Every preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.
I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.
First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).
Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.
That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).
Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course, interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).
All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?
I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father. And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.
And this was their response to Jesus?
And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.
But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.
Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.
Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.
As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.
Soli Deo Gloria