If we are honest with ourselves we’ll admit that we want to become a better pastor, to be an organized preacher, and to develop a well-balanced diet for our congregation. But the stuff of life and ministry gets in the way. We encounter overwhelming personal and professional obstacles and sometimes we simply don’t know what to do. Ministry is hard. Being a pastor isn’t like any other job. Yet we have a job to do, and at the center of that job is preaching—and most of us preach every week. Let’s look at some of the problems we preachers face as we engage in the work of planning our preaching.
The quote from the long-running comic strip Pogo expresses one of the primary barriers preachers face: “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” Preachers run up against themselves. They get in their own way. Often we are unprepared for planning sermons. We can exclaim, “There’s not enough time to get done what I want and need to get done!”—which may be partially true. But the perceived lack of time is a reality that everyone faces—from the teacher to the factory worker to the executive in your church. Everyone wants more time. When it comes to planning, preachers have the same amount of time as everyone else, but we may not use very well the time that’s given to us.
We may also be unprepared spiritually. Whether we’re facing personal spiritual defeat or tests in the church, we may not be in the state that we want to be in as pastoral leaders. Being unprepared spiritually may have its roots in our own laziness. We’ve possibly become lethargic to the spiritual demands of ministry. If this is the case, we’ll find it difficult to discern what the Lord is doing in our own lives, let alone in the lives of the people we’re called to shepherd. Walter Russell Bowie warns, “As the man who is lazy about his preaching does dishonor to the people who have a right to expect his best, so also he does dishonor to the majesty of the truth he is supposed to try to interpret.”
In addition, a preacher may be unprepared educationally. This deficit is a daunting one—the preacher who has had solid theological training has the responsibility to put to use her study as she prepares to preach. The undereducated preacher has the intimidating task of making sense out of the Scriptures with an inadequate toolbox. Educational unpreparedness has been a long-standing test for the church. Some even wear lack of education as a badge of honor, but these preachers can take their listeners only to a certain depth and that’s it. Our shallowness is rejected in those whom we teach. Yet the Bible is clear that pastors are to be “able to teach” (
Some pastors, after a time in ministry—whether it is short or long—become bored with the rhythm and routine of it. The monotonous weight of pastoral responsibilities, the sermons, the Bible studies, the counseling, and involvement in community events blur into a vanilla boredom. We lose sight of what we’re doing and what we’re about, and we begin to just go through the motions of ministry.
This white fog of boredom has the potential of sabotaging the very essence and purpose of our calling. Spiritual lethargy is poisonous and stings preachers’ effectiveness and pastoral sensibilities. Instead of allowing us to consider the interests of others, as we’re advised in
What’s worse, if the preacher is bored with ministry, he may experience a loss of a sense of call. How tragic it is that the domino effect of boredom causes an earthquake of reverberation down to the very foundation of who we are as ministers of the gospel! But it happens and its casualties include those very men and women and boys and girls who observe a shrinking commitment to Christ and to his church in the preaching and person of their pastor.
Not only are preachers confronted with boredom in the routine and in their call, but they may also feel stuck, trapped in their church or ministry. The sense of being trapped drains the preacher and the work to which he or she is called. This condition limits one’s ability to assess what people need in their growth in Christ.
The opposite of feeling ensnared is the constant whirlwind of busyness. The preacher is constantly on the move, barely having enough time to catch his breath. He moves from the committee meeting to the community gathering to the Bible study to the hospital bed. The constant activity prevents the preacher from doing careful self-reflection and congregational evaluation.
Physical and Emotional Condition
The preacher’s physical condition has an impact on his ability to be prepared. Chronic illnesses, like depression, diabetes, thyroid disease, celiac disease, and others, can drain the energy of a preacher. Any challenging physical condition can make ministry even more difficult and the execution of duties a chore, because of a lack of energy resulting in lower productivity. If we compare what we accomplish to what others do, we may feel the pressure to do more, and this can lead to a sense of defeat.
