Preachers and Preaching No. (XIV)

The Preacher Shortage

J. P. Needham
Louisville, Kentucky


A great deal has been said about a preacher shortage. This manifests a long-overdue concern. A great deal more needs to be said about it with a view to doing something about it. The vastness of the task of preaching the gospel to 3,100,000,000 people with our present meager force is staggering. It is estimated that there are 16,000 churches and 6,000 preachers. This includes liberals and conservatives, and both full and part-time preachers. In today's expanding world we need more and more preachers, not fewer and fewer. It is evident that this matter demands some very serious consideration. Let us study it from every angle.

I. It Is Not a New Phenomenon

Solomon said, "... there is no new thing under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9). We say, "History repeats itself." Jesus spoke of a shortage of reapers in Lk. 10:2, saying, "The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers into his harvest." Not only did Jesus speak of a preacher shortage, he told the disciples what to do about it: pray for reapers. The command to pray for more reapers certainly would involve more than just praying. It would also involve diligent effort to solve the problem.

II. The Scope of It

The preacher shortage is broad in scope, affecting practically every religious body in existence. Protestantism is alarmed over the matter, Catholic officials constantly write about a shortage of recruits for the priesthood. Articles have appeared in journals of practically every segment of what is called "the restoration movement." Those familiar with the conservative churches of Christ are well aware of their concern along this line. The broad scope of the preacher shortage suggests that we should not expect to find a superficial explanation of or solution to the problem. The magnitude of the problems suggests a BASIC error in concept and practice.

III. The Situation Described

As one who feels a rather wide acquaintance with this problem, the author believes the situation can be described by the following points:

  1. Some brethren have quit preaching altogether: There are able men who once occupied pulpits who are today just occupying pews. Some are not even doing that.
  2. Some have taken secular jobs, and made preaching a side line. Men who once gave preaching the gospel their full attention, now spend the major portion of their time in secular work.
  3. Some have retreated. Some brethren who were once in the thick of the fight for truth, and who were very active in the work, have moved to some small, inactive church and are content to carry on a little housekeeping operation.
  4. Fewer are taking up the work: It is very evident that fewer men are entering the field of public proclamation today than was true 20 years ago.

Hence, the problem can be aptly described as leakage at both ends: fewer are entering the field, and some who have entered it are either decreasing their activity, or quitting altogether. Is it any wonder, then, that we have a preacher shortage?

IV. Reasons for It

As stated earlier, we should not expect to find a superficial explanation of the problem. A problem so vast and far reaching does not usually have an easy solution. There must be something basically wrong. We must have started out wrong to have ended up so far a field. What are the reasons for the preacher shortage? This question demands some serious consideration. Let us give it such.

(1) The Nature of Our Time

The nature of our time contributes greatly to the vastness of the preacher-shortage problem. First, since the Second World War, we have experienced economic prosperity unparalleled in history. This has developed a society that is massively materialistic. There is an ever-growing demand for education and more and more money is proffered those who have it. Our materialistic philosophy says, "Get all you can, and can all you get." Like the successful farmer (Lk. 12:16-21), people are concerned about "Things" rather than principles. Materialistic considerations have blinded many to the true values, and rendered them incapable of thinking in terms of anything other than dollars and cents.

Today a young man with a few years of college can enter some profession and at the end of five years, be drawing a larger salary than he would likely ever draw as a gospel preacher. Young men who have been reared by materialistic parents and educated by a materialistic society are not likely to think in terms of spiritual values. Hence, they are encouraged by almost everybody, including their parents, to get a good education and make a lot of money so they can enjoy the luxuries of this life.

Second, this massive materialism has resulted in a depreciation of dedication. It is not popular to be dedicated to principles, especially if they are right. Communism says our lack of dedication will eventually destroy us. We will not likely be destroyed from without, but by a lack of dedication from within. The spirit of sacrifice has almost disappeared from our society. It is very scarce within the body of Christ these days. It is difficult to find it in the lives of some preachers. Selfishness and an almost insane desire for earthly wealth and comfort have all but destroyed that willingness to "spend and be spent" for souls (2 Cor. 12:15), that motivated early Christians and our forefathers. The rugged spirit of the pioneer has given way to the insipid softness of the massive materialism of modern suburban society with two cars in the garage and a boat and travel trailer in the back yard; made possible by "easy payment plans" where one pays a dollar down and a dollar when they run him down.

