I’ve been preaching now for nearly twenty years. That’s in three congregations, the last two of which have multiple Sunday morning services. You tally it all up, and I figure I’ve preached somewhere around two thousand times. Two thousand times I’ve climbed into the “pulpit,” stared out into a sea of different faces and dared to say, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Some of you preachers reading this have got me beat. Still, two thousand times is no small number.

And yet every time I stand up to preach, I still get nervous. The nature of that nervousness has changed over the years. But I still find preaching to be, in so many ways, such a vulnerable act. For me personally, the most vulnerable moment comes after the sermon, at the end of the worship service, once the words of benediction have been spoken. It’s in this moment I find myself wondering, “What just happened? Did anything happen? Anything at all?”

On my more insecure Sundays, when the sermon seems to fall flat or I’ve had to speak a hard or unpopular word, the question is not just “Did anything happen?” but “What did they think? What do they think of me? Do they still like me?”

That’s embarrassing even to write. And yet I suspect I’m not alone. There are those of us who are burdened with a desire to please, a need to be liked, and I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I will battle this for the rest of my life and ministry.

But it’s more than that. It’s more than just wanting to be affirmed and liked. There really is a sense of believing in the power of the ministry of the Word. That’s why we preachers care so much. It’s why we work so hard to do our study and craft our words. It’s why we stay up late Saturday night trying to get just the right turn of phrase. It’s why we stand up on Sunday morning and pour ourselves out in the preaching moment. We believe, or at least we want to believe, that Isaiah is right: when God’s word goes out, it doesn’t return empty. We believe that preaching, in the power of the Spirit, really can wake the dead, heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted, cut through the hardest heart, topple the proud and lift up the lowly. Preaching really can usher in a whole new world. Words don’t just say something, they do something!

And this is where preaching every Sunday over the long haul is an act of faith. So often we don’t see the immediate impact of our preaching. A mentor of mine once said that the impact of faithful preaching is like the subtle shifting of Lake Michigan sand dunes. Daily you don’t notice much shift. But over time, you realize just how far the dunes have actually moved from where they once were. God’s work through faithful preaching is most often slow, quiet work. It takes faith to trust that something is happening, even when you can’t see it.

In addition to an act of faith, I’m also learning to embrace preaching as an act of worship. It’s my offering, my sacrifice of praise, to the triune God who gives us our speech and digs out our ears, the One who makes our words and our hearing efficacious.

Recently, I re-read one of my favorite essays by John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the greatest preachers of all time. The essay is titled “The Temptations of Greatness,” and it’s such a good reminder that while we’re called to preach with excellence, the measure of our effectiveness is ultimately not in the response of our hearers, be it praise or criticism. It’s in our desire to please God and to speak the truth in love, even when it’s unpopular. Here is one of my favorite excerpts (and please forgive the gender exclusive language):

When he has composed his sermons to please God (and let this alone be his rule and standard of good oratory of sermons, not applause or commendation), then if he should be approved by men too, let him not spurn their praise. But if his hearers do not accord it, let him neither seek it nor sorrow from it. It will be sufficient encouragement for his efforts, and one much better than anything else, if his conscience is telling him that he is organizing and regulating his teaching to please God.

So twenty years and two thousand sermons later, I’m still learning to let pleasing God and not the praise of others be “sufficient encouragement” for my preaching each Sunday. Before the sermon, in the midst of the sermon, and especially after the sermon. And I’m choosing to trust that somehow, someway, in the faithful preaching and hearing of God’s Word, something holy really is happening. Perhaps if we’re attentive enough and patient enough, we preachers just might get a front row seat to catching a glimpse of a new world being born.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

10 Comments

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Brian! Good words. Wise words.

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    Thanks for this. I may have my students read it as part of my preaching class this semester. Another good piece of advice I read recently was this: The sermon is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it (from “7 Things Congregations Have Taught Me About Preaching,” by L.T. Tilsdale)

  • Ruth Visser says:

    Your message today reminds me of Hebrews 11. Good work.

  • Duane VandenBrink says:

    Brian, Thanks for sharing your heart……………… And for being vulnerable in your sharing……. Great qualities to continue to strive for…….
    Shalom…….. 🙂

  • Jill Fenske says:

    Spot on. I have always leaned into the Biblical narrative as LIVING WORD. Ever new, yet grounded in ageless truth, always fluid and yet changeless. If I can manage to get myself out of the way the power of God will make my words and the living word flourish.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    We as listeners must do our part also, and ask ourselves how did we do? What was our attitude, one of receiving and applying the message or one of criticism.

  • Dick Stravers says:

    Brian, my preaching days are finished, but concern with sermons is not. As I finished reading your blog, I agreed with what Scott said: “Good words.” Yes, good, thought-provoking words. As you said, the question you and most preachers struggle with, at least now and then, after the sermon has just come to an end, is: “Did anything happen?” Could I say, “Will anything happen?” Maybe tomorrow, or next week, or who knows when?

    One Sunday, one of my pastors told about visiting the first congregation he had served, only to discover that their thinking about many issues was still the same as when he was their pastor. Their giving was the same, as was their attention during a sermon, and their judging of others. Their generosity, or the lack thereof, was the same. Their parenting skills seemed not to have matured. Their politics, including how they vote in national and local elections, had not really changed any. In other words, for them “the Lake Michigan sand dunes had not shifted much,” if at all. So what I am saying with regard to our preaching is not just, “Did something happen, but WILL something happen?” In this time of total chaos in our culture, the sand dunes need to shift, and, if they don’t, maybe we need to pay closer attention to the sermons we preach and the sermons we hear. And that may lead to being liked less, a lot less.

  • Well said. We need to keep this in mind in the era of TV preachers who seem to be “successful.”

  • There is a big difference between the Sunday “sermon” and the biblical “preach” (kerusso – “communicate”). Perhaps we are expecting too much from the sermon? Perhaps we need to attend to all of the other ways that we “preach”? A Professor at Fuller Seminary once said, “The Sunday sermon is one of the least effective means of communication ever devised by man. Don’t limit your “preaching” to that.”

  • Michael Kooy says:

    Thanks Brian! Your honest words are a great encouragement to me.

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