Your preaching is not God’s work. You are God’s work. I received this vision in a peculiar way.
As I was minding my own business leading a foundation that helped denominations start new churches, unexpectedly a headhunter came my way seeking my interest in leading Alpha USA. I have always loved the intersection of evangelism, church, and culture. I had great respect for international Alpha leaders, so I sincerely sought discernment before taking on this new role.
As a part of that seeking, I phoned my friend Dallas Willard. Dallas could sense in me an overemphasis on choosing a job. He said: “Todd, your work is not God’s work. You are God’s work. Your work is simply one context in which you apprentice yourself to Jesus.” I’ve come to know that what I learned about a job that day also applies to preaching: Todd, your preaching is not God’s work. You are God’s work. Preaching flows from God’s work within.
To proclaim is to shout something out in public. We preachers love proclamation—it is active and energetic. We also tend to be energized by the idea of what God is doing through us. There’s a buzz that comes from being used by God. It’s exciting! This is not in and of itself a problem, as long as we recognize that proclamation requires “preclamation”—the quiet, hidden claiming of our hearts for God so that our core motivation, no matter the size of the crowd, is to preach for an audience of one.
Such preaching is the outward expression of a journey inward. Preaching is unavoidably connected to the preacher’s inner life. One’s interior reality is the headwater from which preaching flows. What God is doing in me pours out through my preaching.
There is a tight connection between inner transformation and outward proclamation. The former unavoidably and inevitably colors the latter. We can try to pretend, but a flat heart is sure to produce flat teaching. A prickly heart will overflow into a prickly and unkind sermon. An anxious heart radiates an anxiety-producing message. A heart full of judgment poisons a homily. And a “God, speak through me” desire in preaching will have serious pitfalls if we aren’t first praying, “God, speak in me.” We must pay attention to a crucial question: “What is God doing in me?”
The Treasures of Your Heart
Solid exegetical and hermeneutical work is crucial. An effective homiletic shape is nice too. But we preachers cry for something deeper. We long for special power to flow in us and to flood through us.
What makes for great preaching? The treasures of one’s heart. I have found that practicing Jesus’ wisdom about the heart renovates preaching: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”; “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of”; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matt. 6:21; 12:34; 22:37, emphasis added).
The affections of our heart are on display in preaching just as much as (or perhaps even more than) our intellect. Rightly ordered affection is what my friend Dallas was nudging me toward. Applying this to preaching, he wrote:
Men and women in ministry who are not finding satisfaction in Christ are likely to demonstrate that with overexertion and overpreparation for speaking, and with no peace about what they do after they do it. If we have not come to the place of resting in God, we will go back and think, Oh, if I’d done this, or Oh, I didn’t do that. When you come to the place where you are drinking deeply from God and trusting him to act with you, there is peace about what you have communicated.
Preaching without contentment in Jesus runs the risk of turning a congregation of the body of Christ into an audience from which we derive fleshly energy and short-lived pseudosatisfaction. The temptation goes like this: I am not feeling particularly content in Christ, so when my sermon is a 6.5 rather than a 10, I feel insecure and need something from the crowd to assure me that I am a valuable person. But preachers who are deeply satisfied in Jesus are not typically tempted to use crowds to make themselves safe or secure.
Developing this form of contentment is easier said than done. We may do well in some seasons of life and poorly in others. But consistent attitudes and a stable emotional state will come as we cultivate the heart described above by Jesus. My paraphrase of Proverbs 4:23 helps me to align with what Jesus envisioned: “Put everything you have into the care of your heart—the hidden, causative, motivational you—for everything you do flows from it. It is the real source of your outward life. It determines what your life amounts to.”
Sundays Are a Grind
Sundays and their preaching demands come around and around like a relentless, grinding wheel. And that grinding, over time, can deform our spirits, which then wrecks our preaching. Paul was aware of the connection between his spirit and preaching. In fact, he said, “I serve [God] in my spirit in preaching” (Rom. 1:9). In my spirit essentially means “in a spiritual manner.” It refers to preaching that comes from somewhere deep within. It’s preaching that is not just a mental or bodily activity but that emerges from one’s whole heart and soul.
In the midst of the weekly grind of developing sermons, how do we protect our hearts and souls? What can keep our preaching fresh, liberated, and fruitful? It’s difficult, but I am discovering that I don’t have to be a victim of the grind. Several principles help me.
Eugene Peterson, in describing the soil from which the best preaching grows, quoted from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not out of toil.” Rather than always resting from preaching, I’m learning to preach from an essential rest. I also spend time in the contemplation and reception of grace and peace. This delivers me from striving to control outcomes. It gives me an ease of heart from which to preach, knowing that God does for us preachers what we cannot do on our own.
The grind has less bite when we cultivate an ever-growing reliance on the Holy Spirit. For me, the act of public speaking is increasingly the overflow of private listening. A quieted and listening heart attuned to the Holy Spirit, the text, and my context seems to be the key ingredient for effective preaching.
Gracious, Generous, and Generative Preaching
As a young preacher, I tended to pray for various kinds of success: to speak well, to get other invitations to speak, or to have lots of people want a recording of my talk. But the prayers of my latter years align much better with the ideas we have been discussing.
Now, just before rising to speak, I put my hand on the place from which Jesus said words come: my heart. I pray, God, help me to be truly present to this moment and this group of people. Radiate in and through me a gracious, generous, generative presence. Psalm 23 comes in handy in those moments too. I picture in my mind the bodily elements implicit in the psalm’s words: “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5).
With the knowledge that I am God’s work and that he has been at work in me, I then ask for that which God has made real in me to be for the good of others. Remembering the Master’s insight, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of,” I ascend to the pulpit, seeking to preach from the inside out.
Todd Hunter is bishop of Churches for the Sake of Others in the Anglican Church in North America. An author and professor, he is the past president of Vineyard USA and Alpha USA.