The service had come to an end. The portable church items had been put away. I turned to one of the young men from the community I had been discipling and asked, “What did you think?”
He paused and then responded, “Pastor John, you need to preach with more fire.”
I didn’t even try and object. He was right. I knew it, but I was young and it was hard to feel like I could speak with passionate authority. Still, I aspired to preach with my heart and not just with my mind.
Over the next six months, I tried everything I could to ignite the fire within me as I entered the pulpit to proclaim the Word of God. I prayed and fasted. I took time before the service to passionately ask for God’s anointing. I tried to elevate my voice at key points, hoping that maybe I could fake it until I made it. The truth was, it wasn’t happening. Sure, I was preaching the Word and teaching what seemed to me to be the appropriate expository truth, but as I got up to speak, the Word was not moving me to a place of passion.
As I tried to figure it out, I wondered if it was nerves. As a new pastor, I often worried more than I should about people’s opinions. In fact, I worried not only in the lead up, but even during the sermon, as my focus was often centered on the response that I received. As I would speak, I would analyze every facial expression or lack thereof from my congregants. Perhaps it was this anxiety that kept me from preaching passionately?
I concluded that worry was a part of my problem and yet not all of it. As I pressed into preaching for an audience of One (Jesus) instead of for those whom I clearly wanted to impress, God highlighted something so simple that has made all the difference.
Passion Starts with Preparation
I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point after my first year of preaching, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I needed to not simply prepare sermons for my people, I needed to craft and proclaim these messages for me. In other words, I needed to let the message preach to me long before it ever was proclaimed through me to others.
I know this idea seems basic, but it has been transformative for my ministry. When I stopped working on creating the perfect sermon with the most contextually relevant illustrations and instead traded my time for regular invitational moments where I pleaded with God to mold me with the exegetical truth that I was uncovering, something clicked.
And while I’m no Charles Spurgeon or David Platt – I may not even be anywhere close to the guy down the street in terms of preaching ability – I started to notice that when I stepped into the pulpit, the Holy Spirit poured through me. I found myself preaching with a power and a passion that was not from me, but was from Him who is inside of me. I found that I was celebrating Jesus with an authentic heart and that I was pleading with people to find the same joy and hope that I had discovered during the week of preparation. I found that when I made known the Gospel, my heart pounded with gratitude with every word that I spoke.
Shepherd from Experience
I believe that this truth is applicable for any ministry setting. When we allow God to minister to us first, we are able to effectively shepherd others with the passion that comes from experiencing the living God with more than just our minds.
The Word of the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah promised, “You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13) As we prepare our sermons and lessons, we must not be content to simply seek to know what God’s Word is saying, but we must give it access to imprint itself upon our hearts.
Just as the Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell expressed that he sensed the Lord’s pleasure as he ran, I too have found that I now experience my Savior’s delight when I preach. This is not because I preach a spectacular message, but because it is passionately rooted in an authentic encounter with Him through His Word. Finally, I trust that in my efforts to proclaim truth out of a changed heart, the Holy Spirit will do His work amongst those who hear to bring glory to Christ.
John M. Ames is the church planting pastor of Faith Community Church in Providence, RI.