Take the Initiative to Keep Growing
I'm learning that my growth as a preacher doesn't happen automatically. I can only grow as a preacher when I take the initiative to maintain certain practices and habits.
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I started preaching every Sunday when I was 33 years old. By the time I was 40 I felt the learning curve was flattening out. I'd reached a certain proficiency and was settling into a groove. It was still hard but not as hard. I was still improving, I'm sure, but I was concerned that I wouldn't improve much. That bothered me because when I was young I had set a personal goal of being a great preacher. Not famous-great. Good-to-great. I looked ahead at maybe 25 or 30 more years of preaching and wondered how I could keep growing when it seemed my basic skills were tabling off. After all, to be a better preacher you can't just talk louder or faster.
I must admit that there are some things that have never improved much. I still start studying too late in the week. I get this hang-dog look on my face when someone tells me that they prepare three weeks in advance, or for that matter, get a good start on Tuesdays. The worst weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is that I've never figured out how to preach a good sermon shorter. Time is my sermonic thorn in the flesh. I've asked God far more than three times to give me 30-35 minute sermons because I think they'd be stronger. But usually I just cannot do it. So I must trust again and again that God's strength has been made perfect through my weakness.
That said, here are some of the practices that have helped me take the initiative to keep growing as a preacher.
Recruit prayer helpers.
The very first thing I did was enlist people in the church to pray specifically several times a week for my preaching. Each year I put out a call for volunteers for what I call Aaron's Army. (I've always related more to Aaron the spokesman than Moses the leader.) Every two or three months I send them an updated preaching schedule and spell out the particular challenges of upcoming sermons. I tell them any particular preaching-related struggles I'm having. For example, for many years people prayed that I'd sleep well on Saturday nights since I've had problems with insomnia. I always thank them for their partnership because as Asahel Nettleton said in the early 1800s, "It is no use to preach, if the church does not pray." I suspect this is the single most significant thing I have done to be a better preacher.
A personal trainer I met with for some months (poor guy) was always showing me new stretching exercises. Preachers need to stretch or we get stiff and inflexible. My stretching exercises include:
- I never preach an old sermon in my own church. I don't fault others for doing so. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to me. But I don't do it.
- I resist clichés. One reason I manuscript sermons is to try to snag my own threadbare ways of saying things. But whole sermons can be clichéd as well. When I'm preaching on a well-known text or truth I require myself to write my way into a fresh expression.
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