Confessions of an Idolatrous Preacher

At Jubilee, one of the first things I got involved with was softball. Every church has something it prides itself in, and Jubilee it happened to be softball (or was according to some old timers). SMALL BALL!!! was our coach James’s cry batter after batter. The idea was that a cluster of singles was more effective in both building momentum and producing runs than each batter aimlessly hacking at a ball that ends up in a fly outs more often than an extra base hit. Harmlessly, during one of the games, one of the congregants who was in attendance slipped a comment past me in saying, “We’ll see if we still want you after we see you play softball.” No pressure at all, right? So I was stuck in a dilemma: listen to our coach or leave an impression? Of course, my desires of leaving an impression was all self-serving. Yet, I had to commit to a mindset, and I eventually decided to play it safe and listen to the coach. I think every single one of my hits were singles to right field, since right field and second base were usually the weaker fielders. I didn’t even try and go for two. Small ball.

You know, that idea of small ball actually is pretty relevant in a lot of things in life. There is always that dilemma for high-risk/high-reward opportunity as opposed to the safer low-risk/low-reward opportunity. Thus, as one who has recently gotten the privilege of preaching on a near weekly basis, it seemed applicable to my situation as well. As a seminary student, intern pastor, and guest preacher, I would often look at the task of preaching as hitting home runs. I wanted to deliver that knockout punch for all the most selfish reasons. And since I preached relatively infrequently, I could spend more time crystallizing and putting the final Midas touch on all my sermons. Yet, there were a couple of things that I noticed about myself with preaching when holding this particular mindset. I didn’t realize it as much then, but less than a season into full-time ministry, I see much of the folly behind the way I approached preaching God’s Word. I’m sure I’ll continue to find foolish and sinful tendencies that I need to work on more with time, but these realizations were some rookie observations recently made.  These issues were pretty critical as they were both spiritual and practical.

  1. Preaching became idolatrous and gospel-less. Though none of my messages were ever absent of the gospel, my preparation was lacking much of the impact the gospel ought to leave on a preacher. As Tim Keller would say, an idol is turning a good thing into the ultimate thing. Preaching the Word is a grand and majestic thing, and I somehow managed to turn that into an idolatrous pursuit to create for myself a reputation, self-worth, and praise. My preparations were gospel-less, as they were not geared towards what people needed to hear to be brought nearer to the Great Shepherd, but it was geared towards what people needed to hear to bring the most amount of compliments my direction. Since the primary focus upon preparation was self-pointing, I was using the Word of God as another one of my tools to fulfill my sinful desires. I was becoming a walking contradiction in preaching grace and Christ-centeredness to others while living in a worls where everything had to be about me. Obviously, this was not okay.
  2. Preaching became a burden. It really didn’t take long for this to sink in. I don’t know if I’m unusually susceptible to tiredness and weariness, but after my second straight week of sermon preparation, I hit a wall. It was pretty obvious to myself that I was losing the awe of God necessary for the joy of serving his name. Spiritually and practically speaking, you can’t always swing for the fences and swing for that knockout punch. To make sense of this, I thought of another sports example. Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman was one of the most memorable moments in boxing history. Here, you had a legend who was supposedly on his way out against a much stronger puncher that most don’t last past two round with. Yet, while Foreman constantly threw knockout punch after knockout punch, Ali was conserving his energy by intelligently using his jab to pepper Foreman’s face. In the eighth round, the exhuasted Foreman could not withstand a barrage of precise punches from Ali, and the fight was over. The jab proved to be more effective and efficient than knockout punch after knockout punch. Practically speaking, going for knockout punch after knockout punch is exhausting, especially when you don’t get the knockout result you’re so craving. In the meantime, the jab expends less energy and is effective in setting up combinations and an eventual knockout. If preaching is going to be a frequent occasion for myself, like an effective boxer, I need to make better use of my jabs.

SMALL BALL!!! That’s what I needed to hear both for my own spiritual health and for those I was preaching to. There’s absolutely nothing wrong about hitting singles and just getting on base. Getting in the practice of hitting singles helps the longevity of the team, and I think this applies to ministry. Who knows? Once in a while, in an attempt to hit a single, I could hit one out of the park. If I truly believe to be a vessel whom the Lord uses to point his people to him, my primary task is making the Word of God and gospel comprehensible to those who hear it. The extraordinary acts belong solely to God who miraculously brings dead hearts to beat with life. It has been quintessential for me to believe this whole-heartedly.

In dwelling upon how to approach preaching in a healthy manner in a week by week pace, I came up with 5 P’s to remind myself of how to spend my time in preparing to preaching God’s Word to his people.

  1. Praise. This one might be obvious, but I’ve seen a change in my attitude towards sermon preparation when I’m filled with awe and adoration for the Lord. Daily reading of God’s goodness in the Word and reflecting upon my sins have been instrumental in the way I work and live out the week. I’ve personally found The Valley of Vision to be extremely edifying to start my day off in the office.
  2. Prayer. In line with praise, I’ve found that when my prayers are genuine and are praise-filled, my understanding of my will become aligned with the Lord’s will. This has helped me deal with my idolatrous thinking to be reminded of its folly.
  3. Preparation. For obvious reasons, preparations can’t come up short when it comes to giving the holy Word of God to God’s people. Yet, due to my idolatrous tendencies listed above, this can become a tiresome process when spending too much time attempting to craft and perfect my message and delivery. Balancing this with seeking to be as faithful as possible to the text might be difficult, but I’ve found this to be important for my personal piety.
  4. Practice. This might not work for everybody, but I’ve found that practice is done best when done in the flow of everyday activities. I might recite my introduction while showering or a couple of my points while on the road for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Personally, this allows me to spend my time in the office more productively in reading things unrelated to my sermons in relaxing myself from the duties of preaching for the remainder of the week. Because I bring a very simple outline with me when preaching, it helps my sermons be more conversational and authentic as opposed to a premeditated routine. This is merely a personal preference, because I’ve been very blessed in listening to those who memorize their entire sermons also.
  5. Peace. Finally, what I’ve found helpful is letting go of my preparations until Sunday mornings. Trusting that the preparation is sufficient, I try to do other work (usually Wednesday/Thursday-Saturday) during my work hours. This might be theological reading, leisure reading (most often), language studies, or brainstorming ministry ideas. Whatever it is, taking my mind off of my sermon for a few days before preaching it has helped me enjoy work and keep the gospel front and center in my pursuits. Most of all, the practice of trusting in God’s faithfulness to his people has helped me approach preaching with a less self-centered attitude.

As a young and new preacher of the Word, I know I’ll have sinful tendencies that seasoned preachers have learned to deal with more effectively. Yet, my desire is that a realization of my sinful heart will lead to a heart turned towards my loving Savior who gave himself up for me. In doing so, I pray that I will give of myself to him in service and serve his people with joy. Because the gospel message I abuse and take for granted so frequently is still for me in spite of all of my self-serving desires. Pray for me that my self-love will slowly but surely be changed by the selfless love of Christ shown in the love story of the Scriptures. Man, do I need it.

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Confessions of an Idolatrous Preacher

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