A boy wearing long, red swim trunks races down a pier toward a blue lake under a big sky…well, races as fast as he can with swim fins on his feet … and leaps into the air with arms spread wide. The boy in midair graces the cover of Max Lucado's new book Fearless, and the subtitle speaks a word of hope and vision that every preacher longs to inhabit: "Imagine your life without fear." Indeed, imagine preaching without fear of how well you will "perform" or of how people will respond. In this interview, Max, who is minister of writing and preaching at Oak Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, describes addressing his own preaching fears and the glorious calling we have to preach courage into Christians.
As a preacher, what do you fear?
Almost every time I preach I wrestle with the fear: Do I really have something significant to say? I battle insecurity on a weekly basis. I always end up at the same place: No, I don't, but this is a call from God, so he must have given me something to say. I go through this little wrestling match before I get up to speak, and then when I sit down after a message my first thought is usually, Boy, I blew it. The good side of that insecurity is it causes me to be especially prepared.
We're giving people a wonderful gift when we give them faith and courage.
Have those feelings changed over time?
Over the 26 years that I've been preaching, the fear has not changed, but my faith has grown. When fear surfaces, I now have much more experience on which I can draw and say, God has taken care of this every single time in the past, so I'm not going to be afraid. It's like David going into battle against Goliath, knowing he's already faced a lion and a bear.
Are the fears that come with preaching different when you're speaking to your own congregation versus when you're speaking elsewhere?
For me it takes more courage to preach to the same people and do a good job week-in and week-out than it does to fly somewhere, speak at a conference, and then get on a plane and leave. When I preach to the people in our church, I know that we're going to serve on committees together, I'm going to see them at the restaurant, they're going to see me in traffic, they're going to know the kind of person I am. I can't pull the wool over their eyes. It takes more courage in the week-in and week-out to be faithful and bring a faithful message.
What effects does fear have on a preacher?
We tend to do one of two things: either withdraw from our people or become hyper controlling of them. Fear makes a person a poor leader. And the extreme example of this is Adolph Hitler. Martin Niemoller, the Lutheran pastor, heard Hitler speak in 1933. His wife asked him what he thought and he said, "I perceive that Herr Hitler is a terribly frightened man."
Fear brings out the tyrant within us. So we either become hyper controlling of the church or we withdraw from the people in the church. The better posture, of course, is to set fear aside so that we can be out in front of the church but still confident enough to lead them
Why do we need to preach about fear?
First, because Jesus spoke so much about it. Jesus had more imperatives about fear than any other topic. If Jesus talked so much about fear, then I should be talking about fear.
The second reason to preach on this is that the state of fear can do so much damage. The appearance of fear is not the issue. In fact, I don't think fear is a sin; it's an emotion, but it can lead to sin. It's the pervasion of fear, when fear takes over our lives, when we live in a perpetual state of unrest, that is the problem.
When fear keeps me from walking across a busy street or staying in a burning building, it's a healthy tool. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, so there is, of course, a place for fear. But when you allow yourself to stay in a perpetual position of fear, it turns you into a control freak. Fear is the perceived loss of control. When I feel like the world is out of control, I will try to control it, control others, control something, and that leads to nothing but anxiety.
Fear-filled people are not great witnesses and testimonies for Christ. If we try to treat our fears with alcohol or drugs or control or anger or withdrawal or sullenness, there's nothing new about that.
The phrase I like to use is: "Fear will always knock at your door, but just don't invite it in to stay." Let fear do its work. Let it alert me to potential dangers. Let it alert me to make sure that I'm managing my money well or that my kids are protected, or whatever. But then step into the state of faith instead of fear.
How can preachers help?
We have the opportunity to create courageous people. When we give people faith and courage, we're giving a wonderful gift. What a joy. They'll be better moms, better dads, better human beings, better workers, if they're not living in a state of anxiety. People are never going to write a symphony or build a business or lead a family as well in a state of fear as they will in a state of faith. Preachers have a calling to call people to a position of courage. When it comes to courage, Christians have the corner on the market, because we know where we're headed after we die, we know who's going to meet us at the grave.
What's one specific thing to preach in such a circumstance?
In times of change and anxiety, keep telling people the one thing that won't change. During a time of transition, I continually repeated to the church, "We're in a time of change but I tell you what's not going to change: We're never going to change our message about Jesus Christ. We're always going to preach the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. We're always going to call people to confession of sin and the acceptance of grace." And that really helped. Because when they sense change, they think, "Well, everything is changing around here." Well, the truth is it's not; it just seems like it is. We have to help people see that no matter what else may happen, this church is a place where Jesus is taught, prayers are offered, the gospel is proclaimed.
How did God speak to you about the importance of overcoming fear?
My book Fearless was born out of a morning devotional time as I was reading in Matthew 8 about Jesus in the storm. He was asleep, and when the disciples woke him he asked, "Why are you afraid?" That's a great question. So I led off the book with it: "Now, tell me, why are you afraid?" because if we can figure out why we're afraid, then we have some practical ways to deal with it.
What we fear tells a lot about us.
Like maybe some priorities that might be misplaced. If I fear rejection, maybe I value the approval of people too much. If I fear going broke, it could indicate I love money too much. If I fear disease, maybe I love health and comfort too much.
I began a series of sermons in church about fear. About that time I was diagnosed with a heart problem, and I felt my own struggle with fear. After the conversations with the cardiologist, he determined it was a genetic issue, and after 18 months, I ended up having a heart procedure. (My heart is now healthy.) In the middle of all that, I decided it was time for me to step out of the role of senior pastor and bring in somebody to help lead the church and share the preaching responsibilities, so I had the anxiety of a major transition in life.
Meanwhile another Scripture caught my attention. I thought about the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus himself was afraid. It struck me that Jesus faced his own fear by going to pray and by taking people to pray with him. That's a picture of a healthy church. The church is the modern day version of the Garden of Gethsemane. A healthy church is a place where I can go and cry out in fear. It's a place where I can find a community of people—my own Peter, James and John—to whom I can be honest and say, "Please pray with me about this fear." The church becomes the place where fears go to die.
Max Lucado is minister of writing and preaching at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas.