The Preacher's 'Forgotten God'
3 ways to incorporate the Holy Spirit in our preaching.
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?
In this article, I would like to share three ways that we can incorporate the "Forgotten God" in our preaching. Hopefully, these three ways will remind you to make prayer a more foundational part of your preaching ministry.
Pray for the Holy Spirit's power
We have all experienced the mystery of prayer. It's not an exact science. God can use one word prayers just as he can three hour prayers. Preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit recognizes that the Spirit works mysteriously and in ways that we can't fully comprehend.
In Mark 9, the disciples couldn't figure out why they could not cast out a demon from a boy possessed at an early age. As they pointed fingers at each other's inability and impotence, they privately ask Jesus about the reason for their ministry failure. Jesus responds in verse 29: "This kind can come out only by prayer." In other words, they lacked spiritual power. Perhaps they were trusting in themselves and resting on their laurels. William Lane writes, "They had to learn that their previous success in expelling demons provided no guarantee of continued power. Rather the power of God must be asked for on each occasion in radical reliance upon his ability alone."
Similarly, I wonder if the same self-reliance occurs among God's preachers once we've gotten down this preaching thing. Perhaps we pray a little less fervently today than when we first started. Perhaps we pray a little less urgently after we've found our "preaching voice." Perhaps we pray a little less regularly once we learn the ropes of building a "successful" church. And perhaps unbeknownst to us our preaching like a once fully inflated tire has been slowly leaking of Holy Spirit power.
Pray for Holy Spirit's power today. These same disciples who couldn't cast out this demon eventually received the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 at Pentecost and their lives and ministries were transformed forever. Francis Chan says: "They [the disciples] were no longer timid or confused; they were bold and inspired and began to declare and live the gospel of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit." If we're honest, maybe we can admit that we haven't been living in the power of the Holy Spirit and as a result our preaching has suffered from spiritual anemia. Pray for the Holy Spirit's power.
Pray for transformed lives
Second, pray for transformed lives through the working of the Holy Spirit. Ministry ebbs and flows as we've all experienced firsthand. After the initial honeymoon phase, pastors and parishioners commonly experience a lull in vitality. Our congregants' lives are messy. Sins abound. Illnesses spread. Cancer roars. Relationships fracture. Jobs are lost. Death snatches another victim. Depression and pains linger on. We minister in utter brokenness. It is a challenging time to be a pastor (as it always has been).
Yet, continue to pray for life transformation in yourself and in your people. Remember Paul's words to the Romans in 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Pray for the Spirit to transform the church, rather than clinging on to the lethal precipice of being corrupted by the world. We often see a lack of transformation in our people, but frankly we also see this transformational malaise in ourselves.
But the Christian life wasn't meant to be like this! As pastoral leaders and preachers, we can change the world for Christ and his kingdom (I know I'm preaching now)! We can pray for our very congregants to live exciting and gospel-penetrating lives in their homes, workplaces, schools, and communities. We can pray for discipleship, sanctification, and holiness. We can pray for Jesus' love to shine through even the lives of tainted saints. Work your way through the church directory and pray person by person, family by family, child by child. Pray for the Holy Spirit to transform God's people. Pray for transformed lives.
Pray for congregational intentionality
Third, pray for congregational intentionality. That is, what is your church's vision? Yes, every church has a vision or mission statement. Oftentimes they are very general: "Making disciples" or "Loving God, Loving People." But are you aware of your church's niche contribution in reaching the lost in your communities?
What is your congregation intentional about? Being intentional is different from being reactionary. We can minister in reaction to something that happens to us personally or corporately. For instance, since homeless people have begun visiting your church, you may react to the situation by writing up a church policy on how you will help or won't help these visitors. However, being intentional as a congregation means we will prayerfully become proactive participants in God's kingdom to reach those whom God sends our way. We will intentionally learn about the needs in our community and find ways to meet those needs whether they are financial, relational, emotional, cultural, or spiritual, etc.
Preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit changes entire congregational visions such as the early church in Acts 2:41-47 that devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching, to the breaking of bread, to prayer, and to the fellowship. They gave to all in need. They were observant, intentional, communal, and sacrificial. They put others in front of themselves. They were hospitable, joyful, and praise-filled. They were a vibrant expression of the in breaking of the Holy Spirit's potency in their lives. Congregations today need intentional Spirit-led visions and not just reactionary impulses. Pray that the Holy Spirit will lead your congregation to intentionally live out your unique vision to make a rippling impact on your town, city, state, country, and world.
The Holy Spirit works in mysterious and powerful ways. There's much that we don't and won't understand about the Holy Spirit's person and deity. However, please don't forget to solicit the Holy Spirit's power in your lives and in the lives of your church members. Tap into the Holy Spirit's power in your preaching and ministry efforts. Pray for the Spirit to transform your heart which may suffer at times from discouragement and disappointment. Pray for the Spirit to invigorate your preaching with creativity and renewed passion. Pray for the Spirit to melt the hearts of your listeners who are regularly straddling the world and God's kingdom. Pray for the Spirit to bring back lapsed and wayward souls. Pray for the Spirit to use you and your ministry in ways you never envisioned. Preach in the power of the Holy Spirit!
1. E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1982), 47.
2. Ibid., 43.
3. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 335.
4. Ibid., 335-336.
5. Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2009), 68.
Matthew D. Kim is Associate Professor of preaching and ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of Preaching with Cultural Intelligence: Understanding the People Who Hear Your Sermons (Baker Academic, 2017).