The confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches are facing a challenge that I have not seen since I first joined St John Reformed Church over 40 years ago: a shortage of pastors. For decades, there have been more candidates for ministry than there have been open pulpits. In business terms, it has been a buyer’s market. Now, for a variety of reasons to be explored below, the situation is reversed, and it is a seller’s market. The visible, institutional church needs gifted young men (and older men) to prayerfully consider their calling in this world.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:15–20).
The rock on which Christ is building his church is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. The institution to which he committed that message is his visible church. He gave to her the keys of the Kingdom of God. Keys do two things: they admit and they exclude. When I come home, I use a key to get into my house. That key admits me to the house. Once I am inside, however, I use that key to exclude others from entering the house. So it is in the visible church.
In the Heidelberg Catechism we explain this passage this way:
83. What is the Office of the Keys?
The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.
84. How is the Kingdom of Heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?
In this way: that according to the command of Christ, it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted. According to this testimony of the Gospel, God will judge men both in this life and in that which is to come.
85. How is the Kingdom of Heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?
In this way: that according to the command of Christ, if any under Christian name show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life, and after several brotherly admonitions do not turn from their errors or evil ways, they are complained of to the Church or to its proper officers; and, if they neglect to hear them also, are by them denied the Holy Sacraments and thereby excluded from the Christian Communion, and by God Himself from the Kingdom of Christ; and if they promise and show real amendment, they are again received as members of Christ and His Church.
Our Lord himself instituted the key of church discipline in Matthew 18. In Romans 10 the Apostle Paul explained the way that the Holy Spirit uses the public preaching of the gospel to bring his elect into the Kingdom of God:
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:12–17).
This is the ministry of the key of admission to the Kingdom and, remarkably, the Lord Christ has ordained to use sinful men to administer this key. The Lord is free to use other means (informal witnessing, a revival preacher, etc.), but the act to which Paul attached promise is the official, authoritative proclamation of the gospel. That is the act in which God reveals himself as ordaining to the admission of his elect to the Kingdom.
Years ago I read a piece by a ministerial friend, with whom I disagreed on several topics, saying that preaching the gospel is the most important task in the world. At the time I took it as a self-justifying boast. I was wrong. He was right. It is the most important thing a man can do in this life.
This is not to say that everyone should leave his vocation and become a preacher. There are many good vocations, and Christians are duty bound to discover their vocation in this life (which may not be your passion or your heart—we are talking about vocation, which is sometimes another thing) and to fulfill it to the glory of God and the welfare of their neighbor. HVAC repairmen should repair HVAC units to the best of their ability.
There is a difference, however, between the HVAC repairman and the preacher. The HVAC man (or woman) provides a real service (especially in August, in the desert) but good heating and cooling only helps in this life. The preacher should preach to the glory of God and the salvation of their neighbors. God has not attached any promise of salvation to the work of the HVAC repairman. It is good and honorable secular work. The preaching of the gospel is good and honorable sacred work with eternal consequences.
How will the elect hear if there is no preacher? How indeed! How will the elect come to faith unless there is someone to preach? How will the elect come to faith if no preacher is sent? Those were not theoretical questions for the Apostle Paul, and they are entirely practical for us too. The fields are white for harvest (John 4:35)—that is, the heads of grain are mature. A wheat farmer needs to bring in the harvest before the weather turns and he loses his crop. For preachers, the harvest is always white because God always has his elect. We do not know who is or is not elect, so we preach the good news to all, and we call all to turn to Christ. The Holy Spirit brings the harvest, but he uses preacher-farmers to do it.
The church has a divine commission. We call it the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19‐20). The commission was given explicitly and implicitly to the visible, institutional church. Christ gave the commission to his disciples. They were de facto officers in his church and, after Pentecost, they became de iure officers. They were specifically charged with carrying out the commission to preach, to baptize, and to disciple.
A potential candidate for ministry should not comfort himself with the notion that the commission belongs to all Christians, lay and ordained alike. There is precious little evidence in the New Testament for lay evangelism. There is some evidence for lay witness (i.e., we have a few examples of lay witness). The man born blind in John 9 is a strong example of lay witness but the vast majority of the proclamation of the gospel in the New Testament is done by ordained officers—that is, apostles and the ministers they ordained.
Thus, for the Great Commission to continue to be fulfilled, for the gospel to be preached, for converts (and their children) to be baptized, and for disciples to be made, there must be preachers. For churches to be planted, for the lost to be reached, and for the reached to be taught, there must be ministers. They are essential to the work of the Kingdom of God.
Most of the USA is unchurched and thus, we may surmise, unconverted. The ancient Christian maxim rings true: “Outside the church there is no salvation” (reflected in Belgic Confession article 28). Probably less than 10% of Americans attend church weekly. In how many of those churches are the law and the gospel even being preached? One shudders to think of it. There are great stretches in this country, both urban and rural, where there is no gospel witness. There are millions in the USA, let alone across the globe, who know nothing of Christ and free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.