Even without chronic illness, we must care for our physical health, eating well and getting rest so that we don’t become ill. Being out of shape can place an incredible strain on preachers. Being overweight can contribute to poor overall health and have an impact on how we go about ministry. We want to set good examples of health and holiness for those who hear us preach. Our lack of vigilance about our health and physical condition may get in the way of our listeners’ ability to hear what we have to say, which may result in our diminished effectiveness in addressing their needs.
We also want to maintain mental stability and strength. Ministry is working with people, which means we rarely see a completed end product like a beautifully crafted quilt or a handsome table. Instead, we try to tie the ragged edges of torn lives together, praying to God for his grace. It is understandable that ministers become discouraged.
Many pastors feel unappreciated and often for good reason. Jim, who agreed to marry a young couple, is a good example. He did the premarital counseling and then traveled four hours to the place where the wedding would be held. He led the rehearsal and then spent the night in a motel. The next day he conducted the wedding and then returned home to preach on Sunday morning. The couple went on their honeymoon, and Jim began to feel that they had left him in the rearview mirror—no note of thanks, no phone call of appreciation. He never heard from them again. Jim spent his money and his time and even gave the couple a small wedding gift—all on a pastor’s salary. He felt cheated and unappreciated.
When discouragement creeps in, pastors may see people of the congregation as a bother or even an enemy. Their biting words, unrealistic expectations, and a general lack of manners—let alone an absence of the fruit of the Spirit—skew a preacher’s perspective and contribute to an increasing inability to perceive the congregation’s needs.
With discouragement, a loss of purpose and a sense of hopelessness can arise. For instance, Martin is discouraged because of an ongoing problem with Bill and Sue, members of the church. They are longtime members but immature in living out their faith. They feed off conflict and are passive aggressive in their behavior—indulging in nasty emails and conversations with malicious undercurrents with other church members. During four years of ministry, Martin has dealt with them, but even as the church has grown from a Sunday morning attendance of fifty to five hundred, Bill and Sue continue to cause problems. Martin doesn’t feel the elders’ support in this matter and he’s not sure what to do. Discouraged and wondering if ministry is worth it, Martin is unable to see the whole picture of how God is working in the church. He feels hopeless.
When a preacher’s spiritual life is out of sync, it can be a problem for planning and understanding the overall health of a church. A pastor might be spiritually dry—an arid season has blown into his life and he has little to give to others. The dryness may be due to boredom with his faith or boredom with ministry. A spiritual drought might also be caused by sin—sin in his own life or sin in the life of the church.
Ross couldn’t understand why he wasn’t hitting the target in his preaching, why he seemed to be in conflict with the church leaders, why, really, everything in ministry seemed to be out of kilter. But alone, in his office, Ross knew. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was addicted to pornography and the tickle and tease of it made its way into his church office. When he was supposed to be praying or preparing his sermon, Ross was escaping into the desert of sin. It wasn’t until he talked with a mentor that he began to turn around and repent of spending time in this spiritually arid place. Only then was he able to get a vision of what God wanted to do in his life and in the life of the church.
Preaching as Performace
Preachers face the temptation of allowing the performance of preaching to get in the way of gospel ministry. We may even be tempted to adopt a persona when we preach that really isn’t us—but we know that people like it and we pander to the crowd. The nineteenth-century preacher A.J. Gordon called performance preaching “moral plagiarism.” In preaching as performance the preacher promotes himself. He likes being the center of attention, and preaching becomes entertainment oriented and for the preacher’s benefit, not the listeners’.
Edwin Byington writes about a preacher who had great promise. People swarmed to hear him preach. He was able to sway listeners as they were moved by his tremendous ability to speak, and he knew it. It came so naturally to him. The young preacher was to take a prominent pulpit, but the appointment was cut short. He could perform but he relied on his own abilities, which of course was not what the church needed. Byington called his malady “abilititus,” the crowd- pleasing disease of relying exclusively on one’s own efforts.
The Desire to Please
We all know that preachers are people, regular everyday kinds of people. Deep down, we like to be liked. Sometimes we want to be liked by others so much that we compromise our own convictions—or even may be tempted to soften what the biblical text actually means and says so as not to offend. We may not choose certain texts on which to preach because we don’t want to upset our listeners, or even just a certain segment of our congregation. Therefore, because of our own insecurities, we avoid challenging them toward growth. We choose not to risk relationships at the expense of leading disciples through tough matters that really need to be confronted in their lives. We worry about losing our job and so, for the sake of financial security, don’t give the congregation what they really need from God’s Word.
