The Preacher, the Counselor, and the Congregation

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At University Reformed Church, one of our firm convictions is that the ministry of the preacher and the ministry of the counselor are not different kinds of ministry, but rather the same ministry given in different ways in different settings. Both are fundamentally, thoroughly, and unapologetically Word ministries. One may be more proclamation and monologue, and the other more conversational and dialogue, but the variation in approach and context does not undermine their shared belief in the power of the Word of God to do the work of God in the people of God. What shapes our understanding of pulpit ministry is a strong confidence in the necessity, sufficiency, authority, and relevance of God’s Word. The same confidence shapes our understanding of counseling ministry.

 The Word of God is necessary. We cannot truly know God or know ourselves unless God speaks. While Christians can learn from the insights of those blessed by common grace and those with gifts of reason and observation, the care of souls requires revelation from the Maker of souls. We preach and we counsel from the Scriptures not simply because they help us see a few good insights, but because they are the spectacles through which we must see everything.

The Word of God is sufficient. All we need for life and godliness, for salvation and sanctification has been given to us in the Bible. This doesn’t mean the Scriptures tell us everything we need to know about everything or that there is a verse somewhere in the Bible that names all our problems. The Bible is not exhaustive. But it is enough. We don’t have to turn away from God’s Word when we get to the really hard and messy stuff of life. The Bible has something to say to the self-loathing, the self-destructive, and the self-absorbed. We do not need to be afraid to preach and counsel from the Word of God into the darkest places of the human heart.

The Word of God is authoritative. The Christ who is Lord exercises His lordship by means of His Word. To reject His Word is to reject Him. In a day filled with sermonettes for Christianettes, we must not forget that what most distinguished Jesus’ preaching from that of the scribes and Pharisees was His authority. The Word gives definitive claims, issues obligatory commands, and makes life-changing promises. All three must be announced with authority. This authority may be spoken in a loud voice or a soft whisper, in a prayer or in a personal note, with an outstretched finger or an open embrace. Authority is not dependent on personality or one’s position within the church building. Authority comes from God’s Word, and the counselor no less than the preacher must bring this authority to bear on all those encountered, especially on those who swear allegiance to Christ.

God’s Word is relevant. Terms change. Science changes. Our experiences change. But the human predicament does not change, the divine remedy does not change, and the truth does not change. This makes the Word of God eternally relevant. Whatever work we can accomplish in the church apart from the Word of God is not the work that matters most. When it comes to matters of heaven and hell, matters of sin and salvation, matters of brokenness and healing, we are powerless in ourselves to effect any of the good change we want to see. This is why we must rely on the unchanging Word of God. If Christ is relevant—and what Christian would dare say He is not—then we can never ignore what He has to say to us. There is less wisdom in our new techniques than we think and more power in God’s Word than we imagine.

A Gospel-Tuned Tag Team

I love the partnership in the Word that I share with our Director of Counselor, Pat Quinn (not the current governor of Illinois!). It’s encouraging—and unfortunately rare in many churches—to know that what I preach on Sunday will be reinforced by our counseling ministry Monday through Saturday. I don’t have to worry that Pat will be working from a different foundation or pursuing a different cure. He’s far more gifted than I am at asking questions, assigning homework, leading Bible studies, and gently helping people apply the Word of God to their problems. But though he may be more skilled in his context, he doesn’t do anything substantially different from what I do in mine. He talks about faith, repentance, sin, salvation, the gospel, justification, lies, truth, forgiveness, promises, commands, communion with God, and union with Christ—all the same themes I expound from the pulpit week after week.

I’d like to think my preaching makes Pat’s counseling easier. He can build on what I teach, use what I preach, and remind people of last week’s sermons because when we both work from the Word, we end up saying the same things. I know I’ve become a better preacher knowing that Pat is such a good counselor. Hearing the questions he asks and the cases he’s working on helps me make sure that my message does not just aim for an announcement of truth, but also for the care of souls. It’s always more effective to preach with real people, real hurts, real struggles, and real temptations in view. Being involved in our counseling forces me to think how this week’s text speaks to a teenager with same-sex attraction, or to an older man struggling with bitterness, or to a young couple with no hope for their marriage, or to a confused wife who can’t stand her husband.

If my sermon’s don’t help with counseling, then I need to rework my approach to preaching. And if a church’s counseling is totally unlike, in substance and grounding, faithful expositional preaching, then the church’s counseling probably is something other than biblical. The preacher and the counselor working together, teaching the same truths from the same Bible to the same heart conditions, can be a powerfully gospel-tuned tag team.

Adapted from my contribution to the new book Scripture and Counseling: God’s Word for Life in a Broken World (eds. Bob Kellemen and Jeff Forrey).

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