Preaching is important because it is the process through which God has chosen to convey the grace of Christ to the world (Romans 10:10-13). Any Christian should share the truth of the gospel with his neighbors and friends (Matthew 28:18-20; Matthew 5:13; Mark 16:15-16), but some take the opportunity to preach full-time, as Paul and Timothy did (2 Timothy 4:5).
I love to preach and, being a fourth-generation preacher, have always been impressed by the significance of preaching. I am also sensitive to the ways in which people take stock of themselves and decide to become preachers. As I was growing up, my father encouraged me to develop my skills in a variety of areas including those that would help me to be a good preacher, but did not pressure me to take up the preaching profession. I knew that my parents would be satisfied as long as I was a faithful Christian. The idea has always been that I would use whatever talents I have to promote the kingdom in the best possible way.
Now, as I try to finish school and decide what to do, I recall being told on a number of occasions by those who had been trained to preach, or who were training preachers, that a person should preach only if he couldn’t do anything else. As a youngster, I would hear something like this and think, “No fair. I might grow up to be able to do a bunch of things, and still pick preaching.” I have now reflected on this advice a bit more. The advice was probably a misguided effort to elevate the desire to preach by using a pithy but unclear statement. Leaving this aside, there are two logical possibilities as to what the advice meant:
First, the advice urging me to preach only if I couldn’t do anything else might have meant that I should preach only if I couldn’t find other work. This could not have been the intended message, because its implication would be that those who are qualified to preach are probably qualified to do little else. It is implausible that this meaning was intended, because (1) The advice I received was not intended to urge general incompetence; and (2) Good preachers I know are generally good at other things, too.
Second, the advice urging me to preach only if I couldn’t do anything else might have meant something like this: I should preach only if I would not be happy doing anything else, because the preaching life will be really hard. After all, Paul told Timothy to be ready to endure suffering (2 Timothy 4:5). And Jeremiah preached because he had “a burning fire” deep within him, which he could not contain (Jeremiah 20:9).
We should not offer the advice to “preach only if you can’t do anything else” in this second sense, because it is misleading. Remember that all Christians are to be ready to endure suffering (2 Timothy 3:12; Revelation 2:10), although my experience suggests that the preaching life is in large measure pleasant and less stressful than other kinds of lives. We do not want to unnecessarily frighten young men from starting their preaching lives on the false basis that the the preaching life is miserable. We also send the wrong message if we imply that Jeremiah’s example applies to only a subset of Christians in their desire to share the gospel.
So, let me suggest a possibly more constructive (if less flowery) account of the mindset that ought to lead one to a career in preaching: Preach full-time if (1) you are competent at it or can be with training (Acts 18:24-28); (2) you are needed in some location (cf. Acts 16:9); (3) you understand why preaching is important (1 Corinthians 1:18). Your capabilities in other fields, and the possibility that you could lead a happy life in other fields, should not deter your desire to preach. Instead, use a liberal education and a wide array of interests to enhance your ministry.
One example from my own experience to support this last point. I have a great interest in sports, am a former sports writer, and have considered a career in sports journalism. Although I have (for now) decided against pursuing a full-time sports job, I still think about sports regularly and could be reasonably happy writing about sports for the rest of my life. I have been pleasantly surprised at what a help this interest of mine has been in ministry. Sports has helped me to relate to people in various contexts, and has provided sermon and article ideas. I may never make another dime as a sports writer, but my love for sports will always be an asset as I preach. The fact that I love something enough that I could do it all the time is a help, not a hindrance. This illustration applies generally to human interests. Better preachers are well-rounded, and well-rounded people are those who could be happy doing any number of things.