Preaching, week in and week out, can be a grind. I remember hearing Bill Hybels refer to it this way, "You can only hit the same nail for so long before it gets old." I was younger when I heard his comment, and remember thinking "I can't imagine a day when I won't be absolutely energized by getting up to preach on a Sunday morning." Now I know better. Don't get me wrong. It's a worthy endeavor and I feel undeniably called to it. But when you speak almost every week, sometimes multiple messages, it can start to wear you down. And when it does my default is to focus more on content (What do I want to say?) than on my own spiritual engagement (Who do I want to be?).
So in the midst of the countdown to Sunday, I'm learning to bathe my sermons with these five specific prayers. I wish I could tell you I pray these prayers diligently every week that I speak; I don't. But when I do, I'm better prepared to wrestle down what I think God may be prompting me to say and deliver it with power and clarity.
So allow me to humbly submit my five prayers for preachers:
My natural inclination is to pursue topics, passages, or themes I already know. It's easier to preach a new angle on a familiar concept or recycle an older sermon altogether than start from scratch. But whether I'm preaching an old idea or a new one, I need to pray "Lord, teach me what you want me to teach." Maybe another way to phrase it is "Lord, preach to me in order to preach through me."
This is easily the scariest preaching prayer to pray as it asks God to reveal the pressing issues in my own spiritual journey. I'd rather communicate without moving towards self-awareness, confession, and personal sacrifice, but to teach of God without learning anything from God is just another form of hypocrisy. "So Lord, please don't let me preach a truth I'm not living, or at least not seeking to live."
"Lead me in each moment of study. I need to sense your presence at every point in my preparation time." The good news about having a study routine is it keeps us focused and anchored in a sustainable rhythm. But here's one potential pitfall of working off such a schedule: it can become rote and staid. I can work through my sermon preparation checklist and still fail to capture the specific message God may have for our community.
Yes, quantity of time matters, but invariably there will be weeks when we end up with less time than we budgeted. There are hospital visits and funerals and board meetings that go long. Or I just procrastinated. As much as I want to believe I had a great preparation and study plan, sometimes I'm just not feeling it and it's hard to get the words on the page.
In these moments, I've often leaned on the words of Proverbs 16:3: "Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans." That leads me to pray something like, "Lord, I don't love what I have here. It's not what I worked for, hoped for, or imagined in my mind's eye. But it's what I have now and I'm committing it to you. Establish it as only you can and use it for your purposes."
"When I finally step into the pulpit, anoint the delivery of this message."
When I'm not careful, and I feel comfortable with my material, I can be guilty of ordinary public speaking with biblical content. Instead, I want to be ever mindful of what the Spirit is doing in and around me throughout the very act of preaching.
Have you ever been at a worship service where the pastor, after ascending the steps to the podium, says, "I had a message prepared for today, but I feel the Lord has given me something else to say"? I confess the cynic in me questions if there was ever an original sermon to begin with, or if this is just sloppy preaching cloaked in the guise of "being sensitive to the Spirit." However, if there's no supernatural dimension to our preaching, if every time we arrive believing we've managed the uncontrollable fire of God like a tiger on a tight leash, then something's wrong.
I'll never forget hearing Brenda Salter McNeil talk about her pre-game preaching ritual. She spoke of how all the greats in sport and theater have a specific set of practices to help them focus before steping into the lights. Then she mentioned how before she goes up to speak, she anoints her hands with oil, asking God to anoint her preaching in a compelling and undeniable way.
God doesn't owe the preacher anything. But I believe God works in spite of me, not because of me, more often than I choose to admit. So this prayer goes something like this: "When I stand up to preach, do what I can't. Bridge the gap. Fill what is lacking."
About thirty minutes before a service begins, I try to imagine where the people who may be in attendance are and what they're thinking. At our church our staff estimates our "regular" attenders may only come to weekend services twice a month. So at 8:30 or 10:00 on a Sunday morning I picture young parents buckling their kids into a minivan or a couple of empty-nesters finishing breakfast at their favorite diner. And I pray, "Lord, prepare their hearts. Not to receive my thoughts, but to hear your voice. Meet them at their point of greatest need. Till the soil of their soul, so that, if they choose to, they might welcome the seed you would sow."
It used to be "Lord, change them." But I'm learning I'm not an unmoved actor in the preaching process. I'm not an unconscious delivery agent of some transcendent spiritual truth. The preacher is not static in the act of preaching; he is a fluid, organic participant in both the speaking and the hearing of the Word. This is why Mark Labberton warns against the preachers proclaiming "from above," rather than "from among" their people. God doesn't transform the preacher so that, through him, the gathered hearers might be transformed. I believe God, rather than leading the preacher and the people on parallel tracks at varying paces, looks to take a unified, local church body on a singular journey. So the prayer can't be a cop out: "Lord, change these people, for they are broken." Instead I can pray "Lord, change us together, that we might be a collective prophetic voice in the context of our homes, schools, businesses, and city."
It could be only a few of these prayers resonate with you, or maybe none at all. That's okay, as long as you find your own set of prayers, based on your style, personality, and struggles. You can't stop Sunday from coming, but you can be primed and ready when it gets here.
Steve Norman is a preacher and writer residing in western Michigan. Over 25 years of ministry, he's served as a church planter, teaching pastor, and lead pastor within local churches in the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas..