Your Preaching Is Unique
“It really doesn’t make sense!”
That statement was made to me by a pastor friend about a dozen years ago. We were lingering over our lunchtime coffee and discussing the Bible conference I was conducting in his church. I’d just commented that the church was having a strong influence on the students and staff of the nearby university.
“What doesn’t make sense?” I asked.
“Where you and I are serving,” he replied.
“That, you are going to have to explain.”
“Look, I’m really a country preacher with a minimum of academic training, yet I’m ministering to a university crowd. You write books, and you read more books in a month than I do in a year; yet your congregation is primarily blue-collar and nonprofessional. It doesn’t make sense.”
The subject then changed, but I have pondered his observation many times in the intervening years. I’ve concluded it’s a good thing God didn’t put me on his “Pastor Placement Committee” because I would have really messed things up. I’d never have sent rustic Amos to the affluent court of the king; I’d have given him a quiet country church somewhere. And I’d never have commissioned Saul of Tarsus, that “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” to be a missionary to the Gentiles; I’d have put him in charge of Jewish evangelism in Jerusalem.
All of which brings me to the point of this article: If God has called you to preach, then who you are, what you are, and where you are also must be a part of God’s plan. You do not preach in spite of this, but because of this.
Why is it, then, that so many preachers do not enjoy preaching? Why do some busy themselves in minor matters when they should be studying and meditating? Why do others creep out of the pulpit after delivering their sermon, overwhelmed with a sense of failure and guilt? Without pausing to take a poll, I think I can suggest an answer: they are preaching in spite of themselves instead of preaching because of themselves. They either leave themselves out of their preaching or fight themselves during their preparation and delivery; this leaves them without energy or enthusiasm for the task. Instead of thanking God for what they do have, they complain about what they don’t have; and this leaves them in no condition to herald the Word of God.
The recent Christianity Today/Gallup Poll showed that ministers believe preaching is the number one priority of their ministries, but it’s also the one thing they feel least capable of doing well. What causes this insecure attitude toward preaching?
For one thing, we’ve forgotten what preaching really is. Phillips Brooks said it best: Preaching is the communicating of divine truth through human personality. The divine truth never changes; the human personality constantly changes—and this is what makes the message new and unique. No two preachers can preach the same message because no two preachers are the same. In fact, no one preacher can preach the same message twice if he is living and growing at all. The human personality is a vital part of the preaching ministry.
Recently I made an intensive study of all the Greek verbs used in the New Testament to describe the communicating of the Word of God. The three most important words are: euangelizomai, “to tell the good news”; kerusso, “to proclaim like a herald”; and martureo, “to bear witness.” All three are important in our pulpit ministry. We’re telling the good news with the authority of a royal herald, but the message is a part of our lives. Unlike the herald, who only shouted what was given to him, we’re sharing what is personal and real to us. The messenger is a part of the message because the messenger is a witness.
God prepares the man who prepares the message. Somewhere, Martin Luther said that prayer, meditation, and temptation made a preacher. Prayer and meditation will give you a sermon, but only temptation—the daily experiences of life—can transform that sermon into a message. It’s the difference between the recipe and the meal.
I had an experience at a denominational conference that brought this truth home to me. During the session at which I was to speak, a very capable ladies trio sang. It was an up-tempo number, the message of which did not quite fit my theme; but, of course, they had no way of knowing exactly what I would preach about. However, I was glad my message did not immediately follow their number because I didn’t feel the congregation was prepared. Just before I spoke, a pastor in a wheelchair rolled to the center of the platform and gave a brief testimony about his ministry. Then he sang, to very simple accompaniment, “No One Ever Cared for Me like Jesus.” The effect was overwhelming. The man was not singing a song; he was ministering a Word from God. But he had paid a price to minister. In suffering, he became a part of the message.
The experiences we preachers go through are not accidents, they are appointments. They do not interrupt our studies, they are an essential part of our studies. Our personalities, our physical equipment, and even our handicaps are all part of the kind of ministry God wants us to have. He wants us to be witnesses as well as heralds. The apostles knew this: “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). This was a part of Paul’s commission: “For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard” (Acts 22:15). Instead of minimizing or condemning what we are, we must use what we are to bear witness to Christ. It is this that makes the message our message and not the echo of another’s.
It’s easy to imitate these days. Not only do we have books of sermons, but we have radio and television ministries and cassettes by the thousands. One man models himself after Spurgeon, another after A. W. Tozer; and both congregations suffer.
Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh had an assistant who took the second service for the aging pastor. Whyte was a surgical preacher who ruthlessly dealt with man’s sin and then faithfully proclaimed God’s saving grace. But his assistant was a man of different temperament, who tried to move the gospel message out of the operating room into the banqueting hall. However, during one period of his ministry he tried Whyte’s approach, but not with Whyte’s success. The experiment stopped when Whyte said to him, “Preach your own message.” That counsel is needed today.
I am alarmed when I hear seminary students and younger pastors say, “My calling is to preach, not to pastor.” I am alarmed because I know it’s difficult to preach to people whom you do not know. As an itinerant Bible teacher, I know what it’s like to “hit a place and quit a place,” and I can assure you it is not easy. After thirty years of ministry, which included pastoring three churches, I’ve concluded it is much easier to preach to your own congregation week after week. You get to know them, and they get to know you. You’re not a visiting evangelical celebrity, but a part of the family. It is this identification with the people that gives power and relevance to your preaching.
Every profession has its occupational hazards, and in the ministry it is the passion to preach “great sermons.” Fant and Pinson, in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, came to the startling conclusion that “Great preaching is relevant preaching.” By “relevant,” they mean preaching that meets the needs of the people in their times, preaching that shows the preacher cares and wants to help. If this be true, then there are thousands of “great sermons” preached each Lord’s Day, preached by men whose names will never be printed in homiletics books, but are written in the loving hearts of their people. Listen again to Phillips Brooks:
The notion of a great sermon, either constantly or occasionally haunting the preacher, is fatal. It hampers … the freedom of utterance. Many a true and helpful word which your people need, and which you ought to say to them, will seem unworthy of the dignity of your great discourse. … Never tolerate any idea of the dignity of a sermon which will keep you from saying anything in it which you ought to say, or which your people ought to hear.
Let me add another reason for insecure feelings about our preaching. In our desire to be humble servants of God, we have a tendency to suppress our personalities lest we should preach ourselves and not Christ. While it is good to heed Paul’s warning (“For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” II Corinthians 4:5), we must not misinterpret it and thereby attempt the impossible. Paul’s personality, and even some of his personal experiences, are written into the warp and woof of his Epistles; yet Jesus Christ is glorified from start to finish.
During the past twenty years, I have been immersed in studying the lives and ministries of the famous preachers of the past. Most of these men ministered during the Victorian Era in Great Britain, a time when the pulpits were filled with superstars. If there’s one thing I learned from these men it is this: God has his own ways of training and preparing his servants, but he wants all of them to be themselves. God has put variety into the universe, and he has put variety into the church.
If your personality doesn’t shine through your preaching, you’re only a robot. You could be replaced by a cassette player and perhaps nobody would know the difference. Do not confuse the art and the science of preaching. Homiletics is the science of preaching, and it has basic laws and principles that every preacher ought to study and practice. Once you’ve learned how to obey these principles, then you can adapt them, modify them, and tailor them to your own personality.
In my conference ministry, I often share the plat form with gifted men whose preaching leaves me saying to myself, “What’s the use? I’ll never learn how to preach like that!” Then the Lord has to remind me he never called me “to preach like that.” He called me to preach the way I preach! The science of preaching is one thing; the art of preaching—style, delivery, approach, and all those other almost indefinable ingredients that make up one’s personality—is something else. One preacher uses humor and hits the target; another attempts it and shoots himself.
The essence of what I am saying is this: You must know yourself, accept yourself, be yourself, and develop yourself—your best self—if preaching is to be an exciting experience in your ministry. Never imitate another preacher, but learn from him everything you can. Never complain about yourself or your circumstances, but find out why God made things that way and use what he has given you in a positive way. What you think are obstacles may turn out to be opportunities. Stay long enough in one church to discover who you are, what kind of ministry God has given you, and how he plans to train you for ministries yet to come. After all, he is always preparing us for what he already has prepared for us—if we let him.
I learned very early in my ministry that I was not an evangelist. Although I’ve seen people come to Christ through my ministry, I’ve always felt I was a failure when it came to evangelism. One of the few benefits of growing older is a better perspective on life. Now I’m learning that my teaching and writing ministries have enabled others to lead people to Christ, so my labors have not been in vain. But I’ve had my hours of discouragement and the feeling of failure that always accompanies discouragement.
