Making Progress in the Pulpit
Probably every pastor recalls with a shudder his first attempt at a sermon.
My first sermon was in seminary back in 2001 when our homiletics professor assigned me Romans 2:12-16.
It’s a challenging passage about how those “who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law,” and those who “sin under the law will be judged by the law.”
Paul goes on to say that even though the Gentiles do not have the law, they sometimes by nature do things required by it. In this way they show “that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
A taxing text. And I struggled mightily to understand this piece from Romans, let alone to explain it coherently or apply it winsomely, to say nothing of preaching Christ from a text that hardly mentions him.
I am sure that I did very poorly on all counts.
It was a long time ago, but I recall clearly the comments of a fellow student after I delivered my homiletic hash, “I think you tried to stick to the text, but I don’t see how the sermon connects at all to the Joe Plumber in the church pew…” It was a point well taken: my first attempt at a sermon was more of a dry exegetical essay than a lively proclamation of God’s Word.
What I experienced that day was an early introduction to the truth that for every minister, preaching is a task which is simultaneously perplexing and enriching, both a mighty struggle and a great joy.
Since my first (very bad) experience of preaching, God has let me continue to proclaim his Word. By now it’s been at least 1500 sermons over the last twenty years. Through his grace, I’ve learned a lot about preaching, and I’ve been blessed to grow through years of practice in the pulpit—and I like to think that I am still growing.
One passage that I’ve often reflected on is 1 Timothy 4:6-16. First Timothy is full of instruction and encouragement for those who are called to ministry among God’s people.
Something Paul says there really stands out to me. After exhorting Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture and not to neglect his gift, Paul encourages him in verse 15,
Be diligent in these matters and absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all.
Those words about progress really resonate. During my ministry, there have been times when in my pride I thought that I didn’t need to progress much anymore. I imagined that I had already attained a pinnacle of excellence. I actually resented it when people dared to say to me, “I’ve noticed a lot of improvement in your preaching lately.”
I chafed at that, because I thought that I had basically figured it all out and was above needing to grow in my task of preaching. But God used this text to put me straight.
Paul tells Timothy to be diligent in his preaching so that people will see his progress. Timothy was a young man who seems to have struggled with a sense of inferiority, and he had a lot to learn. So his spiritual father gently exhorts him. In order to do his work faithfully and fruitfully, he’ll need to continue to learn.
Don’t coast. Don’t rest on your imagined accolades. Don’t live off the praise you received last Sunday. But be absorbed in this holy work and continue to pursue excellence to the glory of Christ.
It’s a fitting text for every preacher (and every student of preaching) to reflect on as we learn and refine the craft of preaching. We want to progress, and we want our progress to be evident to those whom we serve.
Every preacher is gifted by God in different ways, whether intellectually, or socially, or spiritually. We each bring our own weaknesses into the pulpit, too. But through diligent attention to this holy work—presenting sermons week by week, humbly receiving critique and listening to wise counsel, sharpening our abilities in exegesis and expression—we aim to grow and learn as we steward our gifts faithfully.
We won’t all be John Piper or Alistair Begg. Progress looks different for different people, but God’s Word compels us to aim for that growth according to the measure of our ability, to pray to the Lord for that growth, and to help one another to grow.
May this be every preacher’s holy ambition, that by “being diligent in these matters and absorbed in them, our progress will be evident to all.”