Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. This podcast launched nine years ago yesterday, on John Piper’s 67th birthday. Amazing. We are grateful to God for his sustaining grace over these nine years. Someone recently alerted me to the fact that I have now been the host of this podcast for exactly twenty percent of my life. Amazing. The years have flown by. Pastor John is no longer 67. He’s now 76, as of yesterday, and still at it. To celebrate his birthday, we look back on his life today through the lens of a question, one we get a lot: Should I become a preacher?
It’s a question we get from many men who are thinking about vocation, calling, and whether ministry is the path laid out for them. In making such a big decision, many factors must be weighed. Of course, that’s true also in Pastor John’s case. He shared the story of his path into the pulpit in a new series of preaching videos we released on YouTube. Those videos were filmed back when Pastor John was 71 years old. The videos are now online, and you can find them all on YouTube. You’ll find a playlist comprised of 31 videos. But today I want to feature the audio from one of the early episodes, lecture number 1, titled, “The Making of a Preacher.” It gets at this question: Should I become a preacher? Here’s Pastor John’s story.
The longer I live — and I’m age 71 right now — and think about ministry, the more I believe in the power, the preciousness, and the necessity of preaching in the life of the church.
Some of you are watching this, maybe age 40 or 50, as a businessman, wondering if you should become a preacher. Others of you might be 15 years old. Others are in school, in college or seminary. And what I thought might be helpful to do immediately in this series on preaching is to tell my story. You might call it “The Making of a Preacher,” because it’s a story of quite significant improbabilities.
You may feel that way about yourself. And so, let me give you the short version of the things in my background that stand out to me as difficult and obstacles to preaching, and yet, which turned out to be, I think, the very forge in which God fired and made a preacher.
Paralyzed with Fear
So let’s start at seventh grade. Right around seventh grade, I discovered the fact that I couldn’t speak in front of a group without freezing. Now, this is not your ordinary butterflies that everybody jokes about. This is not your funny knocking of the knees and, “Oh, you’ll get over it.” This was a paralysis. This was really deep. To this day, I do not understand what it was, where it came from, why it was there — in its entirety anyway, the full explanation. I think I know part of why God did it.
But there I am now, entering junior high and high school and terrified in a paralyzing kind of way of any kind of public speaking — like in front of six people at church or a class at school. So for example, ninth grade science class, we all had to read a one-paragraph — you’re talking one paragraph — description of our project. And she, the teacher, was just going down the row. We’d walk up to the front and read the paragraph so the class knew what you were working on. As it was coming down my row toward me, I looked down. I could see my heart beating through my shirt here.
When it got to the person just behind me, as he was going up to speak, I stood up and walked out of the class. I went to the bathroom and cried. I wasn’t going to do it. I couldn’t do it. And I told her afterward, “I couldn’t do it.”
“In all the sorrows, as well as the happiness, God was making a preacher.”
In tenth grade, Mr. Vermilion was my civics teacher. He announced on the first day of class that there would be an oral book report that everybody had to give. My heart absolutely sank. I felt my throat and my shoulders freezing up. So I walked up to him afterward, and I said, “Mr. Vermilion, I can’t do that.” And he said, “Well, Johnny, you can’t get better than a C in this class if you don’t do it.” And I said, “That’s fine. I’ll take a C.” I got a C because I wasn’t going to do it. I couldn’t do it.
I never ran for any class office — president of the class, vice president, secretary, anything like that — because I knew you had to give speeches. When I was in the tenth grade, my mother — now, this is before any Christian psychology at all. We’re talking 1961 or 1962. My mother took me to a psychologist because it was so painful and difficult, and it felt like it was just a pall over everything in my life. The psychologist had me look at these, today I think I’d call them Rorschach charts, and just say what I saw. After an hour of this, I could tell that this psychologist was suggesting my mother was the problem.
Well, you could believe this is not making me happy because there was one person in the universe, under God, who understood me, loved me, was patient with me, and helped me work through this, and it was my mother. There was no way I was going to blame her. So we never went back to that.
Plea for Help
So I come to the end of high school having skipped every possible way of speaking in front of a group and at church, and I headed off to college with the most dreadful fear and trembling, because I knew at Wheaton College there was a required speech class.
In 1966, between my sophomore and junior year, Evan Welch, the chaplain, came up to me during summer school when I was taking chemistry to catch up with a pre-med plan. I was all excited that maybe God was making clear my life plan to be a medical doctor, and I was going to catch up with my science prerequisites and take chemistry. And he said, “Would you pray in chapel tomorrow?”
I found myself saying, “How long does it have to be?” Now, there’s about five hundred people who come to summer-school chapel, as I recall. And he said, “Thirty seconds or a minute.” I do not know how or why it happened, but I said, “Yes.”
Then I remember walking out on front campus alone and dealing with God. I haven’t made many vows in my life, but I made one. And I said this: “Father, if you would just get me through this, just get me through it, so that I don’t freeze and my voice doesn’t stop, I will never turn down a speaking opportunity for you again out of fear.” That was a really scary vow. He did get me through. I think I’ve kept the vow. And something broke.
Drawn to Preaching
Let me give you one more piece at college. That fall, I got mono and spent three weeks in the infirmary. During those three weeks, I was listening to Harold John Ockenga preach in the chapel, a couple hundred yards away, and everything in me wanted to handle the Bible like that.
After three weeks, I knew I couldn’t catch up in organic chemistry, and God basically said, in his way, “I don’t want you to do medical anyway. You should go to seminary and know my word.” That’s what I did. I married Noël, went off to seminary, spent three years loving studying the Bible, and knew that my call was to the word. I didn’t know what I’d do with it. I didn’t know if I could ever preach.
“I was absolutely amazed that I was standing in front of several hundred seminary students and faculty preaching.”
I won the Clarence Roddy Preaching Award my senior year. You can listen to this 18-minute sermon at the Desiring God website. I listened to part of it. Can’t believe it. What was I, 28 years old? No, no, 25 years old, I suppose, when I gave it. I used Big Bad John, which was a song popular in those days, to illustrate Ephesians 1:6. I was just amazed. I was absolutely amazed that I was standing in front of several hundred seminary students and faculty preaching this senior sermon.
Drawn to the Church
I went off to graduate school because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t feel any particular call to any avenue of ministry. And six years into teaching, which I loved, something rumbled inside me I could not resist. I was being pushed by a kind of disillusionment with the romance of academia, and I was being pulled by every sermon I heard because I said, if it was a good sermon, “Oh, I’d love to do that.” And if it was a bad sermon, I’d say, “We’ve got to do better than that.”
And on October 14, 1979, late at night writing in my journal, I could resist this desire no longer. I said to Noël in the morning, “What would you think if I resigned my teaching and looked for a church?” And she said, “I could see that coming.” And that’s what I did for the next 33 years — I preached.
Trust God and Take Steps
So as I look back over that story that brings me to today, it’s not the kind of story I would’ve planned. I wouldn’t want to live my teenage years over again at all. They were not very happy years — at least not at one level. And as I look back, all I can say is that in all the sorrows, as well as the happiness, God was making a preacher — not at all the way you would expect him to make a preacher. So, for you, the implication is that you have no idea — you have no idea what he’s doing in your life. And so, trust him, and then walk through the open doors where you feel called.