Steps of Preparation

In previous lessons we have been looking at the kind of person God can use in His service. It is a person with a heart willing to accept sacrifice, to undertake risks for the sake of God's Kingdom, to pour compassion on those with spiritual needs, and to pursue a consecrated life—that is, a life set apart from the things of this world and devoted to things of eternal value. Yet no one is ready to serve God until God has taken him through several steps of preparation. Generally, his first step is to discover his gifts, for he must know these in order to direct his preparations toward the right kind of ministry.


God gives no one a task without equipping him to perform it. The ability to carry out a spiritual ministry never resides within a man's innate powers. It is always a gift of God. Without God-given ability, a man is helpless to accomplish anything worthwhile. Because the ability must be God-given, it is called a gift.

As there are different ministries, so there are different gifts, each providing the kind of ability exactly suited to a certain task. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul lists the gifts in order of importance.


This gift conferred unique powers upon the founders of the church, including the power to do miracles and to recall infallibly the events of Christ's ministry, also to speak with an obvious authority that would instill confidence in those under their leadership. This gift no longer exists today.


It is generally assumed today that prophecy is the gift possessed by anyone who preaches with God's power. Yet, if we set aside preconceived opinions and look at how the Bible actually uses the term, we discover that prophesying means simply to speak under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit. When God prompts someone to stand up and give an unrehearsed testimony, or when a preacher leaves his prepared talk and says something that God has just laid on his heart, he is prophesying in the Biblical sense. It is a higher gift than teaching because it is a clearer channel for the Holy Spirit to bring a needed message to the church.


This gift, another that exists in our day, is the ability to communicate spiritual truth. Many regard teaching as the mere communication of knowledge, with no intent of changing hearts. But the Bible has no such conception of teaching. The Great Commission twice refers to teaching, first as the means of bringing people to Christ, second as the means of guiding people in their Christian walk (Matt. 28:19-20). Paul makes it clear that the primary duty of a pastor is to teach (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2). But we should not imagine that a preacher is shirking this duty when he presents a convicting sermon. Much of what we call preaching is really an exercise of the teaching gift.

Miracles and healings

God still performs miracles and healings in answer to prayer according to His will, but He no longer gifts individuals with special power to perform supernatural feats. A few years ago, my mother spent some time in a nursing home. One day as I was leaving, I noticed that a church was holding a healing service. The lady in charge, who represented herself as a healer, was trying to heal the elderly patients. I said to myself, "Now here's real faith." But then I corrected myself. No, here was presumption. God never gave this woman a gift of healing. The proof? The next day, nobody left the nursing home. Nobody even looked younger.

Helps and government

Paul is referring to the wide range of practical abilities needed to make a church function. All who are involved in hospitality, giving, organizing church activities, or conducting ministries focused on subgroups with special needs, like the youth or the aged—all these require a gift in the category of helps. All who are involved in directing people or church affairs require a gift in the category of government. These include any deacon, treasurer, church secretary, or music director.

Tongues and the interpretation of tongues

No longer do these gifts exist. Notice that the importance of a gift is measured by its value to the church. Today, prophesying is still the most important gift. The gift of tongues was always the least important.

It is vital that a Christian identify his gifts before he seeks to serve the Lord. He should not suppose that his gifts are the same as his natural talents. A gift may correspond to a talent, or it may not. Generally it does, because any talent a man has also comes from God and therefore serves the purposes for which God created him—the chief purpose being success in the same ministries he pursues with the aid of spiritual gifts.

An example of a man whose gifts enhanced his natural abilities is C. H. Spurgeon. It was evident from his youth that he was greatly talented as an orator. He obtained a major pulpit when he was still in his teens, and by his early twenties he was drawing thousands to hear him. Yet he had more than just a strong voice and a fluent tongue. He had a command of language so extraordinary and a mind so fertile of vivid ideas that, if he had given his life to literary endeavors, he would be counted today among the giants of English literature. As it is, his writings, including his sermons and many other books, are prodigious in quantity and creativity. Although he did not prepare for Sunday until Saturday night, and although he spoke substantially without help from notes, his sermons set a high mark of consistent quality that no other preacher has equaled. His achievements show how great God's power can be, when it works through manifold spiritual gifts bestowed on a man already endowed with manifold talents.

But not infrequently God gives a gift to someone with no matching talent. The reason is that He wants to show His power and receive glory. Many whom He has called to speaking ministries started out with no ability to express themselves before a crowd of people.