Instead of feeding the flock with a nourishing and challenging menu, we may end up wittingly or unwittingly giving them what they want—meager portions and not meat. We allow them and ourselves to fall into what Paul warned Timothy would happen if the Word wasn’t preached with care: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Paul encourages, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (
The question for us is, what are the challenges we face as we prepare to preach? As we look at ourselves, what is it that gets in the way of our being the kind of pastor and preacher that God wants us to be? Looking at the areas described above, what can you do to turn away from that which hinders your nourishing God’s people?
Facing Our Situation
When we turn from looking at ourselves and the areas that hold us back from nurturing our listeners, we put down the mirror and look at our church, the situation in which we find ourselves, the ministry to which God has called us. What are the blind spots that prevent us from effective planning for our sermons? Join me in exploring some of these areas.
A Lack of Analysis
As preachers we’re used to exegeting the Scriptures. We mine from the Bible the truth that God has placed there and the ideas that we intend to communicate to the congregation. As intentional as we are in discerning the Scriptures, often we neglect the responsibility of also exegeting our congregation, our listeners. This leads to our not really understand- ing them. We think we do, but we’ve not taken the time to understand who they are, what they do, what their questions might be. For some of us, the motto “Preach the Word” is all we think about but we don’t consider to whom the Word is preached.
Peter’s sermon in
Likewise Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus (
A Troubled Church
Trouble in a congregation isn’t anything new. The New Testament letters are evidence enough of troubled churches. But a hindrance to addressing the needs of a church through planning may be the church itself. Ken Swetland tells about Norm, a pastor who was in a church that was an abso- lute dream. Norm called it his “Philippians church.” But after a while Norm felt he should move on. His next church brimmed with trouble. Norm was never able to get them to the place of his “Philippians church.” The church was full of strife, contention permeated the air, meetings were tough, and people were cruel. No one wanted to listen, but Norm was unable to see it. He lacked the ability to ask discern- ing questions before he went to the church and even after being there. If only Norm could have perceived the lack of spiritual maturity of the church, maybe things would have been different.
A Lack of Prayer
A lack of personal and corporate prayer can be a roadblock to planning—spiritual discernment is key to solid preaching. The pastor’s and the people’s personal practice of prayer readies a congregation to grow spiritually. We want to be praying intentionally for our people and we want them to do so too.
One of the emphases I push as a pastor or interim pastor is the important place of prayer. In one church we had the “Prayer Pact.” The worshipers agreed to pray for the church every day in their personal prayer time. Not only did this emphasis encourage corporate prayer, but it also underscored the importance of personal prayer.
The nineteenth-century Scottish pastor William Hamilton told the story of a wealthy Christian woman who attended a Highlands church pastored by a minister whose sermons she enjoyed. When the time came that her city church needed a minister, she used her influence to arrange for the Highlands minister to become the pastor of her church. However, she was disappointed to discover that his preaching wasn’t as powerful as she had enjoyed while listening to him in the Highlands. After a while she approached the minister and asked him about it. He told her, “I lost my prayer book.” She responded quizzically, “You lost your prayer book? I didn’t know you used a prayer book! We’re Presbyterians! Well, then, I’ll buy you a box of prayer books!” “Oh, no,” he replied, “the congregation was my prayer book.” We want our people praying for our preaching, and we want to pray ourselves. Through prayer we’re able to understand our situation.
As you reflect on your preaching and the obstacles you find in planning it, what are the challenges you face in your situation—in your church? When we’re aware of the landscape of the place where God has put us, we’ll be better able to discern how we might feed the flock with God’s Word.
Now we look at the final aspect of the challenges to preaching and the roadblocks to planning. This concerns the culture in which we live. If we have a text to exegete, ourselves to face, and a congregation to understand, we also have a culture, a society, that requires special attention—and the awareness that we can easily be swayed by its influence.
