In a recent geeking-out-on-baseball moment, I watched a video explaining why Shohei Ohtani, one of baseball’s biggest stars, is able to generate the extraordinary power with which he routinely crushes home runs. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the answer involves the placement and timing of planting his front foot, which in turn allows his hips to whip around, generating the enormous force that launches the ball over the fence.
It’s interesting to consider that a small fraction of Ohtani’s time as a baseball player is spent doing the activity for which he is so well-known (actually hitting the baseball). A much larger part involves his preparation before (and at) the plate and then his follow-through, including both the motion of his bat after it hits the ball and his postgame mental and physical cooldown. That full package of activity — preparation, execution, follow-through — requires skill, concentration, and hard work.
As a pastor who preaches most Sundays, I can’t help but feel somewhat similar: most of my work happens before (and after) I step into the box.
Pastors at the Plate
Early in my ministry, a parishioner told me, in all seriousness, that it must be nice to be a pastor since I had to work for only about half an hour a week. Of course, that understanding of preaching is similar to thinking that Shohei Ohtani simply strolls to the plate a few times a day, swings his hardest, and pockets millions of dollars for his trouble. Like good hitting, good preaching requires lots of hard work, including preparation and follow-through. Unlike professional baseball players, of course, preachers aren’t compensated with multimillion-dollar contracts! But the reward is far greater: not a baseball pounded over the outfield fence, but God’s word pushed deeply into human hearts, transforming lives for eternity.
The hard work of preaching occurs under and within the sovereign power of God. In preaching, as in many other activities of life, we do something and God does everything. “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). One of my preaching heroes used to pray before his sermons that the congregation would hear a better message than the one he preached; he brought into the pulpit the fruit of his diligent preparation (he prepared the horse for battle), and he relied on God to vastly improve what he offered (the credit for victory went to his Lord). A call to the hard work of preaching flows not from a lack of faith in God, but from a full sense of the awesome responsibility that God gives preachers: to declare his word.
So, what exactly does the hard work of preaching entail?
Hard Work of Preparing
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul urges Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Significantly, Paul considers Timothy ultimately accountable not to another human, but to God himself (“present yourself to God”) for his right handling of the apostolic gospel (“the word of truth”). Because Timothy answers to none less than God, he’s to “do [his] best,” a word that expresses zealous eagerness and intense effort.
Week by week, as we pastors begin preparing for yet another sermon, many factors may diminish our zeal, eagerness, and intensity of effort. We may be physically exhausted, emotionally weary, or personally hurting. We may be lured by temptations, distracted by hobbies, or overwhelmed by other important tasks. Sometimes we’ll be tempted to cut corners, to skate by, to work at fifty-percent effort. So, it’s good for us to hear Paul say, “Do your best.” “Be zealous.” “Work with intense effort.” We stand before God himself as we prepare to preach his word.
If we’re not already working eagerly and energetically, how might we begin to do so? Perhaps we should start by finally using that unspent vacation time to properly rest. Maybe we’d benefit from rearranging our weekly rhythms in order to do the creative work of sermon preparation during times when we’re physically freshest and most alert. We may need to confess our half-hearted, distracted efforts to some Christian brothers who can encourage us spiritually. What about finding two or three like-minded pastors with whom we can collaborate in studying the text and shaping a weekly sermon?
On some weeks, our hard work of preparation yields immediate and obvious results — our sermon outline falls into place like the tumblers of a safe, fresh insights spring out of the text, and the sermon seems almost to write itself. And then on other weeks, our best efforts feel like pushing a stalled car up a driveway — three hours of arduous labor produces one measly paragraph. In my experience, it’s never clear beforehand which texts will open like a flower and which will stubbornly resist. Both the painful and the pleasant weeks of sermon preparation are gifts from God. We need both. The weakness we experience in the grind keeps us reliant upon God. The relief we feel in those blessed weeks refreshes us with the kindness of God.
The hard work of sermon preparation certainly won’t be limited to understanding and explaining the text of Scripture. It will include feeling the glory of the texts we preach. The poet-pastor George Herbert advised preachers to dip and season “all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths,” so that their hearers could plainly perceive that every one of their words was “heart-deep” (The Complete English Works, 205). Heart-deep words require lots of prayerful dipping and seasoning. Preachers who do their best will engage the Bible with both mind and heart.
Hard Work of Preaching
As we stand to declare God’s word to God’s people, we’ll spend ourselves physically, perhaps even experiencing what George Whitefield called “a good pulpit sweat” (George Whitefield, 505). We’ll spend ourselves spiritually, aware that Satan doesn’t like preachers to declare God’s word and therefore often attacks us with doubts, fears, anxieties, and insecurities. We’ll spend ourselves emotionally, warning with earnestness, comforting with gentleness and affection, preaching our hearts out to some who may be straying, some who may critique us, some who will ignore us. We’ll spend ourselves intellectually, pushing through generalities to particulars — applying the text in ways that sing and sting, that wound and heal. We’ll push through abstraction to application — earthing and embedding the text in everyday life, thinking creatively and constructively, engaging externally with the broader culture and internally with the yearnings, confusions, and foibles of human hearts.
We’ll preach through hacking coughs, baby cries, stifled yawns, closed eyes, whispered conversations, passing sirens, puzzled looks, ringing phones, bored expressions. When a latecomer walks to an empty seat in the front of the sanctuary and every eye turns to him, we’ll keep preaching. When we see people glancing at the clock, we’ll keep preaching. Sometimes the power and presence of the Spirit will be manifest. At other times, our words will seem weak and faltering. Sometimes our own thoughts will wander. Sometimes our own hearts will be anxious. We’ll keep on preaching, earnestly and energetically presenting ourselves to God as we rightly handle the word of truth.
Hard Work of Following Through
We preachers are tempted to believe that, after the sermon has been preached, it’s over and done. After all, next Sunday is on the way, and we have another sermon to prepare! But in reality, much of the hard work of successful preaching may happen after the sermon has been preached. God calls us to several types of post-sermon work.
First, we have immediate heart work. Depending on our temperament and confidence levels, together with how we feel about the sermon we just preached, we may be tempted toward either pride or despair as soon as we step out of the pulpit. The initial moments following the sermon are an opportunity to surrender our work to God — to thank him for enabling us to prepare and preach the sermon, to receive his grace for our verbal stumbles and fumbles, to ask him to erase from the minds and memories of hearers anything that was unhelpful or untrue, and to give him credit for everything that went well.
Second, we have ongoing pastoral work. This labor begins immediately after the sermon and continues all week long, as we listen to those who listened to us. This ongoing pastoral work may require gently interrogating bland post-service compliments such as “Nice sermon, pastor!” (What exactly was helpful? Was anything unclear? Did the sermon raise unanswered questions?) It will require humbly sifting criticism to discern how we can serve the congregation more effectively. And it will certainly require remaining alert to every opportunity for follow-up. Can we speak with our family over Sunday lunch? Can we provide application questions for small groups in the church? How can we best pray the truth of our sermon into the hearts of our hearers, asking God to send it deep?
Third, we have long-term heart work. This work is vital both for the sake of personal sanctification and for preaching integrity. We stand before God’s people to proclaim his word, even though we ourselves are not fully obeying that word. But we’re not hypocrites if we’re constantly seeking to repent and grow — if we’re preaching every sermon to ourselves as well.
Preaching — preparation, execution, and follow-through — is hard work. Much of that work is unseen by our congregations. But it’s all vital, and the amazing promise of God is that he will use our humble efforts to make much of himself.