This is reminiscent of the affluence that characterized Israel in the days of Amos, and brought forth the pronouncement of "woe unto them that are at ease in Zion" because they looked with envy upon the material accomplishments of neighboring heathen societies, "put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that sing idle songs to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are NOT GRIEVED FOR THE AFFLICTION 0F JOSEPH" (Amos 6:1-6). In verse 8, Amos continues, "The Lord God hath sworn by himself... I abhor the Excellency of Jacob, and hate his palaces: therefore will I deliver up the city with all that is therein." Israel's prosperity had made them so concerned with worldly approval and their own personal comfort that they said, "Hold thy tongue: for we may not make mention of the name of the Lord" (v. 10). And, like all materialistic societies, they "rejoiced in a thing of nought," and said, "Have we not taken to us horns by OUR OWN STRENGTH?" (v. 13). As in our case, massive materialism had depreciated their dedication to the point of eminent damnation. When we look for the reason for today's preacher shortage, let us not overlook materialism. It is really the little end of the tap root of the problem.

(2) Occupational Hazards, Real and Imagined

Many have ceased to be full-time preachers or have declined to become such because of certain occupational hazards. Some of these are real; others are imagined and exaggerated as a means of self-justification. We here list a few of these:

(a) Sagging security: many preachers complain that meandering moves, penurious pay and tired retirement make full-time preaching poor social security. There is, no doubt, an element of truth in this, but many times such complaints are evidence of our mixed up values. Our materialism has caused us to forget that Jesus never promised his followers social security, but rather spiritual security. He said "the son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Lk. 9:58), and that "the disciple is not above his master" (Matt. 10:24). Paul said, "Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place" (I Cor. 4:11). He said: "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need" (Phil. 4:12). It is certain that fulltime preachers do not have the promise of economic security enjoyed in most other occupations, but when such considerations turn brethren's faces toward secular occupations, they turn their faces from God. A brother recently quoted Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." He said, "Now the first thing I want to say about this passage is that I do not believe it." We might blush at his brass, but he was really just verbalizing the actions of many church members.

It is not unusual for some materialistic minded worldling to leave full-time preaching for some lucrative secular job. Many such have been paid well for their work as preachers, but it was never enough. When they make two or three times as much in secular work as does the average full-time preacher, they begin to write vociferously about the ''hireling pastors" and the "public parasites" that are called "full-time preachers." They seem to have found one of Carl Ketcherside's old discarded notebooks. It is passing strange how twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars per year convince them that they have been scripturally wrong for the past twenty-five or thirty years. It is also noteworthy that their repentance for their past "wrongs" does not create in them a desire to use their new-found wealth to pay back the many thousands of dollars they "unscripturally" took from the church treasury. This is all the more absurd when we realize that most of them came by their present economic good fortune through contracts made while they were "unscripturally" drawing pretty fair salaries from the church treasuries as fulltime preachers. It is indeed lame logic that leads them to think they started out all wrong and have ended up all right, or that they have arrived at a scriptural destination by traveling an unscriptural road. If they were so wrong in the past, let them return the money they "unscripturally" took from the churches as full-time preachers.

Such brethren evidence all the symptoms of the materialism that dominates them. They claim to have advanced beyond the rest of us; they repudiate that which brought them to their material prosperity; while they once liked to think of themselves as champion public defenders of the faith, their materialism has softened them to the point of taking the fight out of them and they now wish to be known as sweet-spirited pacifists, except when they can fire a few long-range, ambiguous, paper projectiles at those who are doing exactly what they did for many years. Rut, like others of the stripe, their non-violence sometimes gets rather violent. It is a sort of religious yuppieism; they do not want to be involved in "the system," but they are. They also have an identity problem; they know they are something, but they have not yet discovered what. Thus far they have not been able to define what they are, nor what they believe, and they are frantically trying to bridge a credibility gap because they deny that they are what they say they are!

Admitting that a lack of economic security is an occupational hazard for preachers would it solve the problem if everybody quit preaching like many have done? Would it not be much better to teach the churches more about their scriptural responsibility to those who preach? Let nobody say it cannot be done. Preachers are better paid now than were their forefathers. This improvement has come about through teaching. Further improvements can come about by further teaching.

(b) Continuous controversy: Some preachers have become casualties in our controversies. They say they grew weary of constant controversies in the church, and so, decided to get away from it. Is it possible that men who have given years to preaching can be so ignorant of the teaching of the Bible? Have they never read I Cor. 11:19, where Paul says, "For there MUST BE HERESIES AMONG YOU that they which are approved may be made manifest among you?" Or I Jn. 2:19, where John said, "They went out from us but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." Is it conceivable that such brethren do not know that Paul spoke the gospel "with much contention?" (I Thess. 2:2). Peace in the church is very relative and short-lasting.

