Many of you earnestly desire to hear your pastors preach better sermons. While you can tell that he labours away, you long for more passion, more earnestness, more deliberateness, or more clarity. That’s understandable. Most preachers would like to grow in these ways as well. (And the ones who don’t really need prayer.)
One of the best ways you can help your pastor’s preaching is by praying for him. But did you know you can do even more than that? And it’s not that difficult, either.
A Part of the Body
Christians acknowledge quickly enough that they are part of the body of Christ; the question many of us face is, ‘What part of the body am I?’
When Paul writes to the Ephesians he says that ‘grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4.7). He then goes on to explain how Christ’s incarnation, perfect life, death, resurrection, and ascension have given him the right to sovereignly distribute gifts as he sees fit. He can give what he wants to whom he wants. He purchased that right.
Some of the examples that Paul gives are the more obvious gifts: ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherds and teachers’ (Eph 4.11). Those are gifts that stand out, right?
But what if I’m not an apostle or prophet or evangelist or shepherd-teacher? How do I know what part of the body I am? I know that I’m supposed to serve the body, but where?
The sad truth is that sometimes we get stuck in seasons where we are not using our gifts or serving our church, not because we don’t want to, but because we just don’t know how to. We don’t know where we belong.
Two Balancing Questions to Find Your Place
Question 1: What gifts does this body part have?
Sometimes people end up getting placed in ministry programs and roles that need to be filled simply because ‘this is what the church does.’ This can lead to bad places. People who aren’t fit, gifted, or qualified to serve in specific roles are placed there to simply ‘fill a gap.’ In the end it doesn’t build up the body, it wears out the person serving, and the ministry is in a worse spot than when the person started.
It seems that with the rise in numbers of young, broadly-reformed Christians and pastors in recent years, there has also been a large increase in the seeming importance of conferences. Here you have people who love theology, love good preaching, love fellowship across denominational lines, and love the overall experience of getting away and being blessed through deep study of the word for a few days.
What could be wrong with that? Right?
Many of the dangers of conferences (celebrity-ism, seeking life in emotional highs, finding identity in being a ‘conference person’, etc.) have been well-chronicled already. I’ve considered those potential pitfalls, and seen the danger in them. But yet, I’ve still remained largely in favour of conferences.
But recently I’ve been thinking about another problem with conferences — one that is in large part bound up with the celebrity-pastor and church-by-podcast Christian culture of 21st century North American evangelicalism.
The problem is bound up with our ecclesiology (our theology of the church):
Unchecked, conferences can both reflect bad ecclesiology and lead to still worse ecclesiology.
A Leave It to the Experts Mentality
Our culture is a culture of experts. Multiple post-secondary and even graduate degrees are required for just about everything. Specialists, rather than generalists rule the day. If we are not careful, our broader church culture will reflect the same thinking. The voice of the local pastor is drowned out by the thunderous boom of the voice amplified to thousands of conference attendees and broadcast live across the web to many more.
Optimism: “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”
Was the Apostle Paul an optimist? For a guy who taught a lot about the depravity of the human heart, Paul sure seemed to take a pretty rosey view of life sometimes, didn’t he?
A ‘Church-is-Half-Full’ Kind of View?
Here’s a case in point: The church in Corinth. They were divided and dividing still, they valued fancy speech over sound doctrine, they had cases of publicly known immorality that were not being addressed, they were suing each other, they were leaving betrothed women unprovided for, fighting over food sacrificed to idols, arguing over whose spiritual gifts made them the most spiritually mature, leading chaotic worship services, and considering denying the resurrection. Seriously. And you thought your church was bad!
But think about how Paul addresses them:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift… (1 Cor 1.4-6)
That sure sounds like a very optimistic, ‘glass-half-full’ kind of view of the church, doesn’t it? Is he just flattering them?
The furthest thing from being an optimist who chooses to ‘look on the more favorable side of events’ or a double-tongued flatterer who dabbles in deceit, Paul is speaking the truth boldly. He has something greater than optimism when it comes to the Corinthian church — as messed up as it is. Paul has hope. God-grounded, gospel-believing hope.
Maybe it’s because I’m naturally a pessimist, but the most natural way for me to figure out how I can grow as a preacher is to identify what mistakes I most commonly make and try to work on improving those, by God’s grace. For the purpose of self-evaluation and ‘fanning into flame’ the preaching gift that I have, I decided to list out the mistakes I most often make in sermon preparation and delivery.
I imagine that I’m probably not the only preacher who makes some of these mistakes with regularity, so I thought I’d share them here in case my list ends up helping any of you brothers who are working on preaching evaluation / improvement as well.
Top Mistakes I Make in Sermon Preparation
1. I Don’t Pray Enough
This one is simple. There are more weeks than I care to admit when there is very little by way of earnest, extended times of prayer for the ministry of the preached word. This reflects self-reliance, and a disturbing amount of trust placed in my gifts rather than the one who actually has the power to do spiritual work in the hearts of the hearers. This one is first because it’s clearly the worst offence.
2. I Don’t Study Enough
This doesn’t happen quite as much for me, but sometimes I think my sermons are lacking in power because I just simply haven’t studied broadly enough. If I’m not absolutely confident that ‘this’ is what the text says, then I can’t preach it with absolute conviction.
Today I read 1 Thessalonians 4.11. My first thought was, ‘I wonder if this is the most forgotten-about command of the New Testament?’ This is how it reads:
… aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you…
How many church conflicts, how many rumours, how many hurt feelings would have been prevented if we listened to this command? How many times have we pursued busyness, noisiness, and in our boredomophobia-driven society pursued activity at all costs? And what is the net result? More stress, more tiredness, more strenuous relationships.
When I consider the cost of not trying to live quietly, of not minding my own affairs, and not being content to simply do my job, I see that it’s clear how Paul connects this to brotherly love. Immediately before these commands, Paul says,
Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another… . But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly…
In other words, this command to live quietly, to mind your own business, and to work hard at the job God has given you is an enactment of brotherly love. When you keep your nose out of someone else’s business, you’re loving them. When you are not a back-biter or a gossip, you are loving other people. When you stick to your job and stop being a busy-body (in the church and out of it), you are loving others.
It’s Okay to Not Be Spurgeon
You don’t have to express things like Spurgeon to encourage others
If you are like most Christians, there are probably times when you think of a brother or sister who has blessed you or served the church well, and so you want to encourage them. That’s good! The word of God commands you to ‘encourage one another’ (1 Thess 5.11). That impulse is from God’s Holy Spirit.
But the problem is that oftentimes it seems silly. We think, ‘What would I say to them?’ or ‘Why would they care what I have to say?’ Or sometimes actually beginning a conversation where we hope to encourage someone can seem awkward in our mind, so we just shy away from it.
Or maybe we start to think of how we could go about encouraging the person in a more tangible way… and we can’t think of anything. Sometimes we think of writing little notes… but then that seems to be too daunting.
The sad, tragic twist at the end of all of this is that now we end up feeling discouraged because we couldn’t encourage someone else… and that person is still in need of encouragement! So what’s the solution?