My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,
but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,
so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom,
but on God’s power.
– The First Epistle to the Corinthians 2:4-5 (ESV)
Preaching may be easy for some but it’s not for me. In fact, there are days scattered throughout the year when my disappointment gets the best of me and I consider leaving the pulpit altogether. I’m sure there’s probably a broken part of me still tied to performance and merit-based living which the Gospel freed me from that whispers in my ear, “Yancey, if this is the best sermon you can muster on a weekly basis then you need a new seat on the church bus.” Granted, I don’t hear that voice often but it has stayed with me long enough to cause me to look upon my teaching ministry with great caution and reservation.
I’m sure some of my issues flow from the fact that preaching is much more an intuitive than systematic process for me. Every so often I’m asked by pastors in other churches about how I put together a message and almost always I’m embarassed to reply because of my inability to share with them point-by-point how it happens. The reason for that is it looks different almost every time: sometimes I start breaking down a text on paper, or I brainstorm the flow of an idea on a marker board, or I research for a period of time and then write the sermon from start to finish! Now think about that, in my ten (almost eleven) year tenure as the teaching pastor of my local church I’ve likely preached upwards of around 500 sermons. One would think I’d have a rock-solid process of message preparation by now but I don’t. That’s nuts! Frankly, it bothers me that’s the case.
I must say, this angst in my preaching is completely internal. There is not a week that goes by where I don’t have several encouraging, uplifting emails filling my inbox about how God has used my latest message in the lives of my parishioners. I am grateful for that. Indeed, I rarely delete any of them. Furthermore, I’m a part of a leadership staff which reinforces my teaching gift with similar votes of confidence and support. That’s a big deal to me as well. I tend to give a louder voice in my life to those whom I deeply respect and there are fewer men I respect as much as those who comprise our Executive Staff. Make no mistake, my struggle with preaching is one where I’m in a room locked from the inside.
A practice I’ve developed to help me fight against this struggle is continually reminding myself that I must preach in faith, by faith. I must keep telling myself that ultimately it is God’s Spirit not my communication prowess (or lack thereof) that moves the hearts of men. I should study hard, pray hard and trust God in Christ. My faith should be applied through the entire process of study, preparation, delivery and even what happens in the hearts of my listeners. Thankfully, this has become more default than discipline over the years. Yet there are seasons when I have to remind myself, “Yancey, you must preach in faith by faith.”
With all that being said, there’s actually a part of me which is grateful for my unease with preaching. I think there’s a blessing in being an insecure preacher if only for the fact that you approach the pulpit with a helplessness that leads to a dependence upon God to work in the preaching event…in you and in others. Conversely, I believe secure preachers are great threats to both themselves and their congregations. They can easily be tempted to think of their own greatness. To fall headlong into the sin of presumption simply assuming how powerfully their messages will affect the hearts of those who hear them. I do believe there is a confidence we can take to the pulpit but I’m afraid all too often some pastors have confused it with arrogance. The words from fellow pastor John Piper are helpful here:
You can mark it down that if you are a preacher God will hide from you much of the fruit he causes in your ministry. You will see enough to be assured of his blessing, but not so much as to think you could live without it. For God aims to exalt himself, not the preacher. (The Supremacy of God in Preaching, 19)
In the end, I believe I should receive my preaching insecurities as more blessing than curse. Phillips Brooks, who taught a course of lectures on preaching at Yale University in 1877, counseled young pastors, “Never allow yourself to feel equal to your work. If you ever find that spirit growing on you, be afraid. (Lectures on Preaching, 106)” Thankfully, I don’t believe that has ever been the case with me.
So, I will continue with preparing messages in a fashion that bewilders even me. I’ll still keep walking to the pulpit with great unease and uncertainty. And I’ll still continue, God-willing, to deliver another 500+ sermons over the next decade. However, I pray I will do it all with an ever-deepening, always abounding faith that God is doing the work I can’t and very thankful he chooses to use people who are limited, if not broken, for his glory.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
– Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)