God gives us the spiritual gifts he wants us to have; he puts us in the places where he wants us to serve; and he gives the blessings he wants us to enjoy. I am convinced of this, but this conviction is not an excuse for laziness or for barrenness of ministry. Knowing I am God’s man in God’s place of ministry has encouraged me to study harder and do my best work. When the harvests were lean, the assurance that God put me there helped to keep me going. When the battles raged and the storms blew, my secure refuge was “God put me here and I will stay here until he tells me to go.” How often I’ve remembered Dr. V. Raymond Edman’s counsel: “It is always too soon to quit!”
It has been my experience that the young preacher in his first church and the middle-aged preacher (in perhaps his third or fourth church) are the most susceptible to discouragement. This is not difficult to understand. The young seminarian marches bravely into his first church with high ideals, only to face the steamroller of reality and the furnace of criticism. He waves his banners bravely for a year or so, then takes them down quietly and makes plans to move. The middle-aged minister has seen his ideals attacked many times, but now he realizes that time is short and he might not attain to the top thirty of David’s mighty men.
God help the preacher who abandons his ideals! But, at the same time. God pity the preacher who is so idealistic he fails to be realistic. A realist is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been purified. A skeptic is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been burned. There is a difference.
Self-evaluation is a difficult and dangerous thing. Sometimes we’re so close to our ministry we fail to see it. One of my students once asked me, “Why can’t I see any spiritual growth in my life? Everybody else tells me they can see it!” I reminded him that at Pentecost no man could see the flame over his own head, but he could see what was burning over his brother’s head. A word from the Scottish preacher George Morrison has buoyed me up in many a storm: “Men who do their best always do more though they be haunted by the sense of failure. Be good and true, be patient; be undaunted. Leave your usefulness for God to estimate. He will see to it that you do not live in vain.”
Be realistic as you assess your work. Avoid comparisons like the plague. I read enough religious publications and hear enough conversations to know that such comparisons are the chief indoor sport of preachers, but I try not to take them too seriously. “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (II Corinthians 10:12). Whoever introduced the idea of competition into the ministry certainly assisted the enemy in his attack against the church. Although we are in conflict against those who preach a false gospel, we are not in competition with any who preach the true gospel. We are only in competition with ourselves. By the grace of God, we ought to be better preachers and pastors today than we were a year ago.
If we are to be better pastors and preachers, we must be better persons; and this means discipline and hard work. The “giants” I’ve lived with these many years were all hard workers. Campbell Morgan was in his study at six o’clock in the morning. His successor, John Henry Jowett, was also up early and into the books. “Enter your study at an appointed hour,” Jowett said in his lectures to the Yale divinity students in 1911–1912, “and let that hour be as early as the earliest of your businessmen goes to his warehouse or his office.” Spurgeon worked hard and had to take winter holidays to regain his strength. Obviously, we gain nothing by imperiling our health, but we lose much by pampering ourselves, and that is the greater danger.
If God has called you, then he has given you what you need to do the job. You may not have all that others have, or all you wish you had, but you have what God wants you to have. Accept it, be faithful to use it, and in due time God will give you more. Give yourself time to discover and develop your gifts. Accept nothing as a handicap. Turn it over to God and let him make a useful tool out of it. After all, that’s what he did with Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Often I receive letters and telephone calls from anxious chairmen of pulpit committees, all of whom want me to suggest a pastor for their churches. “What kind of a pastor do you need right now?” I always ask, and the reply usually comes back, “Oh, a man who is about forty years old, a good preacher, evangelical.…” If I don’t interrupt them, they usually go on to describe a combination of Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Mother Teresa, and The Lone Ranger.
“Forgive me,” I usually say when they take a breath, “but that’s not what I had in mind. What kind of ministry does your church need just now— evangelism, missions, administration, teaching, or what? After all, very few men can do everything.”
The long silence that follows tells me that Brother Chairman and his committee have not really studied their church to determine its present and future needs. How, then, can they ever hope to find the right pastor to meet those needs?
Preaching is not what we do; it’s what we are. When God wants to make a preacher, he has to make the person, because the work we do cannot be isolated from the life we live. God prepares the person for the work and the work for the person and, if we permit him, he brings them together in his providence. Knowing we are God’s person, in God’s place of choosing, to accomplish God’s special work ought to be sufficient encouragement for us to weather the storm and do our very best. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He’d never put us into a ministry where he could not build us and use us.
Warren W. Wiersbe is an author, conference speaker, and associate Bible teacher on the “Back to the Bible” broadcast.