One of my favorite things to do is to get outside, whether it’s walking through the neighborhood in the afternoon, hiking out in the woods, going for an early morning run, or just sitting somewhere to watch the wind blow through the trees and carry the clouds across the sky.
When I hike, there are certain seasons when it’s hard not to notice the beauty of what’s growing. In early spring, crocuses bring the first signs of new life, sprouting up amidst the last vestiges of snow. The yellow, white, and purple petals of their flowery forms draw the eye’s attention, standing out against the drab gray-brown of their earthy surroundings. As Spring’s warmth spreads, the first flowers and leaves begin to stretch forth from bare branches, whether magnolias, birches, or maples.
This slow expansion of new growth is a tell-tale sign seasons are changing, but also a reminder that something significant is happening behind the bark and under the ground. In places where our unaided eyes cannot see, life is brewing something new that will eventually surge forth in ways we can behold.
There is a resonance between the development of spring and the work of the pastor. Fruitful ministry arises from the overflow of our own life with God. In pastoral ministry, enduring fruit will flow forth naturally from a life cultivated in hidden ways with God. The ministry work of discipleship, visitation, and public prayer is the visible flower, fruit, and leaf of the underground life with God. And, for our purposes here, the fruitful ministry of powerful preaching overflows from the unseen life the preacher cultivates with God.
So much attention on the topic of preaching focuses on visible strategies, such as study, crafting, and delivery. As with other preachers, I spend a lot of time on those things myself, and I believe it is well worth the effort. Plenty of preachers would do well to give a little more effort to their work with the text, a little more labor in crafting their main point and pertinent illustrations, a little more zeal to how they deliver a message in the preaching moment.
But there are just as many preachers I have encountered whose lives themselves do not resonate with the message they proclaim. There is not only a character gap, but these preachers have not let their own message live within them.
Preach the Message to Yourself
That is what an old preacher once said to me as a young man: let the message live in you. What he meant, as I understand it, is that I need to preach the message to myself—let it get inside of me—before I ever bring it to a congregation.
There are times as pastors where we can become robotic in our message development. Let’s be honest. Sundays come with an amazing (and relentless) regularity, and we need to have something to say each week. At times this necessity can lead preachers to go through the motions of studying the text, coming up with a halfway decent point that will preach, and then slapping together a quick outline and illustrations that will form the basic outline of a sermon.
We may not want to admit it to others, but we sometimes find ourselves in that place of putting together a sort of ramshackle message. Like some new construction, it looks good on the outside, but the bones of the building and what’s inside does not match the appearance.
This is what we can count on in those moments: God will still use that work and us. God and God’s message will not be hindered by a human vessel, no matter how weak or broken.
Scripture testifies that God can bend anything toward his greater purposes. If God could speak through a donkey to the prophet Balaam, and even bless the people of God when Balaam intended to curse them, then God can speak through any old donkey he wants. Of course, that does not mean we should be comfortable with being a donkey in God’s hands.
If we want a powerful sermon where people will meet with God through it, then we must also meet with God in our study for and crafting of our sermons. Regardless of the methodologies we use to prepare, as we do that work every preacher must realize God issues an invitation to encounter him amidst the study, crafting, and preparation.
Even as we face down the urgency of deadlines, our sermon preparation holds the possibility of becoming a holy moment in which we hear from God and God hears from us. This is one of the hidden places where the fruit of preaching is formed.
Hearing a Word for Ourselves
In a sermon series on 2 Peter, I was preparing a message in a really difficult spot. I felt drawn thin and worn down. I knew how to prepare the message. I had studied the text thoroughly, including the original Greek. I had written my outline and explored challenging questions I had about the text in highly rated commentaries from diverse voices. I had pondered illustrations to help open the text for my hearers.
There was just one problem: my heart was not in it. I felt distanced from what I was studying, almost as if it was not real to me. This was not the only time I experienced this feeling. Maybe you have felt that in your sermon preparation.
I had to stop what I was doing. I sat there in front of my books and computer and began to call out to God to meet me in what I was studying. It was a simple passage, really, the final few verses of the third chapter of this unusual Epistle. But as I sat there with my hard heart, one word leapt off the page from verse 14 that I had not really pondered up until now: “beloved.”
