It’s Lay Preachers’ Sunday this weekend (August 5, 2018). And a good time to remember the wonderful ministries of these local leaders all across the continent. In the Uniting Church, more than half of the messages preached this week will be delivered by Lay Preachers – men and women, experienced and just starting out, young and old. Many, many congregations would struggle to keep meeting if it weren’t for the work of Lay Preachers.
The Back Story
There were Lay Preachers in each of the three denominations that formed the Uniting Church – Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian – but it was especially from Methodism that the UCA inherited an order of accredited Lay Preachers.
The Methodist movement always had a central role for the laity in the leadership and outreach of the church and, especially, in preaching. In fact organised lay preaching was an innovation of Wesleyan Methodism – and a controversial one at that.
Early in 1741 John Wesley left his London congregation for a time to visit his Bristol congregation. While he was away he left the congregation in the pastoral oversight of one of the lay leaders, Thomas Maxfield. In Wesley’s absence, Maxfield took to preaching. This was an outrageous thing for the time. Preaching, like administering the sacraments, was strictly reserved for educated, professional, ordained ministers.
When Wesley found out he rushed back to London to put a stop to this scandalous activity. But his mother, Susannah, stopped him, telling him, “Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching and hear him yourself.” In her opinion Maxfield “is as truly called of God to preach as you are.” Other leaders in the congregation thought the same thing, and Wesley took their advice. Soon lay preachers were very active throughout the movement, and Wesley’s real challenge was how to equip, support and oversee the God-given ministries of these volunteer preachers.
Historically, the spread and growth of Methodism has been led by lay preachers – moving into new areas, planting congregations and developing them to a stage where they need the full-time attention of an ordained minister. This was the story across Australia from the time of colonization right up to the time of union.
Lay Preaching in the Basis of Union
Lay Preachers are introduced in paragraph 14 of the Basis of Union as a specified ministry:
[The Uniting Church] will seek to recognise those endowed with the gift of the Spirit for this task, will provide for their training, and will gladly wait upon the fuller understanding of the obedience of Christians which should flow from their ministry. (Paragraph 14(d) )
This is the only place in the Basis of Union where the adjective “lay” is used, and the brief description of the lay preachers’ ministry it provides shows that the adjective is being stressed. These preachers are exactly lay preachers – the church “gladly waits” to hear about “the obedience of Christians” in their preaching.
I wouldn’t want to make too much of a contrast between the preaching of Deacons and ministers of the Word on the one hand and the preaching of Lay Preachers on the other. But there is a difference in emphasis between them.
The Basis of Union requires Ministers to preach from the Scriptures: to preach a message “controlled by the Biblical witnesses”. They are also committed to “careful study” of the creeds and to “the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age”, and are required to study the historic confessional documents mentioned in the Basis so that the people may be reminded of “the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality…of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture”. (Paragraphs 5, 9 and 10).
There’s an emphasis here on the announcement of the given message in the preaching of Ministers. But when the Basis spoke of the preaching of Lay Preachers, the emphasis was placed on their witness to what it means to hear and put into practice that given message. So, the Lay Preacher offers a “fuller understanding of the obedience of Christians”: the witness of what it means to hear and put into practice the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of course, a Lay Preacher must also preach a message from the Scriptures, interpreted in a broadly orthodox way, and a message which communicates the news of justifying grace, of Christ the justifier and of the need for “a constant appeal” to Scripture. That’s why the Uniting Church provides training opportunities for Lay Preachers. But the distinctive gift of the Lay Preacher is to preach the message in a way that announces what “the obedience of Christians”, the reception and living out of the given message, really means.
With this understanding it makes perfect sense that Ministers will regularly sit in the congregation with the other members while the Lay Preacher delivers the message. The Lay Preacher does not primarily serve as a stand in when there’s no Minister, but has a distinctive service to perform. Equipped “with the gift of the Spirit for this task”, and appropriately trained, the Lay Preacher’s ministry is one upon which the church will “gladly wait”. And the Minister will wait as gladly as any other member.
Anyway, the main thing I wanted to say is thanks. Thanks to Lay Preachers everywhere, and to God who has called and equipped you for this important ministry in the church.