On Being A Messenger…

Reflecting on my experience in ministry, especially as a teacher and preacher, I have changed a lot over the years. I’d like to think I can call it “growth.” As a means of encouragement, I wanted to share some of what my path has been like. You might be able to locate yourself somewhere along a similar path.

A Reluctant Volunteer

One of my favorite transitions in Scripture is Moses. When God invites him to be part of the greater story of what God is doing in history, he makes every excuse he can think of, most of which people still make all the time.

You want me to do that? But I’m nobody. I’m not that good of a speaker. I don’t have any credibility. What if they don’t know enough about you to even appreciate the message? Can’t you just send someone else?

I have often heard it taught that Moses had a speech impediment. Moses claims to be “slow of speech and tongue.” My personal theory is that Moses didn’t really have any impediment. I think he was just making an excuse. Either way, have you ever considered that nearly the entire book of Deuteronomy is one big whopping sermon by Moses? Whatever his issue was, he grew, and he got past it. I believe that with God’s help, we also can grow past any similar barriers we might try to set up for ourselves.

Appropriate Hesitancy

Some hesitancy about speaking on God’s behalf is entirely appropriate. Our words have enormous power to shape people’s lives and their perception of God. No matter how much we encourage people to study and think on their own, they are always going to give heavy consideration to what they’ve heard from “experts.” If we are to stand before the people of God to serve as a mouthpiece of God, it is appropriate for us to take on this task with enormous humility, reverence, and sincerity.

I often felt timid as I began ministry. I used to be so nervous every time I preached that I couldn’t eat for at least 2 hours before I was going to speak. I would tremble and shake and worry terribly about how it would go, then afterward I would agonize over every little time I fumbled a word or made some minuscule mistake.

With time, I’ve gotten past most of what I might call “stage fright” but I think it is important never to lose sight of the fact that these are God’s people, God’s church, God’s word, and God’s agenda. I’m just (attempting to be) a messenger. There is something healthy about always remembering that I am not trying to form a cult of personality around myself but to be like a compass that faithfully points people to God. God must increase and I must decrease. It is no small task to try and live into this goal.

Developing as a Messenger

My dad never liked the saying that “Practice makes perfect,” because almost all of us have room for improvement in some way. Not to mention that what might be a perfect thing for one person might seem useless to another. There is no “perfect” sermon. Instead, Dad always said, “The more you practice, the better you get.” This is definitely true.

Even though I have been preaching for a number of years now, there has been a progression over time of what is at the forefront of my mind as I prepare and speak. It may be helpful to think of these things as a sort of stacked bowls or Russian nesting dolls where one fits inside the other.

As you stack bowls, the bottom ones always contain the top ones, but it is the one at the bottom that you are primarily holding onto. Similarly, even though my driving thought my be different than when I started, all of the concerns I’ve had along the way have stayed with me.

Speech 101

Preaching and teaching are, of course, forms of public speaking. I can distinctly remember during the first sermon I ever preached in my undergraduate preaching class, having to consciously think things like, “OK, now that I’m at point #2, I will hold up my hand and make this gesture…”

Early on in speaking and teaching, there is no harm in giving attention to the basics of good presentation skills. Those may even be the things you think about the most as you get going. I have benefited greatly over the years at the Lipscomb University Preaching Workshops–grueling as they have been–to have the opportunity to preach and to both receive and offer gentle critiques from and for peers. Often I noticed that our speakers were fairly strong on content, but it had been so long since we had really thought about our techniques that many of us had simple distracting tendencies or mannerisms of which we were unaware or had become blind.

Even still, I regularly watch my sermon videos. It is amazing how when someone tries to explain something to you it can be hard to grasp, but when you watch yourself, you can almost immediately say, “Oh, I should have paused longer here,” or “I keep using that word too much,” or “Oh, that’s what they meant when they told me about that thing I’m doing.”

Quality Content

When I got my first preaching job at a small country church in Arkansas, I was 23 years old. I said to myself, “I don’t have any wisdom, life experience, or credibility, but I can at least make sure I provide them with solid Scriptural content.

I was always meticulous in my research. Whether I was preaching through a book or some topic of interest, I made sure that every time I tried to bring them the best research that I could. I know my sermons were often lacking in other aspects, but the church was very kind to me, and continued to encourage me.

It is so important to cultivate good habits of study, and to always have a sense of wonder about you as you explore the Biblical texts. I had a couple of negative habits that tended to develop during this phase:

  1. I got so wrapped up in the researching that I waited far too late to begin the composition, eating into Saturday evenings, and not allowing me sufficient time to refine and polish my lesson.
  2. I had a tendency to write sermons that sounded more like research papers for my professors than like messages from God to God’s people. Truthfully, being so close to Searcy, Arkansas, I always had in my head that a professor might show up to visit, and I needed to be sure he would think I had been academically responsible. Again, the church was so kind and patient with me as I continued to grow.