After applying to the London Missionary Society, David Livingstone passed the hurdle of examinations and then was sent to do three months of Christian work under the probation of a local pastor. At the end of the period, the pastor returned an unfavorable report to the society, and Livingstone escaped rejection only by undergoing further training. What was the problem? He conducted family worship and prayed in chapel in a "hesitating manner," and his failure as a preacher was "complete." On one occasion he read his text and then, after a moment's hesitation, announced, "Friends, I have forgotten all I had to say." He rushed out of the pulpit and fled from the chapel. Even after becoming a missionary, he had trouble speaking in public. Once, his hearers threatened that they would not return to church if he spoke again. Yet eventually he became very effective as a preacher in one of the African dialects.

There are two steps in discovering gifts.

  1. Take opportunities to serve the Lord. Especially seek out ministries that fit your interests and ambitions. Perhaps these inner leanings have been impressed on your heart by the Holy Spirit. It is likely that most opportunities will recognize your obvious talents, but do not confine yourself to things that seem easiest.
  2. When you serve the Lord, ask Him for supernatural assistance of a kind or to a degree that will be obvious to you and others. Then you will know that the Lord helped you. Such enablement is simply what we mean by a gift.

Once you discover your gifts, develop them by using them faithfully. The more you use them, the more ability God will give you. Do not attempt to serve the Lord without being supernaturally gifted. In the power of your flesh, you may make a good show, but your work will yield nothing of real value. God makes us dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit so that we will never try to take credit for what we accomplish. All credit goes to the grace of God, lest any man should boast.

This principle applies to every ministry in the church. Whether the ministry is preaching or sweeping floors, it must be done by God's power. We have shown that for every ministry, without exception, there is a special gift that God is willing to provide.


Some in the past received a dramatic call to serve God. Moses found the burning bush and heard God Himself declare that his mission was to save Israel from bondage (Ex. 3:1-4:17). David was found by Samuel and secretly anointed the next king (1 Sam. 16:1-13). While he worshipped God in the Temple, Isaiah had a vision of the heavenly throne and heard God summon him to a prophetic ministry (Isa. 6). On the road to Damascus, Paul met Christ, who appointed him to be an apostle to the gentiles (Acts 9:1-9; 26:12-18).

Should we therefore refrain from entering God's service until a call comes to us in a vision or through unusual circumstances? Certainly not. There is nothing in the Bible indicating that a call of this kind is necessary. The only call we need is the call that the Bible itself provides. That call is the Great Commission: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). We need not wait for a further call before we get busy taking the gospel to the world.

Yes, you will say, but how do I know whether God wants me to pursue a particular ministry, such as preaching? Finding God's will concerning a particular ministry rests on the same principles and involves the same methods that we use in finding His will concerning any other matter. We depend on the witness of the written Word and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, many preachers have reported a very distinct call to the ministry. Some have not, because the desire was always there, or because they arrived in the ministry just by taking a daily path of obedience. Yet there is a process of divine leading into the ministry that we can identify as normal. Most preachers have at one point in their lives felt that God was urging them to become preachers. The urging was an inward sense of God's desire, perhaps even an inward sense of prompting by a still, small voice. The urging may have come during a sermon, or during personal devotions, or at a moment when they saw lost people with eyes of compassion.

Yet we must say that such a call may occur for any kind of Christian service. Preachers should not exalt themselves by pretending that their ministry requires a unique sort of call. Whatever God wants a man to do, He will reveal His will through the Word and the Spirit.

If a man steps forward and offers himself for a preaching ministry, how can we evaluate whether he is really pursuing God's will? The Bible gives us two and only two tests of whether a man's call to preach is genuine.

  1. Does he have a desire to preach? The Bible authorizes anyone to preach who has the desire to do it (1 Tim. 3:1). It implies, of course, that the desire is rooted in honorable motives. A man should not be allowed to preach if he is merely seeking a good job, or a respected position in the community, or an opportunity to lord it over people. His fundamental desire must be to serve God.
  2. Is he qualified to preach? Two passages in the New Testament are devoted to spelling out the qualifications for a preacher (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).


Today's Christian colleges are failing to produce large numbers of young people with the right heart and the right skills for Christian service. The problem runs across the entire spectrum of contemporary Christianity. Just recently I visited my niece and her husband, who is dean of spiritual life at a conservative evangelical college. One of his jobs is to organize and conduct mission trips for the students. I asked him how many of these students have later become missionaries. He answered, none. How many graduates of his school are going into Christian work? The same answer, essentially none. Fundamental colleges are still turning out a fair number of graduates with Bible degrees, but few actually enter a lifetime of productive Christian work. As for degree programs in Christian education, the picture is much bleaker. According to Charles Walker, a high official in the AACS, Christian colleges are currently preparing enough teachers to fill only 10-20% of the vacancies in Christian schools.

