Prayer in the Three Seasons of Our Sermon
Prayer in the Three Seasons of Our Sermon
Integrating the ministry of prayer into our ministry of preaching.
When I was in college, my mentor gave me a copy of a small booklet by E. M. Bounds, a pastor and author known primarily for his extensive writings on prayer. That little booklet was called Preacher and Prayer, and it challenged me beyond measure when I first read it. In fact, to this day, I can still remember a quotation from the first few pages:
What the church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men and women whom the Holy Ghost can use–people of prayer, people mighty in prayer … He does not anoint plans but people–people of prayer.
I still require ministry residents at our church interested in preaching to read that little booklet.
I have to admit that Bounds' writing on prayer often makes me feel as if my life of prayer as a preacher is insignificant. Since reading that booklet, I have read innumerable books on preaching. Through them I have learned many important lessons, such as how best to study for preaching, finding and developing illustrations, engaging the hearers meaningfully, and so much more. Most of these books make very little mention of prayer. Perhaps that is because the authors think it goes without saying that prayer is important from start to finish in preaching.
However, it might be worth considering what happens when we no longer say what goes without saying. While many of us pray as preachers, I have a feeling that most of us would not put it in the pride of place that E. M. Bounds once did.
Could it possibly be that as preachers today we have forgotten how to integrate the ministry of prayer into our ministry of preaching? I have no desire to offer simplistic answers to these questions, but it helps me to think of three seasons in the lifespan of every sermon—before the sermon (planning), during the sermon (delivery), and after the sermon (relinquishing). Here’s how I pray through each of these three sermon seasons.
Season 1: Planning with Prayer
Without a doubt, it is important to integrate prayer into our sermon preparation. However, I have landed on some out of the ordinary practices by which prayer has become invaluable to my sermon preparation.
The first of these is that in planning a sermon series, I give extended time to prayer before charting out any series I will preach. Approaching that planning with focused prayer and fasting has enriched my preparation and planning. Sometimes I take a day or two to pray over what Scripture our church should delve into. Sometimes I have even had the opportunity to draw away for an entire week to plan out as much as a year of sermon series, integrating prayer throughout the planning.
I remember one particularly rich time when I was able to integrate fixed-hour prayer—morning, noon, and evening—as part of my listening to the voice of God in Scripture as I prepared a sermon series. This has helped me to remember that sermon planning is not just about my creativity or “great ideas,” but, as with Samuel at the beginning of his life with God, that my heart posture should be: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).
Our preparation for preaching does not need to be a solitary journey, however, but can also be an experience of community for us as preachers, even in prayer. Every week, I dedicate my Thursdays as a study day to develop my sermons. At the beginning of my study day, I invite a small prayer support team to pray for me during my sermon preparation. I also do something which may seem a little strange. I post a simple request on social media, requesting that whoever sees it to pray for me as I prepare my message. It has been a wonderful experience to hear that people are praying for me from within my congregation, as well as friends in other spheres of life and pastors of other churches. I have enjoyed the opportunity to return the favor when others request prayer for a sermon, speaking engagement, or writing project.
This practice reminds me that I am part of a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1), and that we journey together as the community of God in ministry. In this way, preparing to preach in prayer becomes a focused encounter in hearing from God, as well as a joyful journey with others.
I have developed two other preparatory prayer practices, both of which occur on the day of preaching. The first is that I rise extra early on Sundays to pray for the church, for other pastors who I know, and for myself as a preacher as I go over my message again. This gives me extra time to focus my mind and heart with God, to let the sermon descend into my heart more deeply, and also to remember that first of all I am a child of the King whose value is not dependent upon the delivery of my sermon.
Second, about an hour to thirty minutes before services begin, I do a prayer walk around our church campus. I pray over every room, asking for God’s blessing upon those who will attend a Sunday School class, serve in the nursery or with high school students, concluding by praying over our worship hall one section at a time. I hesitate to write about this because it may sound more impressive than it really is, but I have found that this dedicated time in prayer helps in many ways. It helps put me in the right mindset about my small part of the ministry that happens each weekend, it gives me a heart that is for others in prayer before it is for others in preaching, and I believe it is also a source of God’s gracious power poured out in the midst of our church community.
Season 2: Delivery in Prayer
Certainly, we prepare in prayer, but there is also an important aspect in which our delivery of the sermon must be suffused with prayer.
Many preachers do not sit throughout the entire service of worship every service, but I find it irreplaceable to do so. Our church has four services, one on Saturday night and three on Sunday morning. Believe me, it is very tempting to breeze into every service to deliver the sermon and duck out afterwards. However, being present as part of the gathered congregation in worship through song, confession, responsive readings, and intercessory prayer is vitally important.
The preacher-pastor has a specific role within the congregation, yet the preacher-pastor is still part of the laos gathered. We are not exempt from any aspect of the service of worship, and so it is vital that we enter into the conversation of prayer before the sermon is delivered. As part of the community gathered to attend to God, we stand to preach as part of that ongoing conversation, the prayer without ceasing of God’s people (1 Thess. 5:17).
