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The Agony and Ecstasy of Preaching

I like to cook for company. I suppose that reveals the masochist in me, because there are two days of planning and shopping and a whole day of preparation, then they consume it all in fifteen minutes with nary a burp. They scarf down the main course that I made from scratch, then praise me only for the dessert, which is the only thing I bought ready-made at the store. It’s hard to prove that you’re a good cook, because if you do your job right, all the evidence is destroyed! I console myself in my fatigue by remembering that the purpose of a meal is not to praise the chef, but to feed the diners.

I observe with some frustration that preaching is a lot like cooking.

If C. S. Lewis had written a preacher’s edition of the Screwtape Letters, Wormwood would advise Screwtape to help his client get grandiose about preaching and to mistake the comments afterwards for either praise or criticism. That way the preacher can be misdirected into ending the ministry right where it should begin. It doesn’t suit our adversary’s purpose if we discover that the purpose of preaching is to convey a message and not to garner praise. Preaching is not about the preacher or even the sermon, it is about making spiritual ills surface so that people can be healed, or making spiritual realities apparent, so that people can be strengthened.

Ministry begins when the sermon ends. The sermon sets a topic, it gets people thinking, it brings spiritual issues to the forefront where they can be resolved. Therefore, you should not take the comments afterwards as praise or criticism. What appears to be praise can mean that your presentation overcame your message and your efforts were wasted—or it can mean that the person has reached a breakthrough and needs your help to grow further. What appears to be a criticism can mean that you commandeered the sermon and quenched the Holy Spirit—or it can mean that a problem has finally bubbled to the surface and the person needs your help to deal with it.

You know you are effective when people come to you with their sins and anxieties, when they feel safe revealing things to you that they would never tell another living soul. You know you are effective when they come to you, confident that you will give them constructive help rather than condemnation, when they know they will receive love rather than rejection, when they know they will receive wisdom rather than jingles. You know you are effective when they come to you when they are troubled.

You know you are ineffective and useless to God when after your sermon everyone says, “nice sermon,” and then just leaves. If that happens, you are well on your way to becoming the stereotypical ineffectual parson who takes five sugars in his tea, who always says positive things, who never says substantive things, and who finds his parishioners consulting psychics and astrologers when they are in distress.

Suppose you went to the doctor with a sore leg. The doctor prods and pokes your leg. Depending on what he touches, you say either, “Ah, that feels good!” or “Ouch, that hurts!” Imagine then if the doctor took the former comment as praise for his doctoring and the latter a criticism that he should never touch you in that place! What a useless doctor that would be! In 1981 I was hospitalized for a compressed disk. Once a day they took me up to the room where the people with missing limbs learn how to walk again so that a physical therapist could massage my back, because the muscles were all seized up. I noticed that the therapist was careful only to rub me where it hurt, and that is what made me better! We also have to rub people where they hurt in order to heal them. Preaching is the diagnostic tool, not the treatment. The ministering begins when the preaching ends, so a sermon is only good if it leads to the congregation’s spiritual growth toward God.

So if someone tells me, “I really enjoyed your message,” I diplomatically smile as if it were praise, but I count it as a failure, because it isn’t supposed to be my message and they weren’t supposed to find the primary benefit in the entertainment value. I only give myself a positive mark if the comments are about the topic rather than the sermon.

Preaching, like cooking, is often a thankless task. It is rewarding at times, and it is draining at times.

But we labor for the benefit of those whom we serve.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
—2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV