Each Sunday morning, I take my prepared sermon to the pulpit, numerous pairs of eyes looking back at me. Some look with anticipation, Bibles open and pen in hand ready to capture truths from God’s Word. Others approach this time with a different “look,” more of a spectator: no Bible open, no pen in hand, and (from my vantage point) no interest in what is about to transpire. Still, others get a head start on a good, comfortable nap.
How does a preacher of the Word approach these times? That’s the mystery.
While some preachers take to the pulpit with a performance mentality, many preachers and pastors sense God’s call in a life-shaking and life-changing manner. I served as Worship and Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church of Clewiston, Florida when, in July 1999 on a missions trip to Mobile, Alabama with my student ministry, I sensed the overpowering call of God to preach. (It was so overwhelming, I could go back to the University of Mobile’s campus and take you to the spot. I was reading “The Servant Principle” by Rick Ferguson when God spoke in a way that was louder than words.)
Twenty-two years later, that call still resounds and has kept me through all the highs and lows ministry brings. That call was to preach the gospel as a pastor of a local church. When I prepare and preach, I preach as if I am serving the Most High and serving as an undershepherd. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).
While the preaching event on Sunday mornings is not all that happens with one’s pastoral call, I believe it is the most critical. Granted, many dispute this conviction. A few years ago, I received a mailer that said, “If you believe preaching is the most important part of your ministry, you’re doing it wrong.” The point was that more happens in a church than that hour on Sunday morning and that ministries should focus on Monday through Saturday, not just Sunday.
While I believe no one disputes the necessity of helping Christians be, well, Christian Monday through Saturday as well, the preaching of the Word is a mysterious calling with a mysterious effect that doesn’t always fall into the formulas of success we contrive. The Word, accompanied by prayer and moved along by the Spirit, is the method God uses for change–and God works in those ways even if the “look” of our congregations indicates otherwise.
Seeing a congregant with Bible open and pen in hand on the surface looks as if they are the most engaged for the preacher. Those who have their eyes closed (hopefully they are praying) are the least ideal because they look as if they are the least engaged. The spectator (watching, no Bible, no pen) is the interesting one for me. Martyn Lloyd-Jones always struggled when he saw someone taking notes while he preached. He felt that the time they disengaged from the sermon to write down what he said made it more difficult for them to re-engage with the sermon. He wanted “impressions” that he prayed the Spirit would use.
In a conversation with someone a few years ago who preferred audible engagement with the sermon and grew frustrated with others who didn’t share her penchant for praise, I assured her that some outwardly praise while others inwardly process, but they still engage.
The mystery of preaching is not a mystery–”Preach the Word,” “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), etc. The mystery for the preacher is, How can they tell if their word is heard? We can’t–not always. We plant and /or water–God grows, and that harvest might not come for decades, but we trust.
Boxes with microwaveable meals often say, “Cook on high for five minutes, let cool for one minute, then serve.” Sermons aren’t like that: “Cook on high for thirty minutes, let cool with a five-minute, six-verse invitation of Just As I Am, then save.”
We pray, prepare, preach, pray some more, then love, serve, lead–all from the Word, all in the name of Jesus, all the while knowing that He is with us always, even to the end of the age. Go and make those disciples, folks!