“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Tim 4:2, NIV)I love to preach. Whenever the text is opened, there is an inexplicable joy and enthusiasm to dive in, to dig in, and to swim in the Scriptures. While I do not preach every week, I am constantly in a preparation mode. I read widely. I write. I reflect. I blog. For I believe in Paul’s exhortation to young Timothy above, to be ready in season and out of season. That is why when I am asked to preach, my preparation frequently leads me to 3 or more versions of a sermon. It can look like a 3-in-1 gift to the church. I like to see it as offering 3 different versions to God and pray that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide me to select the most appropriate version. Such a version needs to be the one that answers three needs; truthfulness of my heart, appropriate to the congregation, and glorifying to God.
This is no easy task. In fact, the key to preaching is not in a good pulpit performance but a humble heart. The pulpit ministry can become a great temptation to show off one’s oratory skills and public speaking capabilities. Sometimes, we can confuse the pulpit with motivational talks. No! The pulpit is far too sacred to be secularized. It is far too precious to be diluted into worldly stories and motivational speeches. Some preachers think that telling stories and getting people’s attention is far more important. Yet, preachers of the Word of God are not called to be Sunday entertainers, but worshipers. If one does not worship well, how can one preach well?
Bored on Sundays in a Culture of Entertainment
The word ‘worship’ has become so widely used that its meaning has been diluted. We use it for singing songs. We use it in our printed bulletins. We use it to symbolize a Sunday gathering. A lack of understanding of true worship, easily tempts us to equate worship with another program to satisfy self. We need to remind ourselves that in worship, it’s not about us. It’s all about God. It is about giving God the credit, and to learn to give thanks and praise to a worthy God. Like Matt Redman’s popular song,
“It’s all about You, Jesus.” which brings us to a heart of worship.Unfortunately for many, our listening ability has been sharply curtailed due to unhealthy expectations we carry over unwittingly from the TV/movies to the pulpit. Watching TV, Youtube on the Internet and movies, 7 days a week can inadvertently create in us an entertainment mentality. We then carry this with us even as we sit on the pews each Sunday. If the preacher tells a nice story, we sit up and listen. When the preacher goes to the hard task of deciphering the biblical languages, we yawn and doze off in boredom. Toward the end of the service, we wonder what happened. One of the common complaints I have heard is that preachers speak above one's head. My question, is it solely the preacher's fault?
A joke was told about a man who slept through a boring sermon. The preacher, feeling a little indignant decided to embarrass the man. So he asks all who wants to go to heaven to stand up. Everyone did except for the snoring man. As members of the congregation begins to sit, the preacher asks another question, “Those of you who thinks he will go to hell, please stand up.” The dazed man suddenly wakes up and said: “Pastor, I am not sure about what we are voting here, but it seems like only the two of us are in agreement.”Anybody can tell stories and jokes, but not everyone can preach in a manner that leads all toward worship. The pulpit ministry is essentially a ministry to worship God by letting God’s word shine forth into the hearts of all, including the preacher. I will even venture to argue that in any preaching situation, the one most blessed is often the preacher himself or herself. From experience, the biggest challenge in preaching is not the sermon material but the heart. It is the preparation of the heart that is most difficult. It is the preparation of the heart that is most treacherous. It is the preparation of the heart that most accurately determines who we are worshiping on Sunday. It is the preparation of the heart that tells us whether we are working for God’s glory or the preacher’s own reputation.
I remember one sermon which I was particularly proud of. Having put in many hours to prepare, I printed them out and practiced many times including the hours leading up to the Sunday sermon time. At the end of the sermon, I felt empty. I felt like I have merely performed an act. I felt while I have delivered professionally, I have worshiped miserably. The feeling is terrible, that I dare attempt to grab what is rightfully God’s and to chase after positive affirmations and feedback from others, to call it mine.
At other times, I will faithfully prepare my sermon. Despite a weak delivery, I will feel glad and peaceful within, knowing that the Lord’s power is made perfect in my weakness. I love this situation, where I know for sure, that if the parishioners were blessed, it is definitely not my work, but the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a strange journey of a preacher. God has blessed me with a desire to preach, and to do so as faithfully as possible. Knowing my passion, He has even provided me a preaching mentor, Dr Haddon Robinson, previously named one of America’s Top Preachers. He is also my current doctoral dissertation advisor. I have benefited greatly simply by listening to his wise experience.
Preaching is not a Ministry but an Attitude
Some say that entering seminary is essentially learning to minister full-time in an official ministerial capacity. While true in some ways, I think it is far too narrow a perspective. Going into seminary or Bible schools is not simply preparing one to minister. It is simply a phase of one’s walk with God. One of my Regent professors, Dr Paul Stevens recently gave a talk in Singapore entitled “Why Theological Education Is Too Good To Be Reserved For Pastors,” Stevens argues that theological education is for everybody. He proposes the radical idea that ministry is never to be divided into laity and clergy. In the light of the people of God, doing ministry is essentially the people of God, ministering together to the people of God.
I share this same ethos. After all, I have spent 4 years at Regent College, still one of the best and rewarding years of all of my life. I have never learned so much, from so many people before. This leads me to believe that preaching is not so much a ministry, but an attitude. This interpretation is consistent with Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to preach the word in season and out of season. Some of us may not be called to pulpit preaching. Neither is everyone called to teach from the Word like a Bible school teacher. However, all are called to let their own Christian testimonies preach God’s Word in truth and in love. Let God’s Word shine through our thoughts, our words and our deeds.
What About the Lay?
As much as the preacher needs to come with a humble heart, the parishioners and church goer needs to play their part too. Below are some of my suggestions. I call it P.E.A.C.E of heart.
- Be PURPOSEFUL in preparing our heart for worship. Know the limits of our bodies. Maybe, we need to begin on Saturday evening. How about sleeping early, and waking up early to pray?
- Be EARLY in Church. Sometimes, our impatience and restless minds come from a harried morning rush, and a hurried soul. This makes worship of God hard, as one is still trying to calm down.
- Be ATTENTIVE to the needs of family members or friends. As a father, I struggle with this, and at times have allowed my unhappiness over punctuality affect the worshiping mood of my family. The key is communicate one’s plans to family members early.
- Be CAREFREE. In preparing a heart of worship, we need to let go of distractions. One way is to practice the Sabbath. For example, every Saturday night from 6pm to 6 pm the next day, I will go on a computer fast.
- Be ENCOURAGING. When we get to Church, say thanks to the ushers, the musicians, the pastor or even the one preparing coffee. A word of encouragement not only makes these servants feel acknowledged, it makes them feel loved.
"Worship changes the worshiper into the image of the One worshiped." (Jack Hayford)
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