If we think the job of a preacher is easy and glamorous then we will never last the distance. If we are going to grow and persevere as preachers we need to be prepared for hard work. Paul's exhortation to Timothy was by implication to fight the good fight and to run the race. This article seeks to remind preachers of some basics in persevering and growing as a preacher for the long race and the hard fight.
Be prepared for hard work.
Paul calls his own ministry "hard work" (2 Corinthians 11, for example). It is hard because it takes a lot of time to prepare and preach sermons. I still know that I ought to spend at least eight hours on a new sermon if I am to do thoroughly what I need to do in both understanding and applying the text and shaping the sermon. In the busyness of pastoral ministry, it is tempting to cut preparation time. That temptation grows the longer we have preached for we may begin to feel competent and confident.
However long we have been preaching for, we have got to be prepared to spend a long time preparing sermons well. Often for me that means, sadly, Saturday night even though I am always thinking about my sermon during the week.
I almost always refuse invitations to weddings or parties on Saturday night. For me my first service on a Sunday is 8am so I work hard to be in bed early on Saturday night. That is because it is not only hard work preparing, it is hard work preaching. People don't always recognise that if you stand in a pulpit for half an hour it is hard work. There are times when I go home after preaching two or three sermons on a Sunday and I am exhausted. Preaching is hard work. It is so demanding of our emotional energy. You are preaching to people you love, or that you should love, and sometimes you are preaching things that are hard. Preaching God's Word is an awesome responsibility. None of these factors make preaching easy.
Preaching is also hard because we face opposition. Some people in the pews don't like sermons. There is spiritual opposition from the evil one who doesn't want truth proclaimed. There is also the competition on our time of so many other good things during the week.
In light of the above, we need to guard our time. Ideally the preacher begins work on the sermon early in the week, allowing flexibility then in dealing with unforeseen pastoral matters. The danger of devoting Saturdays to sermon preparation, as I too often realise, is that by that stage of the week, there is no room for rescheduling.
Somehow the preacher needs also to convey the sense of importance placed on sermon preparation. Occasionally I find people in my church who think I preach almost unprepared. If only they were right. While we don't want to create an ivory tower pastoral ministry, we do need to educate congregations that preparation time is large and important. I want my people to realise how serious sermons are and how seriously I take them and prepare them.
Remember the Priority of Preaching
Keep remembering the priority of preaching for your ministry. If preaching is our highest priority then our best time should be given to preparing sermons. The deepest pastoral ministry comes through our preaching. So, on the whole, preaching has the highest priority for my ministry.
This issue arises in a context in which many people don't share that priority. In his recent Proclamation Trust lecture on the priority of preaching, David Jackman said that our world does not rate preaching highly. He argued it has four wrong views of preaching. Our world either thinks preaching is presumptuous and arrogant, or it thinks preaching is naïve and simple, or that it is ineffective and achieves nothing, or that it is boring.
Some church members hold one or more of those four views! Many people coming to church have a very low expectation of preaching. Many have a very low view of the calling of a preacher. I suspect that even amongst the parents of some in my congregation, they would be disappointed if one of their children became a preacher. But if God entrusts the power of himself through his Word preached then it is a very high priority and calling indeed.
It is easy to get tired, worn out or stale. For a preacher to persevere, that person must keep staying fresh. How might we work at that?.
Keep reading deeply and widely
We stay fresh partly from ongoing input and stimulation. I try and push myself by reading commentaries or theology to keep learning and growing myself. That is hard work. When I preach a new series of sermons, I aim to read a new, substantial commentary that I have not read before.
Listen to other preachers
Keep listening to other people preaching. I am in the good position of having a church where every Sunday at least two people preach. Most Sundays I preach but I also hear someone else preach. I know that is not everyone's opportunity. For such preachers, use tapes and MP3 downloads and listen to good preaching. There are lots of good books of sermons available to read though I am always cautious for the written form of communication is different from an oral form. Keep interacting with fellow preachers about what they are preaching on.
