Editor’s Note: I was very encouraged to receive this post from Phil. The following is a joint effort—Phil’s thoughts with some input from me. Most of all, however, please hear Phil’s voice on this subject. As a leader “in the trenches”, he speaks from personal experience. Here’s our post:
But we came here to hear you preach.
Just eight words, but eight words that are very revealing. And not in a good way. Indeed, they cut to the heart of what we so often get wrong in our theology of preaching.
Because, let’s face it . . .
What leader doesn’t want to hear such words? You want to hear me preach? Why, thank you so much! But hold on, because something is not right here. What’s going on when someone says this to a leader? I had cause to consider this question recently when a friend who is contemplating church planting asked about our own church planting experience.
First, a word about my own approach to ministry. I had always seen the heart of my role as a pastor in the words of Ephesians 4.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
To equip the saints for works of service. There it is. There’s my job description. So even though we were only a small group of twenty-five or so, I set up a preaching group. What better way to fulfil my calling to “equip the saints for works of service”? I believe strongly in the call to “equip the saints” so this is something I have done wherever I have been involved in ministry, and I have always found it immensely rewarding.
There can be downsides, of course. It has meant that some of the sermons from the trainees have been a bit rough and ready. Perhaps not as bad as my first sermon. If you had heard that, you would never have asked me to preach again!
Preaching is a gift that only grows through its use. You cannot improve without actually practising the gift. As a result, we discovered that one or two had different gifts and needed to drop out of the group. However, most grew in their abilities, and this was wonderful to see.
Back to those eight words . . . But we came here to hear you preach.
This came from a couple who had joined our church plant and didn’t really get this part of our DNA. So they complained to me with the words you read above. Now I don’t know exactly what was going on in their hearts when they uttered those eight words. However, there were several things going on in mine. The first was a sense of smug pride. Good. They like my preaching. Well done me. But the more I reflected on their words, the more I realised what was wrong with my heart response, and as far as I could read it, with theirs.
Here, then, are some lessons for both hearer and preacher alike.
HEARER, HUMBLE YOURSELF
Why do we listen to sermons? To hear God speak. Plain and simple. Though God uses the gift of communication and the personality of the preacher, this should not be our focus. This is not why we come to church. We should be coming to hear God speak—not to hear the wit or wisdom of the preacher, but to hear the living Word of God as He speaks by His Spirit through His Word. If we’re coming to hear a particular preacher, then we’re coming for the wrong reasons. That was why we rarely used to publicise who would be preaching on any given Sunday.
If we’re coming to hear God speak, and if we believe that He does so by His Spirit and through His Word, then it follows that we can be fed and encouraged by “terrible sermons.” I know this for a fact, since I have preached some very shoddy sermons. It has encouraged me no end to hear that God, by his grace, has still spoken to people through them.
I love the phrase that someone once shared with me: The mature Christian is easily edified. If we’re coming to a gathering longing for and expecting God to speak, then we are very likely to hear His voice. The challenge for us as hearers is not to harden our hearts. I have listened to thousands of sermons over the years, and I know that my own spiritual health is a critical element which often determines how much I get out of any sermon. As a preacher myself, there is always a terrible risk that in my pride I will be judging the sermon (and the preacher) rather than humbly sitting under God’s Word.
So, listener—humble yourself. We come to hear God speak.
PREACHER, HUMBLE YOURSELF
I suspect that most of us who preach regularly have far too high an opinion of our preaching gifts, and far too low a view of God’s sovereignty in speaking to His people and building His church. The longer I’ve served in ministry, the more I’ve come to understand that my preaching belongs to Him—it is His work—and I can trust Him. Of course, I still work hard and try to be as well-equipped as I can be. But as I enter the pulpit, the words in my mind are “I believe in the Holy Spirit, I believe in the Holy Spirit.” Because unless He is working, then I am waffling on in vain.
It puts me in mind of Numbers 22.28. If God can speak through a donkey’s mouth, He doesn’t need me or you! As Exodus 4.11 reminds us, God is the one who gave human beings mouths. He is able to achieve what he wants with them. Preacher, surely the gospel makes it clear. We live to glorify God. So, humble yourself. We want to hear God’s voice not yours.
Does this mean we are absolved from working hard to study God’s Word and prepare our sermons? Of course not. Indeed, according to 2 Timothy 2.15, we are encouraged to “rightly handle the word of truth.” Two more Scriptures are helpful here.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.
If his power is at work in us, when we rise to speak, we know that He is working, He is speaking through us.
To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
How encouraging to know that the energy within us comes from the Lord Jesus. Notice, however, that Paul says “I strenuously contend.” (In other translations, we read, “striving” or “struggling”.) Effort on the part of the preacher is expected but Paul argues that this striving, contending, struggling is with the energy Christ works within us.
Imagine that. We prepare. We speak. We strive. We struggle. But He’s right there within us.
He will have His way, and He will speak. Of that we can be sure.
THE FRUIT OF OUR LABOURS
Who produces the fruit of our labours? The farmer sows the seed and harvests, but God sends the soil, the water, the nutrients and of course, the sunshine. We work; God causes the crop to grow.
When you feel overwhelmed, when you’ve not managed to prepare quite as well as you would have liked, be encouraged. There is no need to be anxious. If they have come to hear you speak, they are there for the wrong reason. But if they have come to hear God, then He will speak. He always speaks to those with ears to hear, with those of humble heart eager to hear His voice.
After all, if He can speak through a donkey, He can speak through you.
1. The prayer that Spurgeon reportedly prayed every time he entered the pulpit.