Don't Strive To Be a Great Preacher
December 6, 2011
Reading Levy's post this morning set me thinking. As I prepare to transition from PhD studies back to pastoral ministry in the local church, I've received much wise counsel from older saints on making said transition. One aspect of it that has been on my mind particularly is the temptation for those of us who preach week by week to strive to be great preachers.
Don't misunderstand me. Preachers should be constantly striving to improve their delivery, clarity, and most importantly, content. We who ascend the sacred desk should warmly receive criticism from older brothers who are better preachers than we. We should read books that help us feed God's people better. We should listen to the constructive criticism of those who sit under our ministries week after week.
No, what I am arguing against is the actual attempt to develop into a preacher with a reputation for being so unusually wonderful that people flock to you. There is a fine line here, to be sure: typically, gifted men attract larger audiences. Nothing wrong with that per se.
But the current culture of celebrity tends to foster in younger seminarians a desire to be known as a great preacher. This seems to have been the case in Lloyd-Jones's day as well. The young men did their best to imitate the better older preachers like Lloyd-Jones.The same thing happens today. But imitation, in many cases, is the mark of the immature. You try to sing like Eddie Vedder only until you realize you have your own voice. (As an aside, this is one reason why so much contemporary Christian music is little better than the knock-off colognes at gas stations).
Again, a qualification: surely when a man is learning to preach, imitation will be present. Lloyd-Jones has a good section in his book on preachers on this very thing. But when imitation turns to aping for the purpose of being known as "just as good as megapreacher X," problems result.
The temptation to be thought of as a great preacher is tremendous. What minister does not like to be told by a breathless congregant how mightily the Lord has just used his sermon? What minister is not tempted to think of himself more highly than he ought? Any minister who denies that he is subject to such temptations is perhaps not being fully honest with himself.
The pitfalls of the temptation to greatness show up in many ways: in meditating upon how one looks in the pulpit, rather than upon the text to be preached; in paying more attention to volume of the voice and rhetorical flourish than exegetical precision; and in emphatically making a point to cover up for a lack of requisite time in the study.
Instead, I think us younger ministers should strive to learn from the best of the older preachers. But we should also realize that every man has a context and what works in one context may not work in another. This is not to argue for a kind of quasi-relativism but only to highlight the fact that what strikes one person as passion may strike another as shouting, to give one example relative to delivery.
One way forward, it seems to me, is for younger ministers to devote themselves to using whatever gifts the Lord has given them and preach the Bible faithfully. Appreciate the John Pipers, Derek Thomases, Joel Beekes and Lloyd-Joneses of the world. But don't try to be them. Don't try to be the best. Let us just try to be who we are. Some of us will never be particularly great preachers. But God can use the monotone delivery of Jonathan Edwards as much as the majestic style of Sinclair Ferguson. Faithfulness is the only thing that matters.
I'll never forget what one wise older minister said to me after I'd preached a particularly bad sermon: "Don't aim for the fence. Just get on base. That's called faithfulness." Striving for greatness before the world's watching eyes usually means that there is a converse decline in our striving for greatness before the eyes of Him who tests the hearts of men. But if we are faithful to the text, we receive the Master's smile, no matter who's listening to or applauding us. Indeed, that is the one, supreme goal of the preacher's life: knowing that Jesus knows him as a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. That's how the Bible describes a truly great preacher.