Such attitudes are but symptoms of our materialistic society. Too many are religious pacifists because they have neither the love of truth nor the moral courage to "contend earnestly for the faith" (Jude 3). They stand for everything in general and nothing in particular. It is not unusual to read some preacher's advertisement for a new location in which he says he wants some place "with a good eldership and no problems." What he is really saying is that he wants to settle down where he is not needed.

(c) Timeless toil: Some preachers have left full-time preaching because they say they tired of timeless toil; that is, they never got caught up; the more they did, the more there was to do. To be sure, this is a source of concern, and one does grow weary. However, we should remember that Paul spoke often of his "labors" (2 Cor. 9:5; 11:23; 12:15). Our labors are not likely more abundant than his, nor our circumstances more severe. Life has never been easy for those who would serve God faithfully.

(d) Dereliction of domestic duty: Some who have quit full-time preaching say they felt they were sinning by shunning domestic duties; that they found their children growing up without them, and their wife's burden too heavy. Again, we must admit that this is a legitimate concern, but we should remember that early preachers had families also (1 Cor. 9:5), but this did not cause them to fail in their duty to carry the gospel to lost souls. Our forefathers went forth to preach, leaving their families at home to make the crop and do the best they could. Their absences from their homes were much more extended than ours. Had they quit because of such a hardship, where would we be?

(e) Frustrating fruitlessness: Some complain that they could not see the results of their labors; that they preached their hearts out, but saw but little results. This complaint is often made because preachers have not learned the difference between their business and God's. Paul said, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6). We need to realize that our job is to plant and water; it is God's business to give the increase. When we understand that God requires effort rather than results, we will cease making such a complaint. Did not Isaiah say, "All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people?" (Rom. 10:21). We are not the first to have such a problem.

(f) Grating ingratitude: Some are overly concerned because their work, seemingly, was not appreciated. The brethren never seemed to appreciate what they did. Paul spoke of this too, saying, "the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved" (2 Cor. 12:15). He inquired of the Galatians, "Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" (4:16). We need to remember that, "the Lord is not unrighteous to forget ..." (Heb. 6:10). We should learn not to be surprised when our work is NOT appreciated but WHEN IT IS! This is the key to happiness in any field of endeavor.

(g) Carping criticisms: Some have said the brethren criticized just about everything they did. There is an element of truth in this complaint also, but we need to remember again that we are not the first to experience it, and likely will not be the last. Paul had it. There were those who said: "for his letters ... are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). Paul did not quit preaching because of such. It is possible that some preachers are too sensitive.

(h) Political pressures: Some have become disillusioned because of the political pressures that are sometimes applied to preachers. How quitting will solve such a problem is not quite clear. Paul neither quit nor gave in, but resisted and exposed such. He told of those who "preach Christ even of envy, strife, and contention, not sincerely supposing to add affliction to my bonds" (Phil. 1:15, 16). He laid bare the political maneuverings of some who "desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh" (Gal. h 13)1 but said, "to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour" (Gal. 2:5). John told of the power politics practiced by "Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them'' He promised, "Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doeth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (3 Jn. 9, 10). He follows this exposure with this admonition: "Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good" (3 Jn. 11).

(i) Devilish demands: Some have given up full-time preaching because of the devilish demands the brethren put on them. They complain that they found it impossible to satisfy their demands. But again, quitting is not the solution, preachers need to study their Bibles and be more concerned about what God demands, and less concerned about what the brethren expect of them. We should make sure we fulfill our responsibilities to God, do what we feel like we want to do to accommodate the brethren, and let the rest go. We need to teach brethren what is the work of an evangelist.

(3) Church Failures

The churches must bear their part of the responsibility for the preacher shortage. These need to be pointed out, and all brethren, especially elders, need to give them serious and prayerful consideration.

(a) Dependence upon colleges to train preachers: It goes without saying that the churches for the last 100 years have depended almost exclusively upon colleges operated by brethren to produce the preachers necessary to fill their pulpits; all the while denying that they believed in a seminary setup. Only since the preacher shortage became so acute, have a few congregations come to realize their responsibility to encourage, train, and send out preachers. God may be using the preacher-shortage crisis to bring His churches to a sense of this scriptural obligation.

In recent years a few (too few) congregations have begun to conduct preacher-training courses, and with some rather spectacular results. One church has conducted three annual sessions of such a program, and has put three men into full-time preaching; an average of one for each session conducted. If all churches which have the ability to conduct such a program would do so, the preacher shortage problem would soon be solved.

