Pastor Melissa felt fantastic after service last Sunday. As people left church several commented, “Great sermon, pastor!” She knew it, too. She saw tears in eyes. People laughed at all the right times, humor and illustrations were inserted with care to align with the main points. Most important, of course, the Bible was central in the message.
On the other hand, she felt deflated last week. The effort to craft a message, the fruit of her labor, the word for the people given birth through hours of study and meticulous research fell flat. The illustrations did not have the same punch. The “Word of God never goes forth void.” Still, the distress of a “flop” weighed on her shoulders. Thank goodness it went better this week!
Performance is Not Power Preaching
When as pastors we approach preaching the Word of God as a matter of performance rather than prayer, we “flop” regardless of how well the message was received. Teaching the facts of Scripture, paired with a life problem, mixed with a few funny anecdotes, and spoken with proper inflections and hand motions is not “the power of God unto salvation.”
To speak with power – the power of God to burn away selfish dross, purify the stain of sin, replace stone hearts with hearts of flesh, transform relationships savaged by apathy though reconciling love – requires one thing. God. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is not invoked through mental effort and cultural savvy.
“’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen
the King, the LORD Almighty’” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah cried out in the presence of the Holy God his awareness of complete inadequacy. The resurrected Jesus commanded His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they had received power from on high. Power starts with knowing we do not have real power until it comes from God, of being in the presence of God and utterly undone.
The great Chicago evangelist Dwight Moody learned this from Free Methodist women. After a prayer meeting in which two Free Methodist lay women prayed that Dwight would be filled with the Holy Spirit, the preacher locked himself in a room. He wrote “I can only say that God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand… I was all this time tugging and carrying water. But now I have a river that carries me.”
Until the river of God’s spirit carries us, we slog through the mud of our limited abilities and self-referential expectations. Good things can still happen, and indeed do. But not the unfettered power of God.
Pray before preaching. Pray during preaching. Pray in preparation to preach. Pray for the move of the Spirit after you preach. But prayer is not a tool we wield in order to achieve our objectives.
Prayer as Life
Prayerful pastors cannot merely utter prayers in preparation to preach. After my conversion, I taped to the ceiling above my bed the phrase, “die to self, live for Christ” (based on Galatians 2:20) to serve as my daily mantra. The handwritten note is long gone, but the daily practice of beginning each day seeking God, laying my day before Christ’s Lordship, crying out my need yet for daily forgiveness and renewed power is how the river of the Spirit carries me, even if at times through the shallows.
Prayerful pastors make all of life a matter of crying out in constant desperation for more of God, confident that Abba hears and responds. Knowing we are inadequate but is more than able to use even us liberates the preacher from the “performance” mentality. Prayerful lives are far from perfect lives, but much more likely over time as the daily warmth of God’s love wears away the icy edges of self, to be increasingly like Christ. Ultimately, when the messenger’s life aligns with the message, the impact and power of the message increases exponentially.
Prayer as Listening
Listen for the voice of God. The strong winds of news anchors talking of raging storms echo loudly. The quaking power of great teachers from the past collide with new ideas like tectonic plates and shake each message we prepare. The fire blazing in our church as interpersonal conflicts arise and our desire to bring calm to one side or the other burns hot in our soul. But the still, small voice of the true God is most not in these. And cannot be heard until you are still and quiet before the Lord.
Listen through Scripture, memorizing its contours and allowing its pregnant love and holiness to give birth to the voice of God within. Only then are we able to give voice to that Word in a way that is the power of God for others.
Listen through quiet meditation, waiting for the Lord to speak. God does speak directly to those who turn off streaming devices long enough to be quiet and still. The power, raw and unfiltered, undeniable to the hearer, of experiencing a direct word from God translates into confidence in your shared word with others. To speak powerfully, be quiet.
Prayer as Intercession
Listen to the cries of the people you serve. Powerful preaching does not really start in your study, it starts in the hospital room, grocery store and street corner. Pray with the images in mind of the family broken in divorce, victim of assault, confused woman huddled under the blanket on the corner, the man laid off after 45 years at the factory, the teen arrested being the “wrong” color for the neighborhood, the woman pumped with morphine as she drifts into the last moments of her life. You lift these with cries of intercession before God, sometimes with groans you trust the Spirit to interpret as meaningful because you do not know how to pray and cannot really help them. But God can. As your heart breaks and hopes with the people God calls you to reach, God responds, and will give you a message that has true power for the moment.
The prayerful pastor also knows that she desperately needs the prayers of others. The Apostle Paul knew he needed others to pray on his behalf. “Strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf” (Romans 15:30, ESV). Paul asked people to pray that might find the phrase the gospel well (Ephesians 6:19), for communicate with clarity (Colossians 4:4), see God’s word unleashed (2 Thessalonians 3:1) and many more. This great apostolic communicator demonstrates that not only must we be prayerful, but we very much need the power of the Spirit generated by the prayers of others as we preach the gospel.
The preacher’s power is not in her intellect, charisma, savvy or gravitas. The preacher’s power comes through prayer. Pastors need to know this and recruit a team of saints who will lift them up as they speak, teach and preach as God’s anointed. Prayerless congregations don’t have powerful preachers.
Prayerful Pastors Speak with Power
Do you want to speak with power? Pray. Make your life prayer. Pray through Scripture. In prayerful meditation listen for the voice of God. Let your preaching be reflective of intercession with and for your hurting people. Yearn for and enlist the prayers of others.
As pastors are carried along by the Holy Spirit, what they say transforms lives and communities. Whether it is well received or not, tickles a particular fancy or scratches a certain itch or not, a word from the Lord that has been bathed in the presence of God through prayer will be alive and active, penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, cutting through to the very thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Prayer-infused, biblical preaching is “flop” free! Prayerful pastors speak with power.
About the Author
Mark Adams superintendents the Sierra Pacific Conference (Network of Undeniable Blessing), superintended the North Central Conference and church planted and pastored at several Chicagoland locations. Mark has also worked as a mental health counselor, child welfare worker, social work supervisor and was on faculty at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is married to Kerrie, and they have four sons and eight grandchildren.