Now, we seem to be facing a shortage of ministers, and yet the need for them is as a great as it has ever been. In a sense, this is not a new situation for the P&R churches. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the greatest crises faced by the Reformed churches across Europe and in the British Isles, was the crying need for ministers. Schools in Geneva, Leiden, and elsewhere did their best but they were small, underfunded, and understaffed. Further, many of the men sent from Geneva to France were quickly martyred for the gospel. In the New World, the Presbyterian and Reformed churches were persistently short of ministers in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Only as we were able to establish seminaries to prepare ministers did the crisis begin to ease.
Today, however, there is a difference. We have the seminaries but where are the students? The answer to this is complex. Part of the answer is economic. P&R churches have always believed in an educated ministry, but never before has the cost of an undergraduate education been so unreasonably high and so potentially useless (particularly in the publicly funded schools) as it is today. Further, there is evidence to suggest that young men in the USA are becoming increasingly reluctant to subject themselves to Maoist struggle sessions in university. More than that, there is evidence that young people who once might have gone into ministry are heading to different vocations because they do not see the value of pastoral ministry.
P&R people need to think strategically about how to help future pastors deal with the intellectual and fiscal crisis created by the post-secondary education business. We need to plan for ways to send our future ministers to those schools that are actually capable of giving them the tools they need to succeed in seminary and beyond.
We also need to be prayerful and wise in strengthening those seminaries that are best equipped to prepare pastors to meet faithfully the challenges of this age. It is a wonderful thing to help evangelicals to discover the Reformed confession. That is one of the missions of the Heidelberg Reformation Association and we are, as they say, here for it. We also need, however, the churches to send us young men who have learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism, who have a good education, and who will thrive in the seminary and hit the ground running. A young man coming out of Calvary Chapel—again, we love to see it—will need to spend a few years in a Reformed church as well as educational preparation before he is ready to be called to a P&R congregation.
The elect, the wheat amidst the tares, are waiting. The Spirit is going to call them to faith, why should it not be you, dear reader, whom the Spirit uses?
Responding To The Call
Let us say that you have been considering this very issue and have been struggling with a sense of call to pastoral ministry. Elsewhere I have sketched how one knows he is called to pastoral ministry. But briefly, there are two aspects to the call—internal and external. A person who is sensing the internal call (i.e., a desire to preach and teach, or at least to investigate whether he may have the gifts) may well be called. That call must be confirmed by the visible church.
If you are reading this, you may be struggling with a sense of call or you may know someone who is. There are real obstacles. Sometimes it means leaving a career, uprooting a family, and relocating to seminary. Going back to school can be a challenge. Old skills have to be honed again and this time, perhaps, with a family. There are other kinds of challenges—for example, financial, personal, and even spiritual.
Seminary is not easy. It is not meant to be. Ministry is not easy. It is not meant to be. Few things, however, are as rewarding as opening the Word of Life and feeding God’s flock and seeing the lost coming to the Savior. God is sufficient. His grace is sufficient for your needs. His provision is wise, wide, and greater than you or I can imagine. I am constantly amazed at the way God provides for those he sends to our school. I am astonished at the level of commitment shown by our students. It is deeply encouraging.
When God calls, one dare not send it to voicemail. Men do postpone their response, and sometimes I have seen them postpone so long that they missed their opportunity to participate in the harvest. It was in the providence of God, but we only know that after the fact. In the moment, they were distracted from their sense of call by other, legitimate perhaps, concerns. Sometimes the called delay and then respond. Increased maturity and focus are always good things, and yet there is something to be said for youthful energy too.
If the church is speaking to you about your gifts, and if you have a nagging sense that you should be doing something else, something more, something directly for the Kingdom of God, you may be called to pastoral ministry. Investigate that call. Talk to your pastor and pursue it to see where it leads.
Finally, consistories and sessions need to be more deliberate about finding and sending into ministry gifted young men. For too long in the modern period, churches have taken a laissez-faire approach to candidacy for the ministry. I am calling for ruling elders and pastors to be more detective, deliberate, and directive. Sometimes young men discover, on their own, that they might be called to ministry, but sometimes a tap on the shoulder by the church can be very powerful indeed. The process of external call need not wait until after the young man (or second-career candidate) has approached a session or consistory.
Parents, have you bright, spiritually and intellectually gifted sons? The temptation of our age is to steer them toward STEM, the law, or business, but what about pastoral ministry? What higher calling could your son have? What more glorious work could he do than sit with the dying as they enter the arms of Jesus or stand in a pulpit and proclaim the good news to the living?
Our present moment is an opportunity to refocus on the divine vocation of the church and the divine vocation of her ministers. The collapse of a civilization has always presented such opportunities and ours is no exception. People are seeking for meaning and transcendent truth, and we have the riches of God in our hands and in our mouths.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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