We need to realize that every brother who should give full-time to preaching does not have $10,000 to spend for a college education. It might be good if he did, but we all know that it is too much to expect. In the past however, there has been an unwritten law in the minds of MANY brethren that those who cannot afford to go to a college operated by the brethren, should not try to become full-time preachers. Indeed, some churches make no bones about it; they frankly say when looking for a preacher that they prefer a college graduate.

Brethren certainly have a scriptural right to engage in the school business. Each brother with the ability to preach has a personal responsibility to prepare himself for the work. He can seek help wherever he can obtain it, even in a school operated by brethren. But it is unscriptural for the church at any time and in any degree to DEPEND upon a human institution to discharge an obligation which God has placed upon it. Not only is such a concept unscriptural, but history has demonstrated the great danger such a practice poses for the purity of the church. When all preachers are trained in the schools it is inevitable that the church will be created in the image of the school. There are schools today which not only emphasize that they are preacher factories, but also that they are training centers for elders, deacons, Bible class teachers, ministers of music, education, etc. With this being the case, how could the churches possibly escape school domination?

Let the brethren continue to operate their schools in their proper sphere, and let them offer Bible courses taught by capable men, but let not the churches feel that such diminishes their obligation to encourage, train, and send out men into the harvest fields. The schools can never train all the men that should preach the gospel.

(b) Failure to encourage young people: Many churches ignore the vast treasure of youth. So often the young people just indifferently occupy their places on the back pews; never receiving any special encouragement, or training. Then we wonder why so many young people forsake the Lord soon after leaving the "home congregation." It is largely because they were never taught to take part in the local-church program; thus they do not know how to feel a responsibility to it. We would not expect our young people to get an education in the public schools, if the teachers treated them like we often treat them in the assemblies. We expect the teachers to see that they participate in class activity, and we would be highly displeased if we knew they were allowed to sleep during class, or talk, or pass notes. We expect them to prepare their school lessons, and bring home good marks, but how much attention do the teachers or the elders give to those who almost never make any preparation for their Bible classes?

When young people who have grown up in a church of this type get out into the world, they do not know what to do. If there is no church in the community where they happen to live, they are just lost. If we suggest that they start one, they might have heart failure! How could they start one? They cannot teach a class, or lead singing, pray in public, or preach! How can we expect such of them? We never gave them any training along these lines. If churches would be diligent in training young people to participate in all phases of the local-church program much of the preacher-shortage problem would be eliminated. If this had been done in the past, the present crisis would not have arisen.

(c) Sickening selfishness: Many preachers have been discouraged and disillusioned by the sickening selfishness characteristic of many churches. They are selfish with the Lord's money. They do not make it possible for the preacher to use his time and talents to the greatest advantage for the Cause, they hinder his doing so by tying him down with local church trivialities and handcuffing him to the local pulpit. There may be dozens of places that need his talents worse than they do, but have not the funds to support him. Such matters not to some churches. They must not let the church treasury sink lower than five or six thousand dollars, and they have the attitude that "we pay the local preacher to work for us."

Then, there are brethren who are preaching in hard fields on insufficient support. They BEG for help, but their pleas fall on deaf ears! The brethren must guard the local-church treasury with their lives, and never let it fall below a healthy balance; after all, an emergency might arise. (Yes, the Lord may come!) If they help such a brother, they send him only a token ten dollars a month to salve their consciences, and even that may be two or three months late in many cases! And furthermore, the only contact many of these sacrificing preachers have with such churches is the little paltry pittance they send them. Never a word of encouragement; never a word of inquiry as to progress or needs, and in many known cases his monthly report finds the shortest route to the waste basket.

(4) Failures in Our Homes

A contributing factor in the preacher shortage is the failure of parents to instill sense of personal responsibility in their children. It is very common today to hear parents say they do not want their sons to be preachers or their daughters to marry preachers. The problems is not just a failure to encourage the young people to give their lives to such work, it is an active discouragement of it.

When asked to give a reason for the marked decline in the number of preacher students enrolled in a certain college, the president replied: "Twenty years ago young men came to the college with a burning desire to preach the gospel, having acquired such at home, but today most of our students come with the desire to do other things. Many decide to preach while they are in school, or after they leave." This gets to one of the basic problems in the preacher shortage. Parents are failings to teach young people that they have a duty to teach others (Heb. 5:12).

(5) Preacher Petulance

Petulance in preachers has added to the preacher shortage. Many have ceased fulltime preaching because of their own failures. To be sure, such brethren usually blame others, but the real problem is with themselves.

