This interview is with my colleague Geoff Chang, about his new book Spurgeon the Pastor: Recovering a Biblical and Theological Vision for Ministry (B&H, 2022). Dr. Chang is Assistant Professor of Church History and Historical Theology and the Curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
[TK] What inspired you to write a book on Charles Spurgeon as a local church pastor?
[GC] When I was writing my doctoral dissertation at Midwestern Seminary, I wanted to focus on Spurgeon. One of my mentors encouraged me to look into his ecclesiology. I was struck by how little had been written on his pastoral ministry. Everyone recognized that Spurgeon was the pastor of the largest evangelical church in his day. But little attention had been given to how he pastored. As a local church pastor, I was interested in how he implemented things like church membership, discipline, the ordinances, leadership, and all the other challenges that pastors face today.
As it turns out, in my research into Spurgeon’s sermons, letters, magazine articles, church minute books, membership testimonies, and more, I discovered that Spurgeon had strong biblical and theological convictions on these church issues. Far from resorting to pragmatic solutions for pastoring his fast-growing church, Spurgeon stuck to his convictions even as the workload increased exponentially.
My book, then, is an attempt to present Spurgeon’s ecclesiological convictions and show how they influenced his pastoral ministry. I want to encourage pastors and church leaders by pointing to the faithfulness of another fellow pastor, even amid great challenges. So much of Spurgeon’s ministry was unique, and we would be foolish to try exactly to imitate him. But in his ecclesiological convictions, he is an example of faithfulness.
• How does the local church perspective change our view of Spurgeon, especially as compared to evangelists such as George Whitefield or Billy Graham?
The comparison between Spurgeon and George Whitefield is apt. Spurgeon admired Whitefield. In fact, in one of the volumes of Whitefield’s sermons located in the Spurgeon Library, he inscribed, “C. H. Spurgeon, who admires Whitefield as the chief of preachers.” When Spurgeon was 21, an American writer published a short biography of Spurgeon’s life entitled “The Modern Whitefield” In his open-air preaching, drawing crowds of thousands and tens of thousands, the awakening effect of his preaching… in all these things, and more, people saw something of Whitefield in Spurgeon.
But despite those similarities, Spurgeon’s rootedness in a local church was a significant departure from Whitefield (or Billy Graham, or other itinerant preachers). Spurgeon once said, “Christian labors, disconnected from the church, are like sowing and reaping without having any barn in which to store the fruits of the harvest; they are useful, but incomplete.” Spurgeon knew there was value in open-air preaching, evangelistic preaching tours, door-to-door evangelism, and other evangelistic efforts. But apart from bringing converts into the care of a local church, those efforts prove “incomplete.” We can rejoice in converts, but without membership in the local church, those converts remain hidden, undiscipled, and in disobedience to Christ’s commands.
Spurgeon had many invitations to preach all over the world, but he remained rooted in the local church throughout his life. Though he started many evangelistic and charitable organizations, they were all connected to the ministry of his local church. And the one institution that was dearest to him was The Pastors’ College (also a ministry of his church), which ultimately sought not only to train pastors but to plant and revitalize local churches. Especially as a Baptist, he connected all his evangelical convictions to the local church.
• What was the leadership structure in Spurgeon’s church? In particular, why did he adopt a plurality of elders, a system that was not common among English Baptists in the 19c?
When Spurgeon began pastoring in London in 1854, the church had a single pastor/elder plus deacon board model. This was workable while the church was only a few hundred, but they were soon overwhelmed by caring for all the people joining and the practical challenges that came with a growing church. Coming from the Reformed tradition, Spurgeon was familiar with a plurality of elders. More importantly, he saw clear evidence for that model in Scripture. But since it was uncommon among Baptists in his day, he didn’t force the change. Instead, he slowly began to teach on it. He would look for ways to incorporate application points about elders in his sermons and weave in Scripture readings from 1 Timothy 3 or Acts 20. Eventually, the congregation became convinced of the position and voted to establish a plurality of elders.
A plurality of elders made pastoral care, teaching, discipleship, church discipline, catechism, and a hundred other pastoral activities possible in a church of over 5,000. As Spurgeon invested in these lay elders, they multiplied Spurgeon’s gifts, so that the congregation could be equipped for the work of the ministry.
• What was distinctive about Spurgeon’s strategy for training new pastors?
Three things made the Pastors’ College particularly unique:
A singular focus of raising up pastors – Spurgeon was not interested in training people for scholarly vocations, even though some of his students did go on to teach in the academy. Rather, wanted to train local church pastors. Though many people applied to study with him, Spurgeon was selective in the students he accepted. Only those who gave clear evidence of a call to pastoral ministry would be admitted. For those who had such a call, the college would provide all the funds needed for their tuition and living expenses so that they might be equipped for pastoral ministry.
Second, rather than having his students sent away to a college to learn, Spurgeon wanted them immersed in a working church. So, in addition to their regular coursework, students lived with an elder’s or deacon’s family, attended all church services, prayer meetings, and congregational meetings, and were active in discipleship and evangelism.
Third, he created a network of like-minded pastors. Once students graduated from the College, they remained in touch with Spurgeon and with one another. The Sword & the Trowel, Spurgeon’s monthly magazine, provided a way for these pastors to encourage one another and stay up-to-date on the latest endeavors of this network. Once a year, all the graduates would return to the Metropolitan Tabernacle for the Pastors’ College Conference, a time of refreshment and edification.
• Your book is overall very positive about Spurgeon as a pastor, but like all pastors, he was not perfect. What’s the biggest caution you take away from his pastoral career?
There are a number of aspects of his ministry that I could critique, but that would require a separate article. As far as the biggest caution, perhaps what I would say is that Spurgeon took too much upon himself as pastor. Especially in the first ten years of his pastorate, Spurgeon basically tried to do it all: preaching, membership interviews, chairing congregational meetings, chairing elder meetings, and countless other responsibilities. His health eventually broke down, and he was forced to bring on his brother James as an associate pastor to help him.
Even after James arrived, Spurgeon would work to the very limits of his ability, making himself ill. Then he would require a sabbatical to recover and depend on his brother and his elders to take a bigger share in the leadership of the church. But even from sabbatical, Spurgeon would compose sermons for reading on Sunday mornings!
Sadly, Spurgeon died at the age of 57, and one contributing factor was certainly overwork. Spurgeon stands as a caution to pastors that there is always more work to be done. At some point we must entrust work to others and, even more, entrust the work to God. The church belongs to Him, and He will care for her.
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