Zack Eswine writes: “Going all out for God means more than going all out for sermons and crowds.” Despite having read his book and watched him preach, I wasn’t listening to his message. After all, I was already heading towards Christian ministry. I knew these sorts of things. Didn’t I? Yet while I ignored Eswine’s message I listened to another: the voice of comparison. For great as he was and still is, he didn’t match up to the preacher I was determined to be in the future. I was almost certain I was becoming the next great thing in the history of our campus ministry and beyond.
I don’t need to ask if you can smell the fetid ignorance and arrogance of such desire. But it is one of the many things that follow when our ambition is great ministry rather than the glory of our Master. And it happened to me.
Pastor, Aspire to Being More than a Great Preacher
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved preaching. When I became a Christian and had a desire to be in ministry, my primary desire was to preach. I didn’t know what it takes to run a successful (i.e. faithful) ministry. It certainly takes a great deal of preaching. But preaching alone doesn’t make disciples.
Preaching alone doesn’t make disciples.
Preaching can certainly cause you to fall in love with Jesus, but discipleship is the commitment that holds the relationship. I discovered this in my first year of ministry training. But it wasn’t until many years later that this principle shaped my approach to ministry.
Preaching is only an Aspect of Pastoral Ministry
During my training I felt somewhat let down by my leaders. I only got a few preaching opportunities throughout the year. It got worse while I was at theological college. There, I thought I’d spend most of my time honing my preaching skills. To my great disappointment, in the three years of seminary, I had in total an hour of practical preaching. This made me lose interest in other areas of ministry that seemed to be taking me away from what I wanted to do: preach.
Upon finishing my studies, I took a position at a university student ministry. There, I thought I’d finally have plenty of opportunities to preach. Indeed, my dreams came true. At the very least I preached once a month. Other times it was two to four times a month. And I enjoyed it. But the more I preached, the more I realised a growing bitterness. I knew what it was.
Carefully Follow the Example of Great Preachers
In my love for and appreciation of preaching, I had followed many excellent preachers and observed their styles and methods. I also subconsciously grew to like and dislike a particular taste of preaching. Instead of listening to any talk with open ears and wisdom to learn, I simply dismissed a great deal of it. This left me with a small pool of people to look up to and learn from. This, I must point out, was not completely wrong. But the problem came when I started wanting to sound like the people I admired.
The problem came when I started wanting to sound like the preachers I admired.
I laboured to sound and to write like the preachers I admired. But in the process, I forgot that I am not them. I forgot that I did not share their ministry experience. I was not content with the growth God was working in me. I envied other people’s journeys without even realising it. However, if I had focused on the loveliness of Jesus instead of my passion for preaching, I think I’d have realised something in my preaching.
Three Marks of Unhealthy (albeit Sound) Preaching
Firstly, preaching became paralysing for me. I realise there is a burden of preaching that all pastors carry. The burden that comes as a result of the responsibility of faithfully handling God’s words. But there is a paralysing burden that overlooks the message and focuses on the platform. I was never content with my preaching. And this, I suspect, was because I was discontent with God’s process. He was too slow in making me the great preacher I wanted to become.
2. Overly Technical, Spiritually Dry Sermon Prep
Secondly, preaching became pure work. By “pure” I do not mean or suggest anything close to purity. I wasn’t pure at all in my approach to preaching. I read the Bible not as God’s word, but as a technical book with hidden messages that I had to decipher for less capable readers. My skills to decipher though were very limited. And so, soon, I relied heavily on commentaries.
3. Desiring Recognition
Finally, preaching became a fishing rod for approval. After my studies, I thought I had to show people how much I’d ‘grown.’ How else could I have done this other than by impressing the crowds by my sermons? I wanted those who supported me and prayed for me to see that their investment wasn’t in vain.
Don’t Forget: We Serve a Saviour
We needn’t perform to please God, but instead serve with the strength he’s given us.
In all this, I had forgotten one very important thing I learnt at seminary: ‘we only ever live for an audience of One.’ That is God. This is a good antidote for a heart that is tempted to please others. The only person we’re to please is already pleased with us in his Son. We needn’t therefore perform to please but instead serve with the strength God has given us.