Tomorrow morning, churches all across America will gather to worship. During these services, pastors will stand before their congregations and deliver sermons. While we have all rightly protested the unconstitutional Caesarism from the mayor of Houston in the subpoenaing of the sermons of five pastors, she isn’t the only one who will be throwing stones at the pastor and his sermon this Sunday.
From the time the pastor steps into the pulpit, behind the lectern, or on the stage until he steps down to close the service, he will likely be under the scrutinizing glares of his congregation. His clothes, overall appearance, introduction, sermon points, choice of passage and message, sermon length, and a host of minuscule details will fall under their microscope. That is, if they are awake!
And to be sure, pastors know this! The weight of the pressure on the shoulders of a preaching pastor week in and week out is enormous. It is so heavy in fact that the pastor forgets how great the load he carries is. He only realizes it when the scrutiny is countered with a refreshing word or act of encouragement.
One of the greatest burdens on the pastor’s shoulders is the burden for ministry success, particularly preaching success. Every time he stands before the congregation to deliver a message, he has holy ambitions ever before him like church growth (both spiritually and numerically) and response to the gospel. The success of a sermon is often measured in the response of the congregation. Did people trust Christ? Did people join the church?
When the pastor invites the congregation to respond to God’s word, whether people stay seated or walk down the aisles often determines whether or not the sermon was “successful” in the minds of many. Even the preacher feels he has devastatingly failed if his people do not respond to the gospel. He may think, “There is obviously nothing deficient in the message itself, so obviously the deficiency must lie in me and my delivery of the message!”
What a burden! This kind of thinking about the success of a sermon produces two unhealthy actions.
1. The pastor will be tempted to force a response from the congregation through guilt trips.
2. The congregation will respond falsely or pretentiously in order to validate the pastor’s sermon.
The problem with these unhealthy actions is that they are not the result of a real or genuine change of heart or adoration of the gospel. Forced response is futile because it does not come from a heart touched and affected by the Holy Spirit. Neither of these actions come from or even need God’s grace.
The good news, though, is that the success of a sermon is NOT determined by the movement of the audience. The success of a sermon is determined by the faithfulness of the pastor to preach the Bible as God’s word. Pastors Derek Prime and Alistair Begg write to fellow pastors, “The best reputation we can have is of faithfulness to Scripture” (On Being a Pastor: Understanding Our Calling and Work, 54).
Pastors and congregants should not view the success of a sermon consisting in the response of the audience. Droves of people respond to some of the worst, anti-gospel false teachings. On the other hand, some of the most faithful gospel messages have produced zero converts on a given Sunday. Which pastor would be considered successful in his preaching? The unfaithful preacher with many responding? Or the faithful preacher with no converts?
When Deitrich Bonhoeffer finished his doctoral work at Berlin University at the end of 1927, he desired to enter the pastorate. He was a gifted theologian and his family urged him to stay in academia as a professor. However, Deitrich had a burning passion to minister to God’s people. Bonhoffer went to Barcelona, Spain in 1928 to serve at a German church. He was an assistant pastor responsible for teaching children and preaching sermons when the senior pastor was out of town. In the summers, Bonhoeffer was given ample opportunity to preach.
One theological principle that Bonhoeffer drew from his experience preaching was the idea of God’s initiating work in revelation. God must reveal himself to us. Otherwise, there would be no way to reach God. He must come to us. Bonhoeffer applied this to his preaching ministry. He wrote,
I have long thought that sermons had a center that, if you hit it, would move anyone or confront them with a decision. I no longer believe that. First of all, a sermon can never grasp the center, but can only itself be grasped by it, by Christ.
–excerpt from Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p. 81
Bonhoeffer realized that despite his theological prowess and brilliance, it meant nothing outside the grace of God. The determinant in the success of a sermon is the grace of God, not the brilliance of the preacher. This means that even when a pastor blows it, either through his poor writing or delivery of a sermon, God may still manifest his glory to his people. On the contrary, the best sermon you will ever preach may not result in even one response if God does not move.
The effectiveness of a sermon is based on God who shows mercy to whom he wills and hardens whom he wills (Rom. 9:18). His grace determines preaching success, not your greatness or weakness as a preacher. The truth of God’s sovereign grace is like a call from the Christ to the preacher, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Pastor, your sermon will never grasp anyone in its own power. However, in the power and grace of God, even your meager attempts to proclaim his excellencies in Christ can be used to draw sinners to the cross.
Church member, your pastor is not a perfect preacher, so put your scalpel down and fill your pastor with refreshing words of encouragement. Let your cry be, “Bring the Book, pastor! Bring the Book!” Respond only as the Spirit moves through the proclaimed word of God. And let all trivialities fall to the wayside.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.