(a) Determined dictatorism: Some preachers are determined to dictate what the brethren believe and practice where they preach. Some want to dictate the policies and actions of churches throughout the area where they work, and seek to effect such control through power politics. They personally crusade for a given idea as a matter of life or death. It may take them years to discover that brethren will not bow down to them, but such a discovery is too much for them. If they cannot have their way, they will get a secular job hence, they quit full-time preaching because they could not be dictators.

(b) Antagonistic antics: Preachers sometimes know less about human relations than just about anybody else, and yet they need to know the most about such. They are constantly antagonistic. They may able pulpiteers, but they constantly rub the brethren the wrong way. A few years of this, and they run out of places to preach, become sour on the brethren and get a secular job.

(c) Pecuniary professionalism: Many have quit full-time preaching because they looked upon it as a profession, rather than as a responsibility. If they have an opportunity to make more money at something else, they can turn their preaching on and off like a light switch. When the grazing gets short, they become more active preachers. Such brethren are opportunists and hirelings, and know not the spirit of Paul who said, "Yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16).

V. Consequences of the Preacher Shortage

We need to consider the consequences of the preacher shortage. We need to be aware of present conditions in order that our work may be most effective during the crisis.

(1) Lower standards: We must lower our standards for preachers. As mentioned earlier, traditionally we have demanded that preachers have some college work. To fill the great need, such must be stopped. Those who show potential must be encouraged, trained and accepted. This is the way it should have been all along. This, however, will mean that many more less able men will be preaching. We can witness this effect already. There are fewer men who are able to accept any challenge, whether it be in the field of denominational error, evidences, atheism, or what have you. This means that those who are able in such fields must expand their activities.

(2) Personal persistence: Those who enter full-time preaching must be persistent in their pursuit of knowledge. It will be necessary for such brethren to spend a great deal of their time reading and studying. They must not be reluctant to seek out brethren who are able to help them, and such brethren must give the help they need (2 Tim. 2:2).

(3) Wider circulation: All full-time preachers must spread themselves a little thinner. We must not limit ourselves to one congregation, but circulate as much as possible that our influence may be more widely felt. Each preacher must work a little harder to take up the slack created by the shortage of workers. This means also, that churches must cease their selfish desire to keep the preacher at home for baby-sitting and social work.

(4) Shortage of preaching: It is axiomatic that a shortage of preachers means a shortage of preaching. Fewer people will hear and obey the truth. This is a sad consequence of the preacher shortage, and it should make each Christian more determined to solve the problem as soon as possible.

VI. Solutions

What can we do to solve the preacher shortage? This is a question of great import. Many suggestions have been made in the course of this study. Let us review these and list some others.

(1) Let each church and preacher with the ability to do so, immediately plan to conduct training courses designed to encourage and develop preachers (Eph. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:2).

(2) Let all homes and churches determine to emphasize personal responsibility in teaching (Heb. 5:12).

(3) Let every full-time preacher determine now to become more active, and sacrificing in his labors (2 Cor. 12:14, 15).

(4) Let all Christians resolve to generally improve the lot of the preacher, and thus make the life and work of a preacher more attractive to young men. Attention should be given to salary, church-preacher relationship, working conditions, and encouragement of the preacher in his work.

(5) Let those preachers who have decreased their activity, or have become part-time preachers, take a personal inventory to see if their reasons for becoming less active are really valid, and let such brethren get back into the ranks and fight with the same vigor for which they were formally known.

(6) Let brethren do more writing and preaching on the preacher shortage, its causes and its cures. Let us put it on the minds of brethren everywhere we go, and cause them to feel a responsibility to help solve it.

(7) Let more and more part-time preachers become full-time ones.

(8) Let preachers and teachers strike hard at the materialism of our time. It is the greatest villain in the preacher shortage. Until we educate people to think in terms of true values, the preacher-shortage problem will not be solved.

(9) Let all preachers cease their petty complaints about their lot in life. They need to act more like men and less like babies. If there are real grounds for complaint, call the brethren's attention to it7 If your complaining is a part of your persistent program of personal pity, kick the habit. Stop imagining and exaggerating.

(10) Let every Christian pray for reapers (Lk. 10:1-3). Our failure to do this may have helped develop the present crisis.


In the interest of our own souls, and the souls of unborn generations, we must solve the preacher shortage. There is no time to start like now. The matter is too serious to neglect any longer. Procrastination may mean lost souls. Let each person who reads this asks himself: What can I do to help? If you have the ability and the desire to become a full-time preacher, launch out today. There are many opportunities awaiting you, and the rewards in souls saved and personal satisfaction are fabulous. Remember, any excuse that will justify you in not becoming a full-time preacher, will justify everybody else in ceasing to be one. Preachers have the same rights as everybody else.

[End of Series.]

December 1968