What I've Learned Along the Way
This is an article about preaching that is meant to be read by non-preachers. I am an unlikely preacher, a guy who was paralyzingly shy through high school and college and into later life who rather suddenly found himself speaking at conferences and preaching at churches. As someone who is rather new to the pulpit, I thought it might be helpful to tell you what some of the surprises have been as I’ve somehow transitioned to a person who preaches on a regular basis.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned about preaching:
Preaching Can Be Discouraging
Any preacher will tell you that the preaching ministry can be very, very discouraging. There are many reasons for this and they may vary week-by-week and person-by-person. Here are just a few of them.
Preaching Is a Spiritual Battle. Preaching is first and foremost a spiritual battle. The battle begins early in the week with the opening of the Bible and commentaries and it doesn’t end until well after the sermon has been preached. This battle is taxing on both a spiritual and an emotional level. The reality is that Satan wants a sermon to be full of error and devoid of power and he will fight hard to ensure that is the case. I’m sure every preacher can testify of his awareness that he has an adversary who battles against him all week long.
Preaching Is a Mental Battle. Preaching is also a battle of the mind. To take a few words or a few verses and to find structure and to make that structure make sense and to find the right meaning and to find relevant application and to create appropriate illustrations takes long and dedicated brain work. With all the other responsibilities of life and ministry, that brain space can be hard to find and to maintain. It can be discouraging when the pieces just do not fall into place. What seemed like it was going to be an absolutely brilliant sermon on Tuesday afternoon is just barely tolerable by Sunday morning.
The preacher’s whole week culminates in the sermon. This is something to think about when you consider preaching and preachers. The preacher’s whole week has been structured around the time and the labor required to craft a sermon. He has read and studied and prayed and wept, and all of it comes to a climax in the 45 minutes he stands in the pulpit. His ministry is largely private—he works alone in his study, mentors small groups, counsels privately. But on Sunday morning he stands before the church and is suddenly the public face of the church and suddenly doing a short burst of very public ministry. You are there as a witness to the most important, most public moments in your pastor’s week.
It Is Exhausting. Preaching is an absolutely exhausting task, and not just for a person who is introverted, who tends to expend energy in the presence of people and who recharges away from people. When you consider the exhaustion and discouragement of preaching, you can see why so many preachers are tempted toward sin on Sunday nights or Monday mornings.
Preachers Are Fragile
Preachers are fragile. There is a sense in which every sermon is a performance; you stand before the church and bare your soul, telling them how you interpret a passage (knowing they may disagree with your interpretation or that you may be just plain wrong), how it has affected you (when it may affect them differently) and what difference it ought to make in their lives (when that application may miss them completely). There is something very exposing, very soul-baring about it. A famous quote about preaching is bang on: “To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know that each time you do it, that you must do it again.”
In face of this fragility small bits of encouragement can do wonders. While he is in the pulpit, the preacher sees when you are paying attention, he sees you nodding in agreement, he sees you jotting a note in your Bible and he hears your “Amen!” or murmurs of agreement. Each of these is meaningful and encouraging. You help and encourage your pastor when you listen attentively and interactively. One of the kindest things you can do for your pastor is to go to him after the service and encourage him by telling him one specific way that the sermon was helpful to you. This is a ten-second investment that can be a tremendous blessing! A note on Monday morning, a recounting of how your family discussed the sermon over lunch—none of these things go unnoticed.
Success In Preaching Is Difficult to Measure
It is very difficult to measure success in preaching. Think about it: How do you measure the success of a sermon? People always ask, “How did your sermon go?” and I’m not sure that anyone really knows how to answer the question. Does it come by the quantity of praise and encouragement that comes after the service? Does it come in notes of thanks and gratitude in the days following? Will the elders give the pastor a score at their next meeting? It’s a much more intricate question than you may think.
The reality is that preaching tends to be measured long rather than short. The preaching ministry is one that is measured more over years than over a single sermon. Ultimately, just about all a preacher can do is prepare to the best of his ability based on the time and resources available to him and on that basis to have a clear conscience before the Lord, trusting that the Lord will bless his labors. Until a preacher can learn to do this, to find joy in something other than the praise and accolades of men, he will always be tempted to preach for men rather than for God.
Preaching Is a Joy
Preaching is a high calling. Every preacher needs to regularly remind himself of the honor of being set aside to this ministry, of even being paid to study God’s Word. Is there any greater honor a church can give, then to tell a man that they will pay him to study the Bible, as long as he promises to share what he is learning once a week? That is an amazing thing.
Every preacher also ought to continually remind himself of the awe and wonder of being able to stand in the pulpit to declare “This is what God says.” Despite the difficulties and discouragements, preaching is a joyous task and one that is always a high honor. Just about every preacher can testify to the joy of sensing the pleasure of God in preaching. Kent Hughes says, “There is nothing quite like it--the Holy Spirit filling one's sails, the sense of his pleasure, and the awareness that something is happening among one's hearers.” This is profoundly humbling and encouraging—a true spiritual thrill.