(This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Leadership magazine sometime around 2001. It was later picked up and included in “The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching,” edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson, published by Zondervan, 2005. In conversations with pastor friends, I’ve learned that many never saw the article and some have asked where they could get a copy. Please feel free to copy and pass along to other servants of the Lord.)
I had been preaching for more than two decades, and I should have been at the top of my game. The church I served ran up to 1,500 on Sunday mornings, and the live telecast of our services covered a fair portion of several states. Most of my colleagues thought I had it made, and if invitations to speak in other churches were any sign, they thought I could preach.
But I didn’t think that.
My confidence was taking a beating as some of the leaders let me know repeatedly that my pulpit work was not up to their standards. Previous pastors carried the reputation of pulpit masters, something I never claimed for myself. To make matters worse, we had numerous vacancies on staff and my sermon preparation was suffering because of a heavy load of pastoral ministry. But you do what you have to do. Most days, my goal was to keep my head above water. Every day without drowning became a good day.
That’s when I got serious about praying for my preaching. Each night I walked a four-mile route through my neighborhood and talked to the Father. My petitions dealt with the usual stuff–family needs, people I was concerned about, and the church. Gradually, one prayer began to recur in my nightly pleadings.
“Lord,” I prayed, “make me a preacher.” Asking this felt so right I never paused to analyze it. I prayed it again and again, over and over, for weeks.
I was in my fifth pastorate. I owned a couple of seminary degrees. I had read the classics on preaching and attended my share of sermon workshops. I was a veteran. But here I was in my mid-forties, crying out to heaven for help: “Lord, make me a preacher.”
I knew if my preaching improved, if the congregation felt better about the sermons, everything else would benefit. I knew that the sermon is a pastor’s most effective contribution to the spiritual lives of his members. To do well there would ease the pressure in other areas. So I prayed.
Then one night, God answered.
FOUR SPECIFIC REQUESTS
Without warning, in the quietness of a dark night on the city streets, God spoke within me: “What exactly do you mean by that?”
The question hit with such force that I laughed aloud and said, “What a great question. Wonder what I do mean?”
For the rest of my walk, I pondered God’s probing of my too-general prayer. I knew I was not asking for public acclaim or to be on anyone’s list of great preachers. I just wanted to be effective, to do well what God had called me to do.
Later that night, at home, I wrote down four specific requests which I began to direct toward the Father.
—First. I never want to stand up to preach again without a good grasp of the Scripture. I’m tired of not being clear about the text in front of me.
–Second. I want Scripture to have a firm grasp on me. I want to preach with real passion.
–Third. I want a good rapport with the congregation. I’m tired of that glazed-over look on the people’s faces. I want to make contact with them, to communicate effectively.
–And fourth. I want to see lives changed. If the point of preaching is for the Word of God to make a difference in people, then it must be in order to ask the Father to grant me success in doing it.
That night, I learned something about my prayer life. For years, my prayers had been tainted by the curse of generality. It had been “bless this” and “help that” and “strengthen him” and “encourage her.” One day I noticed in Luke 18:35-43 this interchange between the Lord and blind Bartimaeus, whose plaintive cries of “Jesus, have mercy on me” had reached the ears of our Lord. Over and over, the beggar of Jericho called into the air for mercy, over the shushing and objections of locals who were embarrassed by his carryings-on.
“Bring him to me,” Jesus said. When Bartimaeus stood before Him, our Lord said, “What do you want me to do for you?”
We may be tempted to rebuke the Lord for His callousness at this point. “Lord,” we would say, “anyone can see what he needs. He’s been begging for mercy. He needs his sight.” But the question was whether Bartimaeus knew this. He’s been begging for “mercy,” a general term which could have included many things: money, a better begging site, assistance, a training program for the blind, or a hundred other things.
The Lord simply asked the man to be specific in his prayer: “What do you want?”
“Lord,” he said, “I want to receive my sight.”
“Then do,” said the Savior. And he did.
From that point on, I prayed these four requests in my nightly walks: a good grasp of Scripture, its firm grasp on me, good rapport with my listeners, and changed lives.
Soon I was without a pulpit and without a church.
GOOD NEWS FROM EXIT INTERVIEWS
The conflict in the church I was serving escalated to the point that we brought in a mediator. He interviewed church leaders, watched videos of my preaching, and polled the congregation, then filed his report. “Joe is not a pulpit giant,” he said, “but he is a pretty fair preacher.” I was encouraged by that. Then he recommended I leave the church.
I agreed. I took a one-year leave of absence and I waited by the phone. A few invitations for revivals and conferences came in during the year; however, none but the tiniest churches would consider me as a potential pastor. My confidence in my preaching was at an all-time low.
Not by coincidence, the church that called me as pastor a year later was also at an all-time low. It had suffered a disastrous split. Half its thousand members had left, and the remainder was burdened with a great load of debt. Our first five years together were not easy. Gradually, however, we began to see the Lord was up to something special. One day I looked around and realized we had become a healthy church again, one that is a pure joy to serve.
That’s when the other surprise appeared, one just for me. After attending a Saddleback conference on purpose-driven churches, we began sending response cards to church visitors. These notes trickled back into the church office, telling what our guests had noticed first, liked best, and appreciated least about their visit to our church. To my utter amazement, many were impressed by the preaching.
I still recall standing at my secretary’s desk reading two cards that had arrived in the morning mail. Both expressed thanks for my sermons. “I am totally surprised,” I mumbled.
She looked up from her work. “Pastor, everyone loves your preaching.”
“I guess I didn’t know it,” I replied.
To be honest, I’m still not quite convinced. But I’ve decided that’s all right. The object of my prayers was never that people would like my preaching. It wasn’t even that I would like it. It was a prayer for effectiveness in doing what God called me to do.
Good music, it is said, is music that is written better than it can be played. Perhaps that’s how it is with the gospel of Christ. The message is far superior to any human expression of it. A gracious Father takes the efforts of his frail servants and uses them to change lives.
This year marks my sixtieth anniversary in ministry–do the math: 1962’s ordination to 2022!–and I still feel inadequate about my preaching. Not only is that all right, I think it’s the appropriate way to feel about a calling so far above the capacity of any of us mortals–to proclaim the riches of Christ in human tongue.
It forces me to pray for my preaching.