Get regular feedback on your sermons
While sermon critique forms were the requirement when we were in college, they are not bad from time to time for experienced preachers to use. Apart from helping others to concentrate and think, the preacher gets more considered feedback. Such reviews help keep a preacher fresh and on their toes. The same can function within a staff team or a preachers' group. In our staff meetings we regularly talk about one of the passages for the next Sunday which helps stimulate the preacher.
Keep praying about sermons
Make sure you keep praying about your preaching. I have found that there are times when I feel dry as a preacher and I realise that my praying for my preaching has not happened as much as it should.
Preach the whole counsel of God
Use the variety of the scriptures to keep yourself fresh, and growing, as a preacher. One of my concerns about those who use the lectionary is that they could end up with just three years' worth of sermons and mostly on the gospels. For me, for example, I find after preaching a series on a Gospel I get enlivened by turning to a prophet. I quite enjoy changing tack and grappling with Hebrew poetry. However, when I finished preaching through Zephaniah last year, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and keenly looked forward to preaching 1 Thessalonians. After that I relished some narrative preaching. I find Scripture's own variety freshens both my preparation and my delivery.
Keep preaching to yourself first
If you don't preach to yourself then your sermons to others will be dry or flat. If you are not feeding yourself then you won't be feeding others. If you are not obeying God's Word as you prepare your sermons then in the end your sermons will be dry or flat. I often find my greatest passion as a preacher is expressed when God's word has gripped me in the week before.
Staying in Love
The final verses of 2 Timothy are instructive on this theme of persevering as preachers. In 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul reflects that one of the Christian brothers, Demas, is now in love with this world and has deserted Paul. In verse 11 he says, "only Luke is with me", in verse 16 at his first defence in Rome "no one came to my support but all deserted me". Paul is reflecting that there are people who give up.
But not Paul. He endured through numerous hardships, through the strength given to him by God (verse 17). While Paul expects to die for his faith, he also expects that he will persevere to the end with faith in God's rescuing power.
Paul addresses Timothy in this letter in the context of people deserting Paul, people giving up their faith and knowing how hard Christian ministry is. To Timothy, Paul exhorts perseverance in ministry and preaching especially. At this stage, Timothy is pastor of the church in Ephesus. He has started in ministry well. But starting the race is not what matters most. Plenty start; many fewer finish. I can think of several people who were ordained about the time I was, or later, and are no longer in Christian preaching ministry. Some of them are no longer even Christians.
These final verses are strong in holding before Timothy the example of Paul. Paul has kept the faith. He was entrusted with the treasure of the Gospel and he has discharged his ministry fully. He has not veered from the truth to some other gospel despite all the pressures to change the Gospel. He has loved Jesus from first to last.
The example of faithful preachers ought to motivate us to keep on preaching, in season and out of season. I am thankful for fine examples of seasoned preachers in my life. In May 2007, I will have been preaching for only 25 years. The race, I hope, is still only beginning. I know that it doesn't get easier.
The contrast between Demas and Paul in 2 Timothy 4 is striking. There are two loves. Demas has become a lover of the world; Paul is a lover of Jesus. How he longs for his appearance (verse 1). Will our love of Jesus last the distance? If not, nor will our preaching ministry. Will that love last in our hearts?
Fight the good fight, run the race and keep the faith. For the crown of righteousness awaits those who complete the race and that day of Jesus' appearing will be a glorious day if he brings for us that crown of righteousness.
Paul Barker has been Vicar of Holy Trinity Doncaster since 1996 and is Archdeacon of Box Hill in Melbourne. He teaches as Visiting Lecturer at Ridley College as well as Renmin University, Beijing, and Myanmar Evangelical Graduate School of Theology. Paul, thankfully, likes to travel. He also reads novels, crime fiction, biography, history and Old Testament theology and enjoys playing Scrabble. This article is adapted from a talk he gave for a Langham Preachers conference in Istanbul in 2006.