That little word sprinkled through chapter three (see verses 1, 8, 14, and 17) leapt to my attention. I read it and reread it, looked at different translations—“beloved” (ESV and NRSV) and “dear friends” (NIV)—and pondered the original language (ἀγαπητοί). I sat with this word for a few days and was not sure what to do with it.
A few days later, while I was on a run early Saturday morning, God broke my heart open with it. I felt as if places in my own life where pain or wounds had taken root suddenly were brought into my attention and it was as if the Lord were asking me, “Do you know you that I was with you there and loved you there?” Again, I sensed the Lord asking me, “Do you understand that you are loved dearly by me in the heights and the depths and that you don’t need to hide?” I had to stop running and began to enter into a time of conversational prayer with God that was very vulnerable and healing for me. And it all centered in that one word: “beloved”—ἀγαπητοί.
This doesn’t happen a lot, but this Saturday morning run turned into an encounter for me with part of the text that I needed to step into more deeply and personally. Because of that, my message for Sunday morning changed. It became more deeply personal and real, and I preached the text, but I preached from both my head and my heart.
Seeing it in Others Opens it for Us
I have seen this in other preachers, and it has helped me sense the shift in the sermon that can happen that makes it more transformational. While I was visiting one of my college-age sons, we joined him and his friends in worship at the church they attend. I don’t know about you, but it is always a bit challenging at first for me to be a participant in a worship service when I am so accustomed to leading worship and preaching.
When the preacher started into his text for this weekend, it was a passage many of us have preached often, looking at prayer and anxiety from Philippians 4. I had to force myself to stay engaged, receptive, and open-hearted to the word God may have for me amidst all who were gathered. To be honest, it was a challenge.
But then something changed. At one level it was that the pastor began to share more personally. Stories, which we all know as preachers, can bring powerful connections with our hearers. Yet, I believe this was more than just the emotive connection of a story. It was the sense that this pastor had wrestled with the meaning of this text for him, in his life, in his experience, in a way that felt deep and authentic and not like a pat, Sunday school cliché.
He began to open his struggles with anxiety and his sense as he prepared that perhaps he was not the one who should be preaching this text. When he began to reapproach that familiar Philippians passage, his application of it into our lives was very real and powerful. It felt as if this message had lived in him before he shared it with us.
The Fruit and the Tree
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus utilizes agrarian imagery to describe the interplay between the exterior and interior life:
Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matt. 7:17-20)
In Luke’s parallel account, we read:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45)
External activity overflows from internal activity. The visible fruit arises as a result of the healthy, yet hidden, life of the soil and plant. To put this in practical terms, fruitful ministry overflows from a pastor’s own life with God. For preaching this means we need to let the message live in us before we try to proclaim it into the lives of others.
How do we do that? Let me suggest three practices that may help us move into this more transformational approach to preaching.
First, and perhaps most foundationally, are we cultivating our own life with God or are we focused only on the external activities of ministry? A good question to consider on this theme is: How am I growing with God right now and how am I wrestling with God right now? If you cannot answer these questions in some way from within the past few weeks, you may need to reapproach your own spiritual life.
Second, have we slowed our sermon preparation down enough to ponder personally the passage we will preach? A good question to ask ourselves in this place is: If someone I know deeply asks me what this message means to me, can I answer that authentically?
Third, we should consider whether our sermon appeals to the whole person. When we are accustomed to our pastoral work it is easier to approach sermon work mechanically, which often means we are relying mostly upon our intellect. But fruitful sermons must engage both the intellectual and affective faculties of the soul in response to God and the Scripture. If we lean mostly toward the intellect, it could be that we are avoiding letting the sermon live in us personally. We could ask ourselves: Does my message appeal to both to the head and the heart?
So, friends, may we be preachers who bring a word of life to others because it has become a word of life first in us. May the seed of the kingdom go deep in us. Finding good soil may it take root and grow strong. And may the fruit God shapes into our lives be richly present in our preaching, nourishing those we address and pastor with our words.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.