There are many facets to the vocational life of a pastor. However, for evangelical pastors today there is one element of our calling that is deemed most important and induces the greatest anxiety: Preaching. How should we preach? What should we preach? Questions of technique, method and content abound. Undoubtedly, this flurry of interest in the discipline of preaching has had a positive impact on the “quality” of preaching in the church today. However, amidst this emphasis on the pastoral discipline of preaching I wonder if a focus on the pragmatic has left other questions unattended. Specifically, what temptations does the pastor face in preaching?
In a series of posts I wish to ponder with you some potential temptations in preaching. I do not share this list of temptations as a distant observer, but as one who has faced these temptations in preaching himself. While I am isolating these temptations in this series they most certainly are woven together; often bound by a deep belief that one’s identity is found in his work (preaching). This list is not intended to be exhaustive or systematically organized, but I do hope that my honest musings might provide fodder for discernment and dialogue with my fellow man-the pastor.
Temptation #1: Originality
We have listened to countless sermons. In fact, we could probably create a comprehensive database of all the sermons we have heard in our lifetime. However, it doesn’t stop there. We live at a time in which we can immediately find dozens of sermons on the Internet on the same topic or passage of Scripture we are preaching the coming Sunday. So, as we dive into our preparation for the sermon we often find ourselves experiencing “preaching schizophrenia”. We hear the voices of other pastors, seminary professors, commentary writers, etc. In fact, if we have been preaching for several years we hear our own voice. Whether we have preached on the exact passage in front of us or not, chances are we have covered similar theological concepts previously. We may feel like we have used up all our “good stuff”. So, we wade through the litany of angles, interpretations and illustrations from others and from within ourselves. It is in this place that a temptation arises. It is the temptation to be original. We want to say something new or at least say the same old thing in a new way. We want to pleasantly surprise those regular church attenders, who having seen the sermon title on the bulletin, are already anticipating each nuance of the message they are about to hear.
Where does this temptation come from?
This may surprise you but I believe one reason we succumb to this temptation is boredom. Many of us have become bored with the gospel. In the midst of our incessant drive to make sure others experience an “aha moment”, we have lost a belief in the power of the simple message of redemption we have to offer. So, we become obsessed with new ideas and new techniques, because we believe they will bring new life and new meaning to an otherwise static message.
Perhaps another reason we succumb to the temptation for originality in preaching is spiritual dryness. Maybe we are personally experiencing spiritual dryness and we are convinced that through study and creativity we can uncover a new insight that will get us excited about the faith again and rescue us from the malaise we feel. Maybe we believe we are just one “fresh” sermon away from getting excited about our faith again. We believe that originality will enliven what has come to feel like rote religion in our own lives.
Another place from which the temptation to be original might be birthed is fear. Perhaps it is the fear that if I am not saying something new people won’t be interested in what I have to say. And, if people are not interested maybe they will not love me or admire me. Maybe they will leave and go to another church. I have to keep up with the Jones’ (other pastors) in order to guarantee job security and church growth. Ultimately, this fear betrays a deep belief that everything is riding on me.
Exhortation to my fellow man
I believe that those of us who preach regularly will experience the temptation to be original at some point in our pastoral lifetime. So, how can we guard ourselves from this temptation? First, let us never cease to contemplate the profound truth and beauty of the gospel. While it is certainly old it is also always new. Second, if we find ourselves in a place of spiritual dryness it is imperative that we are honest with ourselves and a trusted companion about this season. As pastors we fear entering into this place because we believe we are supposed to always feel God’s presence and be excited about kingdom work, but the truth is we all experience these times and instead of using the sermon as a means of avoiding this reality we must be present to the truth of our spiritual experience. Lastly, we must constantly prayerfully recollect ourselves in the truth of our identity. Our identity is not found in preaching, but rather in Christ.