If you've ever wondered what it's like to be the guy who gets up before thousands of people every week to represent God and his Word, here's you chance to get some answers.
Like everyone who loves their work, I love preaching. But I also fear it, or at least I start each Monday afraid, knowing I have to do it all again. Bruce Thielelmann may have overstated the case a bit, but he succinctly put into words what many of us feel about preaching:
"The pulpit calls to those appointed to it as the sea calls its sailors. And like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest. To preach, to really preach is to die naked a little at a time and to know each time you do it that you must do it again."
Here is what preaching is to me:
1. Preaching is a genuine privilege: As you will see, the following list contains more negatives than positives simply because preaching every week is both hard and humiliating. But none of the pressures preaching puts on a man can overtake the enormous privilege it is to be entrusted by God with the responsibility to bring his Word to bear on the hearts and minds of people. There is no greater joy than to see the Spirit use the Word to transform lives.
There are multiple benefits enjoyed by those who really preach, but for me the greatest is the magnificent education I gain through studying the Bible. I get paid to study the Bible! Every sermon I preach represents only a small portion of what my own heart has gained, and feasted upon. Many times during my preparation I find myself wanting to go into the halls of our offices at Grace to share some amazing truth I've discovered in the text. It is no secret that Scripture can engulf and excite the soul like nothing else, and those who study and preach learn much more than they can every share from the pulpit.
But, with all its benefits, preaching is never a given for those called to it. Gifted preachers are just that, gifted. And they realize the gift has been given by God, for his purposes. They also realize the preaching privilege can be forfeited, lost, or corrupted through neglect and sin.
For those privileged to preach God's Word, doing so can bring a sense of joy and fulfillment not found elsewhere. But it comes at a price. The privilege to preach brings enormous pressure to those enslaved to it.
2. Preaching is a huge challenge: Every time I start my preparation work for a new sermon I have to beat back the sense that I just can't do it again. No kidding, I do, because of the mountain I have to climb. Preaching is just plain hard if you do it right, and attempt to do it well.
Most people will tell you public speaking is a great fear. I've heard it is second on the list of most feared things, with #1 being going to the dentist. But for the preacher, this is just the first part of the mountain. To climb it I first have to get the text right, which is no small task given its antiquity, and linguistic and theological complexity.
Then I have to come up with ways to communicate the message to an audience of people from various walks of life, at multiple levels of spiritual maturity, who may be sleepy or hungry or mad at me or whatever. Then I have to actually do what I planned to do, realizing all too often that some of what I wanted to say just doesn't work and must be edited, expanded, or manipulated on the fly. And the challenge is only enlarged when you understand that I have to preach again and again to the same audience, week after week after week. For me, each preaching opportunity is a huge challenge.
3. Preaching is an enormous responsibility: Each time I preach I feel a huge responsibility to three different audiences. First and foremost I feel responsible to God. After all, it is his message I am carrying. He's the author, and he's my master. The more I preach, the more I feel the weight of assuming to speak for him. It is never far from my mind that I am representing Almighty God, as his herald, delivering his Word to his people for the purpose of bringing him glory. There can be no more important responsibility.
But secondly, I feel a huge responsibility to the men with whom I am partnering in leading the church of Jesus Christ. I am constantly aware that my preaching is a major part of the engine that drives the church forward. My words must be aligned with our collective hearts, and correctly represent the mission of Christ through Grace Baptist to the world. I am representing the Leadership Team when I preach, and understand as their spokesman my words matter a great deal in leading our people in unity, truth and love.
Thirdly, I carry the obvious responsibility to bring the Scripture to bear on the family of Grace in such a way that their hearts engage more fully with our God. This means I not only have to exegete the biblical text, but also understand my audience in order to provide truth in a manner the Spirit can use in every kind of heart, should he so desire.
Preaching places a huge responsibility on those who take it seriously.
4. Preaching is a fearful experience: The responsibility preachers carry fuels the fear they feel. They do their work in public, before at least three audiences, and failure is always an option.
Most of the time when I finish preaching I feel as though it didn't go that well. This is not intended to elicit sympathy or compliments. It's just the truth. The fear of failure is exacerbated by the fact that I preach four times each weekend giving me more opportunities to mess up.
I am afraid of misrepresenting God, of boring the people, and further upsetting my critics. I am afraid of looking down at my notes and having them seem like gibberish. I am afraid of starting an illustrative story and part way through forgetting what it was I was trying to illustrate. I am afraid of slips of the tongue that bring chuckles, and also that folks won't chuckle at some humor I throw in. All in all, there are myriad things I am afraid of as I walk to the pulpit, and the scariest part is that I have done them all multiple times before and know it is only a matter of time until I do them again.
Folks often ask me if I get nervous before preaching. The answer is "always", and doing it for many years only seems to have increased the number of things I know can go wrong.
5. Preaching is a humiliating ordeal: When Thielemann compared preaching to "dying naked a little at a time" he was describing what it feels like to do all your work in public, before a crowd focused on you, who can critique both privately and publicly every word, thought, and gesture you deliver. And when you are done, you get to make yourself available up front for anyone who wants to let you know what you missed, where you were mistaken, and why you are wrong.
Now, don't get me wrong. I probably get more love and encouragement than most guys since I am privileged to serve in a church family that is gracious beyond measure. Grace Baptist people seem happy to love warts as well as beauty, for which I am enormously thankful. But the acceptance I enjoy doesn't seem to dampen the feeling of potential humiliation every time I speak. Exposure is the mother of humiliation and I feel it every week.