Even as most preachers pray aloud immediately before delivering a sermon, I believe this prayer preceding the sermon can become more robust than we often give it credit for. Perhaps because we have largely delegated the role of worship leading to others, many preachers fail to think of the sermon as a worship experience. When we approach the sermon as worship, however, our opening prayer is, in a sense, a worship prelude for what will occur in the sermon. Thus, when we begin our sermon with a prayer, it is an opportunity not merely to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, but, even more, an opportunity to draw together as a congregation into worshipful awareness of our God who is present among us as we gather around Scripture together.
Many times, when praying before the sermon, I will reflect aloud on the majesty of God, praise God for attributes of his character that the sermon will address, or merely draw us as a community together with a posture of attentiveness to the Father through prayer. Unlike the personal prayer during preparation, it is now the entire congregation, including the preacher, who say as one, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).
However, it is not only the preparatory prayer before the sermon that incorporates prayer into our preaching, but also the sermon itself. If the sermon is worship, and if worship is our service unto God, the conscious remembrance that we exist face-to-face with the living God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, then our gathering around the Word of God in preaching is a powerful moment of interactive worship with the living God.
There are times when, because of this consciousness, I sense that instead of continuing with my stream of teaching or preaching, the most appropriate action at certain points, even within my sermon, is to stop and pray. Sometimes I plan this ahead of time as a conscious pause in prayer with God, while at other times this arises as a spontaneous “interruption” of prayer. Through Jeremiah, the Lord speaks, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).
As preachers we are trying to lead our congregations, and also ourselves, into conversation with God, whose word sets ablaze the human soul and breaks open the stony human heart. If this is the case, then the best thing we can do at times within the sermon is to stop and dwell with God in conversation through prayer. This may be to lead the congregation into reflection around something that has just been said in Scripture, a moment of confession, a season of lament, a burst of thanksgiving, a time for a quiet reflection, or something else. If Paul interrupts his epistles with bursts of praise and prayer, then certainly we can do this within our sermons as preachers today.
Moving beyond a single concluding prayer at the end of a sermon, we hopefully can find that prayer is often the primary and most crucial response to preaching. Some churches might, like ours, have prayer ministers available after services to pray one-to-one with people within the church. I have found this to be a meaningful opportunity always available for our congregation.
However, there are so many other ways that prayer has been meaningful for our congregation as a response to the sermon. Sometimes we have done the classic invitation, where people come forward to mark a transition in their life with God or to dedicate themselves to service of God in some way. Other times, we invite the congregation to step forward in prayer in more unique ways. One example is asking people to remain seated while holding their hands cupped out in front of them to reflect a desire to be filled anew by God. Another weekend, we provided the chance for people to write a prayer of their heart on a piece of paper and then attach it to a board at the front of our worship hall.
If preaching is worship, and if preaching is a summons to a deeper encounter with God, then it is entirely appropriate for us as preachers to make space for the congregation to respond with God personally and corporately through prayer.
Season 3: Relinquishing in Prayer
After nearly every sporting event there is a post-game show, in which commentators discuss all that happened, both good and bad. Many times, as preachers, we experience an unplanned, inner post-game show, which often ends in negativity and a sense of failure. To circumvent this post-game evaluation, I have found two practices of prayer after the sermon beneficial.
The first is relinquishing control to God over the outcome of the message. For me, this happens both after the delivery of the sermon as I am sitting down and on Monday morning. Why? For me, these are usually the lowest moments after the sermon.
After giving it my all in the delivery of my message, I turn to the Lord and simply echo Jesus’ prayer in the garden: “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). This prayer of relinquishment is my attempt to surrender my desire to control both individual responses to my message and congregational transformation through my message. I realize that fruit from preaching is not something that I control, but that God controls. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:7). As preachers, we have to relinquish this to God.
While the relinquishing control may in some ways feel passive, I have found a second practice helps me to actively engage with God in prayer after sermon delivery. That practice is regular intercession for the congregation to grow in the grace of God that was addressed within the sermon.
If the sermon was about knowing God’s love, then I will pray that our congregation may grow in the grace of knowing the love of God more fully. I may mingle in Scriptural prayers, such as that of Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19, during the course of the week. I will pray for specific individuals, relationships, or situations that I am aware of in our congregation.
I find that this helps bring the sermon to life for me personally in the following week, and also to connect the unseen ministry of pastoral care through prayer with my ministry of preaching. Paul tells the believers in Colossae that he and Timothy “we have not stopped praying for you” (Col. 1:9), and that opportunity is there for us as preachers in our local settings as well.
I thank God for the ministry of preaching that God entrusts to ordinary people like me. It is a privilege to stand within the gathered people of God and open the Scripture in a life-giving way. Yet the ministry of preaching requires us as preachers to also exercise the ministry of prayer. Without prayer our preaching will not bring life or transformation. As Paul says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). While admitting we have need of growth here, it is hard not to agree with E. M. Bounds that God “does not anoint plans but people–people of prayer.”