Preaching rarely makes me nervous.
At times, I can feel a little uncomfortable if I’m not as prepared as I’d like to be, or if I’m trying something new. Sometimes last-minute additions or an increase in the amount of action during the service such as the baptism of twins, the lack of heat in the sanctuary, or the inability to locate any Communion servers or acolytes can bring about some anxiety that bleeds into the pulpit. But the act of preaching itself doesn’t usually make me nervous.
So I was surprised recently to discover that the prospect of preaching at a church in a neighboring community made me extremely nervous. It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared or been warmly welcomed. I arrived early and in possession of my sermon notes. The pastor who asked me to preach was organized and gracious. He introduced me to the space and the order of worship, as well as the other worship leaders.
Despite this more than adequate preparation, I couldn’t shake my nerves. At the start of the service, I was fumbling so much with the bulletin, hymnal, and my sermon notes that I dropped the bulletin and watched it skid across the floor. I sought to make up for it by singing the opening hymn with confidence, but lacking a bulletin to guide me, I sang all the verses while the rest of the congregation sang only verses 1, 2, and 5. “Great,” I thought, “I can’t wait to see what happens once I actually reach the pulpit.”
Having served in the same place now for a few years, I think I forgot what it felt like to be a stranger. In my current context, experiencing life together, I had begun to regard preaching as part of a much larger conversation and a much bigger relationship. That mentality removed some of the pressure from preaching; after all, I knew these people and they knew me. If there were misunderstandings, I could always clarify later, and there was no need to cram everything into one sermon; there would always be another one.
But none of that familiarity existed when I was the guest. However open and positive the people in that congregation might have been, however much we might have had in common, I had no relationship with them. I know there are preachers who tackle that task every weekend, including representatives from partner ministries, bishops or other staff members, and those who do pulpit supply. I don’t envy them. I think I’m a stronger preacher when I’m more comfortable. I’m certainly a better worship leader when my hands aren’t shaking.
But my reintroduction to nerves was helpful, as it made me aware again of the challenge of preaching to complicated people in diverse circumstances facing a variety of obstacles. However well I think I know “my” people, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant distance to cover every time I preach. The nerves that plagued me that Sunday morning heightened my awareness of the extent to which we remain strangers to one another, and the opportunity that preaching presents to communicate our unity in Christ Jesus.