Man, this preaching gig. I can see you right now, those words staring up at you from the text, the clock ticking away, reminding you with each agonizing moment that Sunday is beckoning and you still have NOTHING TO SAY. Preaching is war, and only a preacher knows what I mean by that rather dramatic pronouncement. It’s a battle that starts every Monday morning when the adrenaline from the day before starts to wear off and a new set of fears arise as you begin your not-so-long journey back to the front lines.
Just so you know, I love preaching. I appreciate the art and the craft that is intertwined in both the preparation and presentation of it. I’m both fascinated and humbled by the indefinable synergy that happens when God’s word comes flowing from the mouth of God’s man to the hearts of God’s people. I practically gobble up books on preaching, attend preaching workshops and take every chance I get with other pastors to chat about preparation, methods and speaking styles. In spite of my unabashed love, the struggle is real. Although for me, it’s not the act of preaching that I struggle with as much as the process, the preparation, and the long slog that comes with trying to say something true about the truest words ever written.
This is the part I like to describe as the trenches of preaching. Those times when you seem to have no visibility, a distinct lack of focus, and high levels of fatigue while being keenly aware that there’s an enemy lurking nearby who is on the attack.
Why is this? Why is preaching one of, if not the hardest tasks for the pastor? Here are some reasons why I think preachers preach in the trenches, and why it’s supposed to be that way.
A Sermon Is Never Really Complete
Most of us probably have certain routines we follow for sermon prep, but at the end of the week, there’s no formula that provides you with a “finished” sermon. I put finished in quotes because a sermon is never really complete until you preach it. Up until the moment you open your mouth, there is always going to be outlines, illustrations, and applications that can be more clear, more correct and more compelling. I don’t think this is a bad thing, because preaching is not mathematics, but a Holy Spirit-driven act of divine implications. My prayer every Sunday morning is “Holy Spirit, give me the words to speak in between the lines I’ve written”, and that’s because a sermon is a living, breathing, and changing organism.
Certainly God’s word is unchanging, but how we communicate it and apply it should be ever evolving, which is why the only finished sermon anyone ever has is the one they just preached.
A Sermon Is Not About You
Really? All these hours, all this emotional upheaval, all these early mornings, late nights, and incessant tapping on my iPad and it’s not about me? Not even a little? Well, it is about you a little, because God speaks through the person He made you to communicate the word He breathed out through other men that He made. So yes, you matter. Your communication, personality, emotions, and mannerisms…all of you matters, because all of you communicates the word of God to all of the people God gives you to hear it communicated. But the word is not especially about you, it’s about God, which is why our flesh battles against our spirit in the pulpit.
If sermons were about us, how easy would that be? Roll up on Sundays, tell a few stories, provide some nice anecdotes, get a few laughs, and exit the building while the fires of hell creep a few inches closer to the pews. Yeah, you get it.
A Sermon Is Hard to Self-Evaluate
Now look, we tend to become more balanced in our critique the longer we preach. When you first started preaching, you wondered what all the fuss was about because you thought every single manuscript you wrote was on par with one of Spurgeon’s lost sermons. But then an amazing thing happened. God humbled you, and those incessant ramblings you called preaching turned into gratefulness for all the mercy people had on you while they suffered in silence. So you hung in there, and after a few years a strange thing happened. Instead of sounding like a grainy, worn out cassette version of your three favorite preachers, you began to sound like your own man, and became an actual, bonafide preacher. And yet, despite this progress of merciful proportions, you still preach bad sermons, although now they’re “bad” for different reasons than when they were just plain awful for all reasons.
But the one thing we never get good at is how to evaluate the good. Sure, we learn how to judge the content and execution of our sermons, but we never get good at evaluating their effectiveness. The old cliche is true. You struggle all week preparing a difficult passage. You never feel like you’ve found your feet, and by the time you preach it, you fumble your way through your notes like a five-year old learning to read for the first time. But inevitably, this also happens to be the Sunday when someone in your congregation approaches you with an envelope that basically reads "and the academy award for best sermon goes to …YOU."
There’s no explanation for it, nor should there ever be. It’s a gracious thing that we don’t know how the Holy Spirit uses our sermons in the hearts of our people, because our wicked hearts would love nothing more than to be the Holy Spirit.
A Sermon Is Supposed to be Hard
Preaching is supposed to happen in the trenches. It’s supposed to be hard because we’re speaking hard words that God uses to soften hard hearts. It should feel like war because it’s the only viable weapon God has provided to successfully engage our true spiritual enemy. If it’s the primary method God has chosen to draw people from darkness into light, why would it, why should it not be hard? Instead, be concerned if at any point preaching the word becomes an effortless glide over smooth waters and under sunny skies. There is joy to be sure, but it’s a heavy joy that contains blessings and burdens like no other.
So take courage men, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.