Here’s another lesson I learned about preaching from my brief stint as a guest speaker in multiple churches: Surrender control of the outcomes.
One of the freedoms I enjoyed most as an interim preacher was that my sermons were usually not generated by a specific situation at the church where I was speaking. I found agenda-free preaching to be an absolute joy.
The goal of my interim preaching was to bless the church with an encouraging word. To pull back the curtain and give them a glimpse of the gospel. Even then, it wasn’t my business to tell them how to be encouraged, but to let them find encouragement for themselves. I would preach a sermon and then leave the outcomes up to the Holy Spirit and the listeners. This was easy to do when boarding a plane a couple of hours after the concluding “amen.”
I recently heard David Simon, creator of the TV shows The Wire and Treme, talk about how he has learned to surrender control of the outcomes for the work he does. He creates and produces a great story. But he no longer has expectations for how the story will impact his audience, the conversations it will start, or the cultural change it will facilitate. While anyone who has ever watched a David Simon production knows he’s swinging for the fences, he has divested himself of where the ball goes after he makes contact.
This is a healthy posture for preaching. When we preach a sermon with an agenda for bringing about a specific change in those who hear it, we are wasting valuable time and energy trying to shape the outcome. More than that, it borders on arrogant.
First, who am I to know what kind of changes need to happen in others to improve their situation? Do I really have access to God’s “master plan” for everyone’s life?
Second, what happens if people don’t respond to our message in the way we hope? Does that mean there is something wrong with them? Or is there something wrong with the message? Or does God have something else in mind?
Third, over time agenda-laden preaching can create an adversarial relationship between the preacher and church. The preacher has a clear vision for how the church needs to change and the church refuses to submit to the preacher’s wonderful plan for their lives. Bitterness grows in the preacher because the church is unresponsive and stubborn. The church begins to resent the preacher because all he ever seems to talk about is what is wrong with them.
I’m not saying our preaching should be unfocused or random. I’m all for communicating a clear message in an engaging way. I am suggesting, however, that we not invest too much energy in worrying abut what changes our message will initiate in those who hear it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job.
Much of this comes down to managing the tension between wanting to be a good preacher without taking yourself too seriously. Work hard on sermons and pay attention to good delivery skills. Create focused, audience-friendly content, but don’t expect to change the world with your sermons.
The less we expect from our preaching, the more free we are to do our best and leave the outcomes up to God.
When preachers try too hard to change others, we undermine the gospel by preaching the kind of messages that leave very little room for God to work.
I’m all for declaring a desired outcome for a sermons–listeners will spend more time in prayer, invite their neighbors to church, increase their giving by 1% or whatever–but I don’t want to tie my worth as a preacher or the validity of the sermon to whether people respond to the message according to my predetermined outcome.
This doesn’t change how hard I work to craft and deliver the best message I can. It does change my attitude after the message has been delivered. It changes the way I treat others whose response to the message doesn’t align with my ideal outcome. It frees me to be happy even when my messages aren’t always “effective.”
Basing your happiness on the hope that others will change is a recipe for misery. Preachers are some of the worst at falling into this trap. Preach a sermon, expect people to change as a result, and then fall into a depressive funk when they don’t.
The more we are able to divest ourselves of the outcomes of our preaching, the more likely we are to be joyful, content human beings, which will also allow us to be the kind of preachers God can use to change lives.
Preachers: can you think of a time when folks in your church responded to one of your teachings EXACTLY the way you hoped they would? I can’t, but I have plenty of stories about how someone heard a message and drew a completely different, but equally helpful conclusion, than I originally intended. I’m always amazed when someone fixates on a throwaway line in the introduction and takes something away from the message that was not even in the ballpark of my intended outcome. Nevertheless, God used that line to get their attention and elicit change.
This is what makes preaching so frustrating. It can also be what makes it so much fun. If I give up control of where the ball goes once I make contact, I’m free to sit back and enjoy seeing what God does with it.