The Collapse of Authority
When planning preaching, we may not take into account the reality of the culture in which we preach. The collapse of authority in general has seeped into Western society and has had an impact on the preacher and on preaching. The preacher’s leadership is under suspicion. And if the preacher is scrutinized, so also is the Bible from which he or she preaches.
The rise of the self has taken the place of objective certainty. The self-centered society has arrived. Men and women are concerned about their needs, their wants, their desires—at least what they think they need, want, or desire. The church is not immune to this cultural poison. We raise this question in our introductory preaching classes: “How do we preach Christ in a culture that thinks they deserve salvation?” In the thinking of people today, entitlement to salvation is the norm. Most people have an “all good dogs go to heaven” theology—and all dogs are considered to be good. We preachers are often unaware of the influence of culture on our congregation, but the thoughtful preacher who’s planning her preaching cannot overlook the roadblock that culture can present.
An additional end result that preachers face and occasionally fail to notice is that, since authority is diminished and the self has risen in prominence, the pragmatism of American business can have more of an in?uence on the church, its programs, and planning than we realize. Consumer-driven Christianity can have a subtle yet strong in?uence on preaching. Preachers are tempted to depend on pragmatically driven ministry instead of thoughtful theological reflection and plan- ning and often ask, “Does it work?” instead of “Is it biblical?” As a result many preachers use mass-produced sermon series that they purchase on the Internet and simply relay to their congregation. With this method, they never ask thoughtful, penetrating theological questions or even personal or situational ones.
Preachers and churches buy easily into the concept of personality-driven ministry. Many evangelicals have, perhaps unknowingly, embraced the rise of the self and combined it with consumerism, resulting in a parade of powerful personalities of every theological persuasion who set the tone for church ministry, hawking their books and sermon series. Their offerings replace the need for the local pastor to assess prayerfully and thoughtfully his or her life and the life of the congregation and then preaching his or her flock to maturity.
God has called you to love and nurture the people where you are, and he wants you to do it! The danger of buying into the hype of personality-driven ministry is that pastors can bypass their responsibility of determining what their congregation really needs. This may seem easy because someone the preacher values or the congregation esteems has something interesting and important to say—but it may not be what the congregation needs at the time. Only the pastor—along with the congregational leadership—can decide how to address where the people might be and where they need to go in their growth in Christ.
Haddon Robinson wisely observes, “Today many more ‘kings’ rule the homiletical landscape. Media preachers are some of the most gifted, and they enjoy extra advantages like researchers, audio and video engineers, and freedom from the drain of everyday pastoring.” The truth is, the communication kings don’t know your church. You do. People may be impressed with this celebrated personality or that evangelical icon, but the evangelical luminary doesn’t have a clue about your church, what they need, and what God wants you to communicate to them as they move toward maturity in Christ. And that’s good!
One Size Fits All
Our planning can be hijacked if we’re not willing to come to terms with the enticement our listeners face when it comes to the marketplace of religion. Displayed before their eyes is a supermarket variety of options for living one’s life. Christianity is only one option in the one-size-fits-all approach to faith. As preachers we want to come to terms with society’s push for promoting multiple ways to God and how that attitude fits into how we preach and plan. Here all religions are considered to be of equal value. This puts the uniqueness of Christianity at stake. The result is that men and women become satisfied with being “spiritual” but not Christian. Or Christian commitment is weak and becomes only part of a mix of what it means to be a believer in Christ.
Instead, the thoughtful preacher and planner wants to keep in mind the uniqueness of Christ and the impact of what it means that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” in the life and lifestyle of the listener.
Preachers plan their preaching—some do it better than others. Planning is one thing, but executing the plans is another. Most of the pastors who responded to the Center for Preach- ing survey noted that planning for preaching is important to them. We want to be good planners of our preaching, yet there are matters we face that get in the way of thoughtful planning. Sometimes the very roadblock we confront is us. Another barrier may be our situation—we don’t understand our ministry milieu. A final obstruction to effective planning is life in our society and the pressures that this pluralistic world puts on us and on our listeners.
Once we deal with these obstacles in planning, we can move to the heart of what we’re doing—planning sermons that will help believers mature.