Artistic Technique

Once you get comfortable enough speaking in front of people and get into a pattern of study for your sermons and lessons, you begin to feel freer to think about the packaging of what you present.

I spent a long time infatuated by authors like Fred Craddock, Tom Long, and Eugene Lowry about the art of sermon-making. During this phase I put together some lessons that I consider to be especially well designed. I placed a heavy importance on the way things matched and flowed together as a key component of how I hoped to be persuasive and easy to listen to.

At the same time, I also had the experience of observing my listeners. Some of the lessons I thought were brilliantly composed turned out to be snooze fests. Others that I gave on weeks where my time was limited, that were thrown together with insufficient thought or polish, I would have people responding to with tears. This helped me begin to understand that all ministry is fundamentally God’s work, dependent much more on how God uses our efforts than on the perfection of our efforts themselves.

Felt Needs

While I don’t think I could say I have ever been a dedicated “felt needs” kind of preacher or teacher, I have noticed readily that the more I work at speaking into people’s lives, the more they respond. They like a nice presentation and a refined technique, but if you can help them as a spouse, parent, or employee, they will wait with anticipation for every word you have to say.

I have deliberately worked at trying to allow more space in my sermons for emphasis on what people ought to do with what they’re hearing. Even though I received wonderful homiletical training in approaches like Craddock’s Inductive Method that tries to trust people to reach their own conclusions, I discovered that Craddock may assume too much about how anxious people are to do this on their own, as well as how well they are able. There is value in clear proclamation. Interpretation and self-application are abilities that can be refined and developed but may also need some coaching.

A downfall of being too anxious to speak to people’s felt needs is that preaching loses its Gospel edge and becomes more of a life coaching session. There may be good advice, but there isn’t enough to overcome the weight of the world without the power of a Savior whose grace makes up for what we lack and whose Spirit enables us to be more than we could ever be on our own, even with the very best types of behavior modification.

Driven By God’s Mission

I think the single largest shift in my preaching occurred when I had a strong spiritual experience, confirming to me that I am where I am supposed to be and that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. In this transition I had to learn own my own what others had tried to tell me before.

Early in my ministry, I interviewed Dave Matthews who was preaching at the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, Arkansas about longevity in ministry, seeking his advice along with that of several other ministers. He said over and over again that the bedrock of his ministry is that it is rooted in prayer. He told me about several amazing ministry moments in which he had been able to participate that all began with prayer. Early in my ministry, I failed to see the significance of what he was trying to tell me, but I’ve gradually learned he was absolutely right.

As I developed the practice of setting aside a full week each year for prayer and seeking God’s will for my teaching and my work, as well as more regular times of silence and prayer before I research or compose lessons, I have had similar experiences in seeing God’s will and actions more clearly because I was carving out more time to pray about these things. God can use our abilities and skills, and when we develop ourselves in the skills of our vocation, God is honored by these efforts. But in the end, all ministry is fundamentally God’s ministry.

I try to remind myself that even if every person of faith in the world chose to keep silent, Jesus said–hilariously, I think–that we could be replaced by rocks who would cry out in our place if need be. I am replaceable, but God would prefer to utilize me while I’m here. God’s effectiveness doesn’t depend on my knowledge. It doesn’t hinge on my skill sets. It doesn’t hinge on my wisdom of what word people need to hear. God can use these things, but God doesn’t depend on them.

But when I open myself up to the work of God through my life and in my teaching in prayerful, deliberate ways, God shows up and works through my efforts, even as feeble as they sometimes are. The more I have put my trust in God’s competency to accomplish his purposes, rather than on my own, the more I’ve seen God establish the things that I’ve tried to offer to him.

The driving thought in my mind as I prepare to speak has increasingly become that these are God’s people, and that God has messages he is trying to get through to them about his love for them, their value to him, and their enormous potential for good with the help that God provides.

Working Things Together for Good

What I have described is my own path. I expect every preacher and teacher’s path is unique, but perhaps you can find some points of connection in your own journey.

It will never stop being important for me to give thought to how it is I present what I have to say. It will always matter that what I present derives from the Scriptures in healthy and responsible ways, engaging both my intellect and my creativity. I will always need to stay close to the people whom I serve so I can better discern what word from the Lord they might need to be hearing. Sometimes each of these things might individually be worthy of special attention and better balance in my life.

But what holds all these things together is the love of God which moves through us, and the help God provides to us in carrying out God’s purposes. In seeking God’s will and inviting God to work through us in prayer, we do what I believe may be the most important work of ministry. The more we grasp and practice this, the more useful we become.

The best way to be a better messenger is to walk closely with the one whose message you carry.

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