Don’t Feed the Play-Preachers
September 20, 2022

There’s a rule of on-line life: don’t feed the trolls. There’s a kind of person on social media who is desperate for attention and so provokes arguments just so he can be at the center of the fray. He’s called a “troll.” The common advice: don’t feed the trolls. Don’t interact with them; don’t give them the attention they crave. Just ignore them. Here in the rural and small-town Bible belt we have a similar kind of person: the play-preacher. The play-preacher wants to be the speaker, with all eyes turned to him, issuing forth the word, regardless of whether he has a gift for it, or has given his life for it, or that is what the church needs. He’s playing at what true pastors give their life for. What’s the pastor’s vocation is his hobby. My advice: don’t feed the play-preacher. Don’t give him a microphone, don’t sit through his sermonizing, don’t go to his performances.

How can you tell a play-preacher from a real one? First, play-preachers won’t sacrifice years of their life preparing to be a true pastor. They won’t study. The typical degree for pastors, the Masters of Divinity, takes at least three years of full-time work. They are seeking to do their “best to present [themselves] to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). It’s not that seminary qualifies one to be a pastor; it’s that qualified pastors seek out the training. It’s one of the signs of a truly called pastor. Play-preachers might study a few hours before a message in order to avoid looking silly but they won’t invest their life to be quality workmen with scripture. So, don’t you invest an hour of your time on Sunday morning listening to him.

Second, play-preachers aren’t sent by a church. Real pastors are. In Acts 13:1-3, the church sees that Paul and Barnabas are gifted and sets them apart, blesses them, to be missionaries. The church sends them. The play-preacher has an itch to be the big man in church and so goes off, on his own, looking for an audience. One Sunday School teacher didn’t like something the pastor did and so led his Sunday School class away to start his own “church.” He wasn’t sent by his church. He undermined it. The true pastor preaches because he wants to feed Christ’s sheep. The play-preacher does it because he wants to feed his ego.

Third, play-preachers have no sense of the church as a Body with different parts each of which, including them, needs to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21.) The play-preacher sees the church as a stage and he wants to be the star. He doesn’t ask how can he serve his church. He asks how can he get up front. Preaching, he says, is what gives him the most satisfaction, never mind that his preaching doesn’t satisfy the church. Like a kid, he wants to play and doesn’t think about what the people in front of him really need. The church needs help, a deacon serving, faithful members. But the play-preacher can only think of his need to be somebody and so will wander off looking for a pulpit to play in. Don’t give it to him.

Neil had a gift for one-on-one evangelism. He was also his own handyman. He could have made an excellent deacon, helped staff evangelistic programs while engaging youth personally, sharing the gospel, and keeping the building and equipment maintained. But he thought he could be a preacher. We’re supposed to “think with sober judgement” about the gifts we have and where they fit into the body (Romans 12:3.) Too many men in “the old-time-religion” are intoxicated with dreams of being a preacher. Neil should have thought soberly about his gifts and about the church being a body, not a theater. His public speaking gifts were so lacking that when asked to give a simple announcement about the prayer meeting being canceled, listeners were baffled at what he had said. He couldn’t preach, even after numerous opportunities before a captive audience of youth. That’s okay. Most of us aren’t called to preach. We have other gifts to serve the body. Neil had plenty. But in the “old wine” of the old-time-religion, preaching is the intoxicant of choice. There’s not a body with many parts. Everyone wants to be a mouth (1 Cor. 12:14-20.) Like a theater, there’s only an audience, actors and some peons – like ushers, stage hands – who desperately want to be actors. So, when Neil saw that he wasn’t going to get to use his non-existent preaching gifts, he left his church to play preacher wherever he could find a gig. He needs to sober up. My mistake: I fed the play-preacher too much. I had hoped he would either grow in competence, as even gifted preachers often begin mediocre, or soberly realize that he’s not called to preach and choose to use his gifts for the needs of the body. Neither happened. Overfed player-preachers become self-indulgent.

There are two kinds of play-preachers: those who should stop preaching and those who should stop playing. One sure sign of a play-preacher who should stop preaching is that he can’t preach. Like a transgender propagandist, he’ll suggest that his lack of preaching ability should be ignored in favor of his claim that deep inside he feels like a preacher. He’s a preacher, he says, trapped in a non-preacher’s lack of talent. But the lack of talent is proof that he’s not called to preach. The Puritan William Perkins wrote, “Whom God calls, to them He gives competent and convenient gifts, or knowledge,  understanding, dexterity to this or that, and such like; and thereby makes them able for the performance of the duties of their callings.” In other words, God equips the called. Perkins continues, “Contrariwise, they that enter into any calling being utterly unable to perform the duties thereof, were never called of God.” That is, if God hasn’t equipped you — with the needed skill — He hasn’t called you. Applied to preaching, someone who lacks effective public speaking abilities can be discouraged from ministries which require frequent preaching. Their lack of skill to preach (even after given opportunities to develop) shows a lack of a call to preach. Calling is not merely a mystical experience subjectively in my soul, individually, determined only by how I feel. It is demonstrable, verifiable and subject to the body. If a self-identified preacher can’t preach, the church should tell him to stop preaching.

The other kind needs to stop playing. He has a gift for the gab which he can use to effectively preach. But he won’t spend his life for the work, first several years to prepare, then week-days given to exegesis and sermon-crafting; he wouldn’t think of relocating for it. He preaches with all the seriousness that other men give to golf. He might be so gifted an orator that he can deliver sermons week-after-week with aplomb and charm but because he’s still a play-preacher, he’s liable to parrot the doctrinal or pietistic fads of his day, like the pre-tribulation rapture. Dispensationalism has thrived mainly because of play-preachers.

There are real pastors. They need your support. If you are a Christian, you are called to give them “double honor” (1 Tim. 5:17-19) and follow them (Hebrews 13:17). You should have a shepherd in your life whom you heed. If you’ve been fooled by play-preachers dabbling in the ministry like it’s a hobby – some take up golf, some fishing, and some preaching – don’t think they’re all like that. I joke that half the men in my Southern county think they’re preachers. The tragedy is that few of them are real ones. But don’t let the players turn you off from the authentic. Go find a genuine pastor and, like Aaron and Joshua held up Moses’ hands, help him.

John B. Carpenter, Ph.D., is pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, in Danville, VA. and the author of Seven Pillars of a Biblical Church (2022).

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