6. Preaching is a draining undertaking: I have no scientific facts to give you but I know from experience that preaching a sermon is a physical and emotional drain. When I finish preaching two back-to-back sermons I am not good for much else.
Believe it or not, I have to plan how and what to eat on Saturdays and Sundays to have enough fuel for prolonged mental acuity. There are times when, during the second sermon on Saturday night or Sunday morning, I get rummy and can't think of the next words I want to use. To avoid this, I drink lots of water, down some nuts or fruit between sermons, and try to have the right kind of meal a few hours before the service begins.
But preaching also drains me emotionally. That means I won't be at my best right after I finish. One of my great innate personal weaknesses is an inability to deal well with criticism, especially right after preaching. If I had my wish, I would be whisked off stage when the sermon ends to sit all alone for a few minutes in prayer before being thrust into the public arena again. But to do this would be an affront to the church family I live with, and to whom I have just brought the Word of God. So, over the years I have worked to be personable, and not take anything personally within 30 minutes of ending a sermon.
While it may not seem like rigorous work, preaching actually drains both physical and emotional strength.
7. Preaching is a constant pressure: For me, Saturday and Sunday are game days. The whole week has the preaching services as it's goal and focus. And every Monday it starts all over again. Preachers have very little time to relax and rest in having completed another sermonic task. The weekend is done, but another one is just around the corner.
My friends who preach all share the same story. Being an every week preacher means living with constant pressure. I am daily reading and thinking about the preaching year, collecting articles, capturing thoughts, and designing structures for sermons to be preached up to 12 months in the future. As I write, I have spent the morning reading in preparation for the series through Acts we will start 7 months from now. It just never ends, and that is both exhilarating and exhausting.
There is also pressure to be good. I remember Joe Stowell III remarking, when he came to one of his pastoral positions, that the church leadership told him they had only one expectation: 48 perfect sermons a year!
While I am glad I don't preach at that church, it is still true congregations hope every sermon will be a good one. So, the better you do one week, the greater pressure there is for the next one.
To preach is to engage in a task that is never done, but must always be done better. It just never stops. The pressure never stops because the call of God on the preacher's life instills in him a passion to think biblically and "sermonically" all the time as a function of his being. And he loves it, as much as he wishes at times he could just get away. But he can't. Vacations become times when he can read all he wants, write all he wants, and develop new and thoughtful sermon series. They become "thought and text filled" days and weeks, and are truly a respite for the soul.
So, preaching is a constant pressure, but one no real preacher will ever want to escape.
8. Preaching is a special calling: By now you might be wondering why anyone would volunteer to be a preacher. The fact is, no real preacher has ever volunteered. I mean that. Preaching is a calling from God to the heart of a man that is more like the draft! And when God drafts and crafts a man to be a herald of his Word, that man no longer works for himself but for God.
Preaching is a special calling, an appointment from God that comes at God's choosing, for God's purposes. We preachers are literally "in his grip" or at least we should be.
The preaching task isn't a job anyone should take upon themselves. My father, a Baptist preacher and Dallas Seminary grad used to tell me: "Son, if you can be happy doing anything else, don't be a preacher. But if God calls you to preach, never step down to be the President of the United States."
The challenges and fears and hard work that are wrapped up in preaching simply can't be withstood and met unless God has called and equipped you to do the job. Preaching, and all that goes with it in terms of church leadership, caring for people, studying, reading, writing, counseling, decision-making, mentoring and disciple-making, personal discipline, and life-long learning, can never be done apart from the massive, ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, mind and life of the preacher.
Simply put, if you're not called, do something else. And if you're unsure of your calling, do something else. And if you think you're called to the preaching ministry, try something else until the passion of your heart and the constant urging and affirmation of God's people compels you to give yourself to the ministry of God's Word.
9. Preaching is a dependent calling: Men who are truly called of God, and gifted to preach and lead the church will show evidence of that calling by their utter dependence on the God who called them.
Prayer is essential to powerful preaching. Prayer is essential to humble preaching. Prayer is essential to getting up on Monday morning and endeavoring to climb the "sermon" mountain once again. Prayer is fuel that drives the sermonic engine, day after day, week after week.
Yes, it is possible to be a great communicator without prayer. And yes, there are men in pulpits today who draw great crowds to their preaching who do so without prayer. But this is not preaching for real Spirit-laced, Christ-exalting, God-glorifying preaching is not a human endeavor. It is a work of God, both in the preacher and the listener, that comes about only by means of dependent prayer.
If you don't love to pray, please don't preach.
10. Preaching is not for cowards, the thin-skinned, the lazy, the self-sufficient, or the uncalled: Preaching is a great privilege, and the hardest work you'll ever love. But it isn't for everyone. Those without courage should look elsewhere. Those looking to escape hard work that never lets up should try a different line. Those who find studying and reading and writing boring or unfulfilling would do well to enlist somewhere else. Those who are gifted enough to succeed on their own talents, who can "wing it" brilliantly should go into sales or marketing or politics, but please stay out of the pulpit. And those who think being a preacher would be fun, or make them popular, or give them the leadership position they've always wanted, should definitely do us all a favor and stay away from leading the church.
But if your heart is stirred by study of God's Word, and you find yourself able to put the message of God into good, attractive, and accessible sentences, then maybe you're feeling God's grip on your life. Test it, explore the task of preaching, and if God drafts and crafts you, never for one moment leave off pursuing excellence in being God's spokesman. You'll never find greater joy anywhere. That's what preaching is to me.