any spiritual life before them. Even while the minister is just keeping up appearances, a church can have a growing budget and the congregation can be entertained. But in the end, as far as the pastor is concerned, it’s all external rituals and no spiritual life.
Spurgeon describes one such situation:
I read the other day, that no phase of evil presented so marvelous a power for destruction, as the unconverted minister of a parish, with a £1200 organ, a choir of ungodly singers, and an aristocratic congregation. It was the opinion of the writer, that there could be no greater instrument for damnation out of hell than that. People go to their place of worship and sit down comfortably, and think they must be Christians, when all the time all that their religion consists in, is listening to an orator, having their ears tickled with music, and perhaps their eyes amused with graceful action and fashionable manners; the whole being no better than what they hear and see at the opera — not so good, perhaps, in point of aesthetic beauty, and not an atom more spiritual. Thousands are congratulating themselves, and even blessing God that they are devout worshippers, when at the same time they are living in an unregenerate Christless state, having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. He who presides over a system which aims at nothing higher than formalism, is far more a servant of the devil than a minister of God.
May such words never be said of our ministries.
The Answer: Private Prayer
So what’s the solution? How do we fight against formalism? We fight by cultivating our private prayer lives, our communion with God. And Spurgeon particularly emphasizes prayer… Not just Bible reading, but prayer, i.e. communion with Christ. Prayer, as Calvin puts it, is our chief expression of faith. Prayer is how faith is manifested and expressed. If you don’t believe there is a God or that you need God, then you don’t pray. But if you do believe there is a God who hears, if you believe that you need Him, then the way you express that belief is through prayer.
As good evangelicals, we naturally emphasize the importance of Bible reading, and that’s exactly right. The Bible is where we hear from God. But we need to take all that Bible study and devote ourselves to prayer. Prayer is how we take all that Bible reading and turn it into communion with God, internalizing it and making it ours. And this is especially important for students to hear. Spurgeon wrote,
All that a college course can do, for a student is coarse and external compared with the spiritual and delicate refinement obtained by communion with God. While the unformed minister is revolving upon the wheel of preparation, prayer is the tool of the great potter by which he molds the vessel. All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets. We grow, we wax mighty, we prevail in private-prayer.
The closet is the best study. The commentators are good instructors, but the Author himself is far better, and prayer makes a direct appeal to him and enlists him in our cause. It is a great thing to pray one’s self into the spirit and marrow of a text; working into it by sacred feeding thereon, even as the worm bores its way into the kernel of the nut.
So pastors, teachers, devote time each day to studying God’s Word, for your own personal reading, for your sermon preparation, for Bible study… but always combine that reading with meditation and prayer. This is how you grow in piety. Reflect the truth of that passage back to God in prayer. Allow your Bible reading to be a means of communion with God, rather than merely putting together a lesson or a sermon. This is only possible through private prayer.
Of course, it’s not just in Bible study or for 30 minutes each morning. Rather the pastors’ life should be marked by prayer at every moment.
Whenever his mind turns to his work, whether he is in it or out of it, he sends out a petition, sending up his holy desires as well-directed arrows to the skies. He is not always in the act of prayer, but he lives in the spirit of it. If his heart be in his work, he cannot eat or drink, or take recreation, or go to his bed, or rise in the morning, without evermore feeling a fervency of desire, a weight of anxiety, and a simplicity of dependence upon God; thus, in one form or other he continues in prayer. If there be any man under heaven, who is compelled to carry out the precept — “Pray without ceasing,” surely it is the Christian minister.
Even as Spurgeon told his students this, he recognized his own deficiencies in this area. In fact, he said that he didn’t know of any minister, deacon, or elder who could say that he was “occupied with God in prayer to the full extent to which he might be” and he himself could make no such claim either. If you feel like you are lacking in your own prayer life, don’t lose heart. Let that be your starting point: confess this to God and pray for his help. And then begin taking steps so you can be in prayer more consistently.
These days, with podcasts, audiobooks, our smart devices, we’re losing more and more our opportunities for being quiet and being able to pray. There’s so much we fill our lives with, which means if we are to pray without ceasing, we have to intentionally make space for it. As pastors and teachers of God’s Word, this is how we grow mighty in the Spirit and in Christlikeness… by cultivating a life of prayer.
Apart from a life of prayer and communion with Christ, our ministry remains merely superficial.
The preacher who neglects to pray much must be very careless about his ministry. He cannot have comprehended his calling. He cannot have computed the value of a soul, or estimated the meaning of eternity. He must be a mere official, tempted into a pulpit because the piece of bread which belongs to the priest’s office is very necessary to him, or a detestable hypocrite who loves the praise of men, and cares not for the praise of God. He will surely become a mere superficial talker, best approved where grace is least valued and a vain show most admired. He cannot be one of those who plough deep and reap abundant harvests. He is a mere loiterer, not a laborer. As a preacher he has a name to live and is dead. He limps in his life like the lame man in the Proverbs, whose legs were not equal, for his praying is shorter than his preaching.
Even though we don’t have many insights into Spurgeon’s private prayer life, it’s clear that what he cultivated there flowed out into his public prayers. Spurgeon taught that public prayer was the most important part of the service, even more important than the sermon. Much of what takes place in the “worship service” is geared towards man, rather than God. But in prayer, we are reminded that we have gathered before Almighty God, to worship Him. As he preached in other churches, he often lamented how lacking these services were in prayer.
When Spurgeon led his congregation in prayer, many people noted how those occasions were more powerful and memorable than the sermon. One of his associates recorded,
Many times [Spurgeon] has testified that, when leading the great congregation in prayer, he has been so rapt in adoration, and so completely absorbed in the supplication or thanksgiving he has been presenting, that he has quite forgotten all his surroundings, and has felt even a measure of regret, upon closing his petition, and opening his eyes, to find that he was still in the flesh, in the company of men of like passions with himself, instead of being in the immediate presence of the Most High, sharing in the higher worship of the holy angels and the spirits of just men made perfect.
As one attendant wrote, “His prayer was greater to me than his sermon. In his sermon, he talked with men. In his prayer, he communed with God.” This was no formalism. His people’s hearts were warmed as they listened to and participated with their pastor as he communed with God in prayer. And this was only possible because Spurgeon cultivated a private prayer life, drawing near to Christ in prayer moment by moment.