I just finished co-writing a book on preaching, along with my friend Phil Campbell. I have to admit that writing a book about preaching makes me uncomfortable. I know there are all kinds of do’s and don’t’s and useful tips and techniques. There are plenty of helpful things to say about biblical theology, and pace, and illustrations, and approach, and so on. But my biggest fear in putting all this down on paper is that it makes it sound as if preaching is all about the preacher—what we say and how we say it. But it isn’t.
Everyone who has ever preached regularly knows something about the mystery of the sermon that you thought was brilliantly constructed but fell completely flat. In God’s kindness, you may also have listened to yourself giving a really dud sermon and then led someone to become a Christian (I much prefer those days). Why does that happen? It’s because God works through preaching. We need to remember that, and we need to remember to rely on him for that. How?
Not a New Problem
My guess is that people in almost every generation have worried prayer was going out of fashion. “People are much more self-reliant than they used to be,” our grandparents said. Then our parents said the same thing. And now you might be thinking it, too. I suppose it’s part of living in a fallen world. But even so, I think our generation, in the second decade of the 21st century, faces some particular challenges when it comes to encouraging God’s people to keep praying.
When I was a student in Aberdeen in northern Scotland in the late 1980s, the main obstacle to getting out of bed in the morning to pray was the freezing cold, since the heating didn’t work. Although now living in Brisbane has greatly reduced the thermal challenges, 25 years later I face a whole new set of temptations every morning.
Now when I wake up in the morning not only would I rather stay in bed, but also my phone is right there, calling me. I can check e-mails and sports scores from the northern hemisphere, read the news, and even play Scrabble if the mood takes me. I can read my favorite blog posts, catch up on Zite, check the weather radar, look to see who’s on Skype across the world. Or I could get up and pray. But even if I make it out of bed, the millions of potentially distracting details only a touch away continue to clamor for my attention. Facebook and Twitter are just two of them. But even when I’ve successfully negotiated all of this, fully awaken, have a cup of coffee in my hand, and prepare to concentrate, I’ve wasted at least 20 minutes and feel the pressure to “get on” for Sunday. So what do I do? I start to read or write (rather than pray).
I know the temptation to skip prayer for other “more productive” activity is not new. It’s just incredibly easy now—distractions are literally at our fingertips. And nowhere is that challenge more obvious than when it comes to praying for (and before) preaching.
I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect that preachers are praying less today too. They (we) are certainly talking less about it than, say, 20 years ago. And while it’s true that there has been a significant resurgence of biblical preaching, I’m not sure this trend has been accompanied by a resurgence in praying—and especially not prayer about preaching.
Gradually, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that God uses weak and sinful people, and that he uses them only by grace. Yes, we may sow, plant, and water—but only God gives growth. That’s true in your local church and mine. It’s also true of every podcast and ebook and conference address under the sun. God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious.
Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray—we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.
Let me give you a straightforward double challenge.
First, whatever your habit has been in the past, resolve that from now on you will pray for your own preaching. Perhaps you’ve been totally consistent in this prayer. However, if you are part of the (large?) number of Bible teachers who would be rather embarrassed (or deeply ashamed?) if someone announced the amount of time and energy you put into praying through and for the sermon before you stood up to speak, this may be a great time to hit the reset button and repent.
Second, make sure your church prays together for the preaching. I haven’t done any research on this topic, but I suspect that the church prayer meeting is rapidly in decline. The growth of the home group is a really good thing, but it comes with a cost. In my experience, the cost is that the “prayer” part of the home group is always weaker than the study part. The net result is that we pray more for my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbor’s friend’s daughter than we do for the proclamation of the message of Jesus. (And it’s not that my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbor’s friend’s daughter doesn’t need prayer—I am arguing for both/and rather than either/or). It’s worth checking—is there a dedicated time during the week when people from your church gather specifically to pray for your core business? If not, please start one.
So, then, whether you preach or hear the Word preached, devote yourselves to prayer and to preaching. In Acts 6, the outcome of such double devotion for the early church included the increase of the Word of God, of disciples, and of obedience.