The poor success of Christian colleges today suggests that it is time to rethink Christian higher education. Down through the centuries, the church has tried many different paradigms for training the next generation of Christian workers. But rather than look to history for guidance out of our present crisis, we should look to the Bible. How did Jesus Himself prepare His disciples for the momentous task of evangelizing the world? When we examine the New Testament, we discover five principles of Christian service preparation, as it was done by Jesus Himself.

1. He chose young men. So far as we can tell, every one of the twelve as well as Saul of Tarsus was a young man when God called him into service. Ahead of each lay a whole lifetime he could devote to the work of God. God is sovereign, of course, and on occasion he may call an older man or woman into service. Yet any plan for higher education must be geared for younger people.

2. He chose young men who were mature and who were well-established in a secular occupation. Several disciples were fishermen. Matthew was a publican. Saul was a religious leader. The men who shaped early fundamentalism were called by God out of various trades and professions. D. L. Moody was a shoe salesman. C. I. Scofield was a lawyer. M. R. DeHaan and Walter Wilson were doctors. Robert Ketcham was a farmer.

The point is that God wants His servants to have experience in the workaday world, where they learn how to manage practical affairs and deal with people. A training program for Christian service should, in recognition of their special fitness, welcome people with real-world experience and adapt as much as possible to their needs.

One problem with many graduates of Christian colleges today is that they are too immature to be useful in full-time ministry. Not all, but many. Two generations ago, a high school graduate was ready to go straight into a Bible institute program and then straight into Christian work. But today's culture is greatly retarding the maturation of our young people.

The cultural factors holding back their personal growth are at least four.

  1. Compared with previous generations, most young people today lack any significant responsibilities in the home and any significant work experience outside the home.
  2. Because the world has become so urbanized and dangerous, Christian young people are extremely sheltered. Except through car windows, they see little of the world beyond the walls of a few buildings and the fences of a few yards.
  3. Fantasy entertainment commands more and more of young people's attention. Consequently, they think less and less about real life.
  4. Because of modern medicine, young people today see little of death and suffering.

Some while ago, I received a sad note from a former student of mine. He graduated from a Christian college and went into Christian work, but soon he left it and adopted a worldly lifestyle. Now that he has lost his wife, he is trying to get back on track spiritually. The problem with this couple? Basically, they were too immature for Christian work. They were not ready to go onto the front lines of spiritual warfare.

We mentioned earlier that Spurgeon entered the pulpit before age twenty. That was also true of many other preachers in the past. But what church would be so foolhardy as to give their pulpit to one of today's teenagers?

3. He trained men that He had clearly called into His service. The New Testament records how He called Peter, James, John, Saul, Matthew, and others.

Throughout its long history, Moody Bible Institute has accepted only those applicants who could state a clear call into ministry. My sister, the former director of admissions at Moody, assures me that the policy has not changed. She also says that there has been an alarming trend downward in the Bible knowledge of incoming students. This is a problem not only at Moody, but at all Christian colleges. I cannot endorse every position taken by Moody today, but I commend it for holding on to the principle that a call should precede training. In too many Christian colleges, a Bible major is the course of least resistance for a mediocre student. After graduation, where can he go? In Christian work, he fails or creates problems, because he lacks a divine call to service. Yet what other kind of work is he qualified to do?

Another easy degree to obtain at many Christian colleges is in Christian counseling. Imagine any recent graduate with this degree actually obtaining a counseling job, when he is perhaps no more than age 21. Would you be willing to share your problems with someone so young and inexperienced, with no qualifications except a sketchy knowledge of a few textbooks?

4. He trained them for three years. The twelve accompanied Him throughout the three years of His ministry. After his conversion, Saul spent three years in the desert being taught of the Lord. Following this model, many of the Bible institutes that flourished during the first half of the twentieth century offered three-year programs.

5. Throughout the three years, the trainees were continually engaged in practical Christian ministry. In a typical Christian college today, the program for a Bible major includes a Christian service requirement, yet in many instances hardly amounting to more than a little dabbling here and there. The old Bible institutes, with their more stringent Christian service requirement, achieved a better balance between book learning and practical experience.

6. Jesus did not allow His trainees to go off on their own in Christian work until they had received the filling of the Holy Spirit. I have never seen a resume that includes as one qualification the filling of the Holy Spirit. Yet the first questions before anyone is accepted or commissioned for Christian work should be, "Are you filled with the Spirit? How do you know that you are?"

These six principles draw a pretty clear picture of the best way to prepare people for Christian service. We need a revival of schools resembling the old Bible institutes, except they would be designed for students in their mid 20s or later, perhaps with undergraduate degrees already. You say, is this not the role of a seminary? I believe a seminary has its place, but for many people entering Christian service, it is too academic, with too little emphasis on practical experience. Moreover, a seminary in our circles admits only men.

Jesus' care in training His own disciples shows that it is dangerous to jump into Christian work without training. A man's call to serve may be clear and valid, yet it should rarely be understood as a call to begin right away in full-time ministry. Training gives that ministry much fuller dimensions and guards against failure. The benefits are worth a few years of delay.


The practice of the church from earliest times has been to put its stamp of approval upon every man embarking on a career of Christian service, particularly if that service involves the work of a preacher or missionary. In New Testament times, a man who felt called to serve the Lord would communicate his desire to the church, and the church, after examining his fitness for the proposed ministry, would conduct a commissioning service. In this service the leaders would lay their hands upon him as they prayed for his future work. The ceremony had several purposes.

  1. It was a sign of approval and blessing.
  2. It was a picture of the man's organic dependence upon the church, for the church would support him with prayer and perhaps with material resources.
  3. It showed him receiving authority, for as he went out, he would take with him all the authority granted to the church.
  4. It represented the church communicating to him the power of the Holy Spirit, for the church is where the Spirit resides. He would use this power to bring souls to Christ.

In summary, the ceremony was a reminder that the chief responsibility of the church is to send out supernaturally gifted laborers who will build the church, and a reminder too that a Christian worker receives the necessary gifts only because he is an instrument in accomplishing this task.

Before Paul and Barnabas embarked on their first missionary journey, the church in Antioch authorized the work they were about to do by formally sending them out. The procedure followed certain steps serving as an example for all future commissionings of Christian workers (Acts 13:1-3).

  1. In the course of serving God, the church heard the Spirit's direction to set apart Paul and Barnabas for a ministry "whereunto I have called them." It is likely that these two men already knew God's will and had voiced it to the church and were merely waiting for the church to sanction their new endeavors.
  2. The church fasted and prayed, no doubt imploring God to give Paul and Barnabas a prosperous work.
  3. The church laid hands on them and sent them away.

We surmise that much the same procedure was followed when Timothy was admitted to the office of an evangelist (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6) and when others were placed in the ministry (1 Tim. 5:22).

Today in fundamental churches we continue the New Testament practice of commissioning preachers and missionaries. For preachers, we call it ordination, but it is the same thing. To bypass commissioning and to start Christian work without the backing of a church is unwise. God did not intend a preacher or evangelist to be a Lone Ranger, self-appointed and wholly independent of existing church bodies. There have been times in history when the church was too corrupt to recognize God's call in a man's life. The Church of England refused to give Whitefield and Wesley pulpits where they could preach. And there have been special individuals whom God has blessed in Christian work even though they entered it without anyone's approval. The China Inland Mission rejected Gladys Aylward's application to be a missionary. Unquestionably, she was not a promising candidate. She was simple and uneducated, with no obvious gifts. So, she went to China on her own, making the arduous journey by train all the way from Europe. God marvelously protected her and gave her a fruitful work.

Counting the Costs

Working for the Lord is not like holding a regular job. If you work at an office or in a factory, you are free to go home afterward and forget about your job-related duties. You just put in your time and receive your pay. Your leisure belongs to you. But in Christian work, you never escape your duties, except perhaps in occasional times of retreat. You must remain accessible around the clock. Your people must be able to reach you whenever they need you. And even when you find yourself alone, you keep them often in mind, as you puzzle over their needs, pray for them, and prepare to help them again. Christian work is truly full-time.

Moreover, it is emotionally demanding. To be effective, you must love all the souls given to your care. But love will make your heart share all their experiences, good and bad. When someone does well, you will rejoice. When someone fails, you will weep. You will lose much sleep, because there will be always be some in your flock who are skirting the edges of disaster or who have already fallen over the precipice. You will be absorbed day by day in a battle for the welfare of others, and the more you love them, the harder you will fight. You will have a constant sense that the souls of men are at stake, and from that sense will come a dogged, enduring determination to bring these souls safely into the Kingdom. You will find yourself agonizing in prayer, wrestling with the powers of darkness, subjecting yourself to great sacrifices—all for the sake of your people.

If there is no agony, there can be no great success. The principle is stated by the Psalmist: "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy" (Psa. 126:5). Unless you are willing to suffer grief for the people you serve, you will never accomplish much in Christian work. What you get out of an investment depends on what you put in. To gain a large harvest of souls requires that you give Christian work everything you have—your possessions, your physical vitality, even your emotions.

Each of us in Christian work can give illustrations of this principle. The one in our flock who goes farthest for the Lord is generally the one in whom we invest the greatest part of ourselves. My former students whose record of spiritual growth and perseverance gives me great joy are some of the same ones that I once agonized over, the ones who robbed me of my sleep, provoked me to anger, brought me to tears, and diminished my good health through stress. The moral is, do not go into Christian work unless you have reckoned the cost. It will be costly, but never forget the end of the promise, "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy."