My friend’s story last Monday could be told by every preacher in the land.
“When I stepped off the platform Sunday morning, I knew I had laid an egg. The sermon seemed to have been still-born. It just didn’t work. I felt awful.”
“But the most amazing thing. People were down at the altar praying, and ever since a number of people have come up to me saying how it ministered to them.”
Just goes to show, I said.
Goes to show what?
I raised that question on Facebook this week. I asked pastors who have felt that they bombed and then heard from church members that the sermon had special meaning to them, what they learned from the experience. The answers were all of one theme: “That God can use anything.” “God can speak through a donkey.” “How unimportant the messenger is.” “Christ is everything.”
Recently a friend and I visited another church. She was visiting in our home and there is a pastor she loves to hear, so I drove her there. That day, the sermon was not up to his usual standards, I felt. He is normally one of the finest expositors anywhere.
In the car, on the way to lunch, my friend said, “That was a wonderful sermon. Just what I needed to hear today.”
Goes to show.
With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this, but He who judges me is the Lord.(I Corinthians 4:3-4)
That’s the Apostle Paul speaking. The prince of preachers. The trailblazer, the pioneer, the first among the elite. And he is saying the following:
–The fact that you judge me does not impress me one way or the other.
–That others judge me has the same effect. It doesn’t matter. Granted, the congregation often sees itself as the judges rating the sermon, as though he were the Olympic performer and they were hoisting cards with a 9.0 or 9.9. Not so.
–In fact, I don’t even judge or rate myself.
–I don’t actually know anything against myself, but that in itself does not mean I’m doing well. I’m not the best judge of me.
–The Lord is my Judge. As Paul said in Romans 14:4, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.”
I heard a football coach say, “I want the players on my team to be quick failures.
That was intriguing. He had my undivided attention.
“Every player is going to make a mistake from time to time,” he said. “He’ll drop a pass or fumble the ball, he’ll miss a tackle, something. I want him to shake it off and run back to the huddle for the next play.”
“I want him to forget the failure and get ready to get it right on the next play.”
In baseball, watch the infielder who muffs a play–the shortstop who lets a ball go through his legs or the second-baseman who drops an easy fly. Watch him closely. Unless he is strongly disciplined to shake that off, the chances are great that he will make another error soon afterward. He stands there remembering that play, reliving that error, and feeling great remorse. And when the next batter hits one toward him, his mind is not on the play. He’s in trouble unless he can shake it off and go forward.
In the days of door-to-door salesmen, training the sales staff to shake off doors slammed in their faces was the hardest lesson of all.
Pastor, shake off the failure.
A pastor of a large church told me once, “This congregation expects me to hit a home run every time I come to the plate.” He was referring to the expectations regarding his preaching. He rarely let an assistant preach in his place, he said, because the membership wanted him. To take a Sunday off or to have an off-Sunday, both were luxuries he could not afford.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a young pastor was: “Don’t park by your failures.” Everyone fails. But you don’t want to camp out there and never rise above it. Put it behind you. As Paul says, “…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
We all have our good days and bad ones. No preacher hits it out of the park every week. Each Sunday brings a new opportunity to get it right.
The fact is, we are poor judges of our own preaching.
The chairman of a pastor search committee told me once, “We like to slip in to a church without the pastor knowing we’re coming. We want to see what’s typical for him.”
He went on. “Every pastor has at least two good sermons. And if we say our committee is coming to hear him preach, he’ll pull out one and preach it. And we’ll never get to hear what he does on a typical Sunday.”
It took me years to figure out the answer to that. Here it is, too late for him, but just in time for the rest of us…
–it is true that every preacher has at least two good sermons.
–the problem is, he doesn’t know which two they are.
–he thinks it’s these two, his wife thinks it’s those, and his members think it’s something else altogether.
–so, the committee may as well let the preacher know they’re coming. It won’t matter in the long run. No preacher is that in control of his own pulpit ministry that he can predict which sermon will work best on a given Sunday.
Cut yourself some slack, preacher. You’re human and you are not perfect. He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust. (Psalm 103:14. The Lord knows this and it’s about time you got clear on it as well.
Assuming you did poorly, though. Resolve to do better next time.
Do not let yesterday’s failure define you. Get into the office a little earlier next time. Spend more time digging the truth from the Word, talking to the Father about these truths on your knees, going over the message in your mind and heart as well as in actual practice. Look up that obscure verse or fact to make sure you get it right. Go for a long walk or a country drive and preach the sermon to the Lord and yourself.
Then, leave it with the Lord until very early Sunday morning. Get up to the church early, 6 am-ish. Make some coffee. Spend the early hour talking to the Father over each point, and even preaching it.
Along about the time the church members begin arriving, you are done. Get outside and greet the people. Hug the seniors and little children. Laugh with them. Listen as some tell you their woes and pray with them.
Before the worship service, do not hide inside your study and then descend to the pulpit as though you were coming down from Sinai with the holy plates. Get into the sanctuary and greet people. You will do more ministry in 5 minutes there than any day the previous week.
Preach it as though it all depends on you; trust God as though it all depends on Him. And whatever happens, give Him thanks.
And keep one thing in mind throughout all this: While the Lord does enjoy using a poor sermon from time to time just to remind us Who is Lord, He would much prefer to use a good one. Give Him the opportunity from time to time.