The Preacher's 'Forgotten God'
3 ways to incorporate the Holy Spirit in our preaching.
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When I was candidating for my first full-time pastoral position, one of the assistant pastors at the church looked me up and down with his arms folded across his chest. It was an unnerving feeling as we were standing in the church's parking lot. He then pricked my conscience by asking this blunt question: "So Matt, how many hours a day do you pray?" My immediate reaction was one of scoffing on the inside: Excuse me? The nerve of this guy! Who does he think he is? But, to tell you the truth, the question stumped me. Good questions can sting the soul. I thought to myself, "Hours? I don't think in terms of hours. I think in terms of minutes." Instead of answering his question with a quantitative number, I embarrassingly just blurted out something generic: "Of course, I pray regularly." As I continued to search for that first pastorate, however, that question never escaped me: "So Matt, how many hours a day do you pray?"
In asking this very pointed question, God was using this pastor to speak into my life. I was searching for a pastorate in order to shepherd others, but I was not being shepherded by the True Shepherd. I didn't have a vibrant prayer life or much of one at all. Three years in seminary and another three years pursuing a Ph.D. left my spiritual life in a well, gutted dry. On top of that, as a highly independent person, I'd often struggle with prayer. And that same struggle followed me into my first call.
Like many seminary graduates, I knew how to exegete Scripture and how to parse verbs. I knew how to find an exegetical idea and a preaching idea for a given passage. I understood how this text related to biblical theology. I learned about the cultures of the biblical world. I understood for the most part how to relate the text to people's lives. But, did I know how to pray for God to transform the lives of my hearers through the power of the Holy Spirit? In short, my answer would be, no, I didn't. I didn't really pray for myself, for my people, or for my preaching. I was running my life and ministry on auto pilot.
Providentially, during my third year of that pastorate, Francis Chan published a helpful book, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Many Preaching Today readers are probably familiar with it. Chan's book opened my eyes to a massive lacunae in my life, my preaching, and my ministry. I believed theoretically in the power of the Holy Spirit. I had read many examples of the Holy Spirit's work and dunamis in the Book of Acts. However, I wasn't living in the power of the Holy Spirit nor was I accessing the Spirit's power in my preaching or ministry service.
Many a preacher today would say, "Of course, prayer is an integral part of my preaching preparation." The question is: "What correlation do we see between our prayer life and life transformation in our listeners?" I'm ashamed to say that it took me well over two years to figure out that prayer is an indispensable part of preaching. In his fantastic book Power Through Prayer, E.M. Bounds writes: "The little regard we give prayer is evident from the little time we spend on it." Rather, Bounds encourages: "Prayer, in the preacher's life, study, and pulpit, must be a conspicuous and all-impregnating force, an all-coloring ingredient. It must play no secondary role, be no mere coating." Yes, I would pray here and there throughout the week for my upcoming sermon. I would pray for my sermon on Sunday morning and as I walked up to the pulpit. But, did I really pray?