Spurgeon reminds us that pastoral ministry is an art. Pastors must hold fast to their biblical convictions while demonstrating flexibility, patience, and creativity as they seek to implement those convictions amid their unique settings. Spurgeon’s example does not give us a blueprint for how to pastor. You are not Spurgeon, and your church is not the Metropolitan Tabernacle. As Peter instructed, our task is “to shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). Even as we’re challenged and helped by his example, our task is to know our own people and to learn the art of pastoring, as we depend on God through His Word and in prayer.
In the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon pastored the largest church in evangelicalism, reaching a membership of over 5,000 towards the end of his ministry. But despite its size, the Metropolitan Tabernacle operated fundamentally like any historic Baptist church. They built an ample meeting space to gather all together weekly for worship and prayer. Spurgeon preached 45-minute sermons. The congregation sang hymns acapella. They held congregational meetings. They maintained a rigorous membership process. They practiced church discipline. By all appearances, Spurgeon’s approach to pastoral ministry was not in itself all that unique. What was notable is that he did it with such a large church.
Of course, the church wasn’t always that large. When he began pastoring in London, the congregation was only a few dozen people. Spurgeon was a solo pastor working alongside five deacons. But the church multiplied under his preaching, reaching a membership of over 1,000 in just five years. This meant that Spurgeon had to adapt on the fly and adjust how he would care for so many people. The structures for a church of under a hundred were no longer sufficient now that it was over a thousand.
But in making those adjustments, Spurgeon never changed his core pastoral convictions. Spurgeon believed in the primacy of preaching and the proper administration of the ordinances. He held to regenerate church membership. He was a firm believer in congregational polity. And he believed in the pastor’s responsibility to shepherd Christ’s flock. Even with so many joining, Spurgeon refused to compromise his convictions about what the church or the pastor is to be.
In many ways, this dynamic of holding fast to convictions while being flexible to adjust to changing circumstances is like a dance. Just as a dance has a basic framework or structure, the pastor needs firm convictions about what the church should be and do. But within that structure, dancers have a lot of room for creativity and adaptation. Likewise, pastors need to be flexible as the needs and circumstances of their congregation change. Pastoring is not a mechanical process of following ten steps to success or the latest formula for growth. Pastoring is an art.
What did this look like for Spurgeon? How did he go about the art of pastoring?
As an heir of the Reformed tradition, Spurgeon believed that Christ alone reigns over the church through his Word. This truth is to be seen supremely in the church’s worship. While Christians worship God in all of life, when it comes to the corporate gathering of the church, God has revealed how He is to be worshiped. This is what theologians call the Regulative Principle. Like the English Puritans before him, Spurgeon believed that the elements of a church’s worship gathering should only contain what God commands in Scripture. For Spurgeon, this included prayer, congregational singing, Scripture reading, preaching, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
As a result, the services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle were marked by simplicity. While other churches of the day experimented with new forms of entertainments, instruments, styles of preaching, and liturgies from other traditions, the worship at the Tabernacle remained the same throughout Spurgeon’s ministry. In fact, it wasn’t all that different from the church’s worship from its earliest days. As one deacon stated, “the services of religion have been conducted without any peculiarity of innovation. No musical or aesthetic accompaniments have ever been used. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but they are mighty.”
But despite its simplicity, the worship at the Tabernacle was not stale or predictable. While the elements of Spurgeon’s liturgy were fixed, he had no problems varying the order of service, from the content of his extemporaneous prayers to the number of hymns, the length of Scripture readings, and more. As Spurgeon planned each service, he allowed the sermon text to guide the themes and emphases of each service. Speaking to his students, he advised them, “vary the order of service as much as possible. Whatever the free Spirit moves us to do, that let us do at once.” Rather than letting the Regulative Principle become a straight-jacket, Spurgeon urged his students to remain sensitive to the leading of the Spirit.
In many ways, Spurgeon modeled this dynamic in his preaching. Throughout his ministry, Spurgeon was committed to preaching expositional sermons based on Scripture. “Let us be mighty in expounding the Scriptures. I am sure that no preaching will last so long, or build up a church so well, as the expository.” While Spurgeon did allow for topical sermons and other kinds of sermons, he believed that the main diet of a church’s preaching should be expository sermons. As a result, the vast majority of Spurgeon’s 3,563 published sermons are an exposition and application of a Scriptural text.
However, Spurgeon refused to work mechanically through books of the Bible. Instead, every week, the most challenging part of his sermon preparation was prayerfully searching and waiting for the Spirit to lead him to the text that his people need to hear.