Never on automatic: The test of a champion

You can’t phone it in.

Itzhak Perlman is a champion violinist.  Disabled by polio in early childhood, he gets around on a scooter or with hand walkers and is arguably the world’s greatest living violin virtuoso.

Hear him once and you are a fan for life.

In USA Today for Wednesday September 2, 2015, Perlman said, “If you are a golfer, you have to be reliable.  But you cannot do that as a musician.  The challenge, as I tell my students, is not how you play something the first time.  What about the 10th, or the 50th, or the 150th?  Am I going to play something the way I did last time? Maybe yes, maybe no, but the point is never to go on automatic.”

We preachers know about going on automatic.  It’s what actors call “phoning it in.”

Some of the things we do in ministry, we do for the 50th and 150th time. Consider….

–The invocation and benediction to the services every Sunday over a 40 year ministry.

–The announcements and promotions we do from the pulpit.

–Recognition of various ones from the pulpit.

–And the sermons.  Some of them we preach again and again. Particularly….

If you are retired and on the road like (ahem) some of us.

Often these days, I’m preaching the best sermon I ever delivered in a 53-year ministry in various churches.  It’s the clearest thing I’ve ever preached, fits almost all the people in the pews whether insiders or outsiders, seekers or believers, and is bolstered by two of the greatest stories I’ve ever told.

How many times have I preached that sermon?  I would hazard a guess at 50, perhaps.  And if someone invites me to a church where I’ve never been, I’ll be preaching it again next Sunday unless the Lord says otherwise.

How do I keep from phoning it in, going on automatic?

Each preacher would have his own answer, I suppose, but I often think about something a professor of preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary said a long time ago.  “How do you make it fresh every time?  By experiencing it anew.”

So I spend time on my knees, praying the Father to keep this message alive. It’s His Word and His message, so He is more interested in it doing its job than I will ever be.

I refresh myself on the key scriptures.

I remember the names of the people in the stories.

And I pray for those who will be in attendance and who should be there.

Then, I try to relax and trust the Lord.

The first reward comes when someone texts me later and says what a blessing the message was. The second reward will come later, from the Lord Himself.  He will “repay at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14).

Until then, I want to be faithful and to keep it fresh.

1 thought on “Never on automatic: The test of a champion

  1. My seven years of road denominational traveling and preaching in 40-45 churches a year concurs with your experience. There are a few messages (6 or so) that fit well for any church in any city. But I never wanted to phone it in. It was made fresh by prayer and extra study. The Holy Spirit often helped me and brought new points of emphasis that each congregation needed. It made for fun preaching. But pastoral preaching is more challenging and quite enjoyable as well. I don’t mind the challenge because I rarely leave my own zipcode anymore.

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