Fear Factor in Preaching

Last month I touched on the delicate balance between confidence and fear that makes effective preaching possible.

I suspect from conversations with pastors and seminary folk that some may question whether this puts too much emphasis on the human element in preaching.

Are we not called to proclaim with boldness? Are we not called to stand up and witness and to simply be the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit speaks and accomplishes what it will? Do we not trust the Spirit to give us the words? Isn’t fear of failure in our proclamation evidence of a lack of faith? Isn’t the obsession to write “better” sermons simply a matter of human pride and seeking after personal acclaim?

Well, yes and no.

I’m coming at this from two perspectives. First, I spent fifty years in the pews on the business end of sermons before I started taking my swings. I heard inspiring, informative, encouraging, and touching sermons. I also heard boring, unconvincing, confusing, and lifeless sermons. What am I supposed to say about such circumstances: sometimes the Holy Spirit just phones it in, or has a bad day?

Second, I used to work with a lot of Christian writers conferences. The most difficult writers to deal with were those with no fear, who had unshakable confidence that their work was the next national bestseller. They were utterly convinced that, because they prayed hard and opened their hearts to the Spirit, the Spirit had spoken through them, and the result was this masterpiece.

Unfortunately, their stuff was usually abysmal. I often felt like telling them that, if their goal was to get published, some of that time spent in prayer would be better spent in learning how to write.

I was verbally abused by some of these people for kindly offering some professional advice on ways they could improve their chances of getting published. They had no interest in improving, only in succeeding. But your odds of doing the second are slim unless you do the first.

The Holy Spirit should not be expected to provide answers for students too lazy to study for a test. The Holy Spirit should not be expected to rescue a person too lazy to run a business responsibly. Nor should anyone expect the Spirit bail out a pastor too lazy to learn the tools of his or her craft.

Confidence has to do with faith.
Fear has to do with humility.

Faith allows us to proclaim the Gospel with boldness.
Humility forces us to recognize our own fallibility in that proclamation, repent of our mistakes, and commit ourselves to do better.

The harder I work at the craft of preaching, the more space I open up for the Spirit to provide me with the words of eternal life.