“Am I losing my mind? What’s wrong with me?” That’s what I wondered in the middle of the night, alone in a dark motel room. I had gotten out of bed and started preaching to the shadows on the wall!
That night, nearly 40 years ago, I sensed God calling me to preach but I was resisting. Yet, even as I was stubbornly refusing, I couldn’t seem to resist preaching to a congregation consisting of no one but my own shadow! Preaching to the walls seems comical now, and a little crazy in retrospect, but the situation would have only gotten worse if I had continued to say “No!” to God’s call on my life.
Paul knew something about the “divine agony” of preaching too. He regarded preaching the gospel as a necessity rather than as an option. “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16 ESV) I probably wasn’t aware of that Scripture when God called me to preach, but I understand the burden that exclaims, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” So, since preaching the Word is something a preacher cannot neglect, and since it is one of God’s primary methods of getting the message of Christ to the world, how can we maintain the white hot spiritual passion of our early days for another 10, 20, 30, or 40 more years into our ministries?
There are numerous factors in keeping your spiritual fire burning after years in ministry, but perhaps the most obvious is the universally ubiquitous demand for personal and continual spiritual growth. A few years ago I attended a Wednesday night service at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California to hear Chuck Smith preach. One of the things he said that night stuck with me. He said, “The only thing worse than not growing in Christ is going backward!” In my experience, not growing is going backward.
THE CALL TO KEEP GROWING
You and I will never grow in Christ by accident. Consistency and effectiveness in ministry require discipline and the longer you serve Him, because of our wandering hearts, the more discipline is demanded. We can get complacent over time. What was once a burning zeal can become a professionalism as cold and lifeless as stainless steel. How many of us can remember hearing a preacher who seemed to be just “phoning it in?” Some messages I’ve heard have so clearly lacked the anointing, the obvious absence of spiritual power could not be masked by the techniques of presentation-whatever they may be. Unfortunately, I’ve preached a few of those duds myself- but I’ve never gotten use to it! If, during the week we spend time in the Holy Place, by Sunday there will be something of Heaven on our lives and people will sense it. No wonder the Apostles turned over the routine ministries of the early church and declared, “…we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Make no mistake, prayer and time spent in the Word is not merely a benefit to your ministry- it is your ministry! Our people need us to be men of God. I heard about one deacon who prayed repeatedly, “Lord, put an unction on our pastor-put an unction on our pastor.” Finally, the young preacher confronted the older brother asking, “Deacon Jones, what do you mean by ‘unction?'” The old man scratched his head and said, “I don’t rightly know what it is, but whatever it is-you ain’t got it!” Well, whatever it is, I want it! A preacher’s spiritual life should stay fresh and on fire, even after he’s preached hundreds of sermons to the same congregation.
I am convinced our personal walk with God can be the single greatest factor in effective preaching. If you don’t keep your heart near the flame your words will chill your congregation. What should have stirred life will be DOA. Preaching is serious business because it affects eternity. As Spurgeon once eloquently commented, “Heaven, hell and worlds unknown may hang on the preaching and the hearing of a single sermon.” With all of this in mind, I am offering you a check list- to keep the preacher off the casualty list!
PREACHERS NEED THE WORD TOO!
If we preach the Word we should constantly, personally, hungrily devour the Word for the health of our own souls. Can you imagine a scenario when a man called to preach casually ignores the daily study of Scripture? You ought to read the Word devotionally everyday so your inner man doesn’t wither from a lack of nourishment.
Discouragement will come in ministry. There are seasons when the work can feel as dry as a desert. Stay in the Word daily, therefore, so that in spite of the inevitable dry spells of leading a church, you can immerse your own life in the refreshing water of Scripture, and in turn point to the flowing Fountain of Life for your spiritually parched congregation.
Your freshness from the study of the Word, and your spiritual zeal for His Word, will always show up in your preaching. Your people will sense your closeness to the things of God and they will hear you more readily as a result. There are scores of ministries someone else can do in your church but getting a fresh word from God for your congregation is your job!
PREACHERS SHOULD BE MEN OF PRAYER!
I’ve noticed when I’ve been faithful in prayer through the week, the preaching of the Word takes on a greater liberty on Sunday. The opposite is also true. If I’ve allowed the distractions of life to crowd out my time with God during the week, when I stand to preach the process can feel mechanical and lifeless.
When I came to Hyde Park 18 years ago, the immediate demands upon my time were unimaginable. Within a few weeks I recognized my personal, secret time for prayer as well as adequate time for sermon preparation were both suffering. Taking a page from Dr. Criswell’s playbook saved me. I did everything I could to resist phone calls or appointments before 11:00am and I told the church my plans. It’s never easy to say no to people in your church, but if you spend too much time with them-and not enough time with God- you will soon have very little to offer them!
Honestly, however, the busy demands and unexpected emergencies of some days, won’t allow the luxury of late meetings or saying “no” to the needs of your church. But fight for the solitude you need, as early everyday as you can find it, in order to spend as much uninterrupted time in personal prayer as you can, as often as you can. If you do, you’ll last longer in ministry and your preaching will have more of the touch of God upon it.
Your work, and therefore, your preparation for the work, will never be complete. To the tandem disciplines of Bible study and prayer could be added several others which are deeply enriching and essential to the work of preaching. For instance, we need to read widely and often from books, news magazines, Blogs, and ministry periodicals. We need to seek the fullness of the Spirit, fast as frequently as we can, listen to other preachers’ sermons and pod casts, attend national training conferences, continue formal education as far as we can pursue it, use our spiritual gifts to build up the Body of Christ, share the gospel regularly, and be quick to repent of every sin.
God never forces us to choose which spiritual disciplines we should live out by faith and which we can simply ignore because they are all part of the preacher’s high calling. Yet, given all the options competing for our devotion, I humbly suggest immersing yourself in prayer and the ministry of the Word will prepare you to preach more than anything else you can do. When all the Sunday’s still ahead come rushing toward you with increasing frequency as the years speed by, you may not be able to do everything others expect of you, or even everything you had hoped to do. But if you develop a lifestyle of seeking God in prayer and in the study of the Word, you will live with this settled certainty, “God has given me a word, and I’m ready to preach.”