“Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of him, nor speak anymore in his name.’ But his word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not” (Jeremiah 20:9).
We are hearing more and more about a preacher shortage in the church. Empty pews and empty pulpits have become common in the post-Covid era, but we were losing more preachers than we were gaining long before 2020. Church reactions to the pandemic just made the problem worse.
There are many reasons for this situation. Preachers retire, resign due to health problems and die. Some grow discouraged and quit preaching. Others resign because of the stress on their wife and children. Some leave the pulpit for better pay and more job security in another line of work. Some decide to preach in a denominational or “non-denominational” church and others leave the faith for a life of sin with no pretense of religion. As a result, many churches are scrambling to find a preacher.
The other side of this coin is a decline in producing preachers. Fewer young men are deciding to preach, especially on a full-time basis. Part of the problem is the lack of encouragement to preach. Not many Christian parents encourage their sons to preach the gospel. They may have seen preachers mistreated or they may simply have worldly aspirations for them. Congregations have also fallen short. Young men’s training classes used to be common in churches, but many congregations no longer have them. Older Christians, both men and women, once told young boys, “You could be a preacher!” Now they almost seem afraid to mention the idea. Then there are the schools. Enrollment in preacher training schools has been declining for years. The number of college Bible majors who plan to preach is also low.
There is an upside to this situation. For one thing, many congregations are turning to men in their own number to find preachers. These men share the responsibilities of preaching. Churches are being pressed by circumstances to rely more on their own resources and talents instead of depending so much on the preacher they have hired. This arrangement does not always work well or last, but when it does it definitely has advantages. One brother called a few years ago. The church he attended had no particular man they called the preacher, but they were looking for one. When I asked him what they were doing in the meantime, he said that several men in the congregation were preaching and that the church was doing very well. I told him that if some of the old restoration preachers were alive they would say this is an ideal situation! These cases are rare, but this instance shows that it can happen.
A more common solution to the full-time preacher shortage at least is to have a part-time preacher who is a “tent maker” like the apostle Paul was at Corinth. This means he has another job to earn an income and is not totally dependent upon the church. As churches become smaller and less able to pay a full-time salary, this will become more of a trend. While a preacher in this position may not have the time that a full-time preacher has to study, visit, and evangelize, he can still do a great work. In fact, he may do more than some full-time preachers. In the August 17, 1899 issue of the Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb wrote a stinging rebuke of wealthy churches who were hiring a preacher to do the work they should have been doing, especially in the area of evangelism. He said, “A dozen men in Nashville who work for a daily living for themselves and their families have done more to spread the gospel and convert sinners in the city than its wealthy churches composed of hundreds of members and worth millions of dollars.” To be fair, there are full-time preachers who do their work well. But there are many others like Lipscomb described who, though not as educated, well-paid or popular as other preachers, have accomplished great good in the kingdom.
Our shortage of preachers is part of a broader pattern stemming from a deeper condition. We have trouble getting men to preach for the same reason that we have problems getting Christians to be Bible class teachers, elders, deacons, song leaders, and dedicated Christians in general. Our age is one of the great apostasy and worldliness. In too many cases Christians “are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).
Years ago older preachers would say to young men who showed an interest in preaching, “If you can do anything else, don’t preach.” The first time I heard that advice I was confused. Later I realized what they meant: preach only if you have a burning desire that will not let you be satisfied doing anything else. That is the only real way a preacher shortage can be fixed. A man must have a burning passion to proclaim God’s word. What influences combine to produce that fervent desire is somewhat of a mystery. Childhood influences and experiences, the example and exhortation of godly men and women, and the hardships of life coming from the outside combined with faith on the inside can light a fire in a man’s soul that is not easily extinguished.
Jesus said we should pray that God will raise up men like this to send into the fields. “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). In light of all the articles, seminars, classes and books on this subject, we need to get back to these simple Bible basics.
– Kerry Duke