In my last article, I argued that preaching is not just a method of communication, but a type of ministry. That there is a spiritual transaction to preaching in which grace is ministered to the hearers and where kingdom dynamics are in play through the preaching process. Communication is the vehicle that preaching flows through, but it is not the essence of preaching ministry itself, in the same way that the essence of worship leading is not equivalent to musical ability. Picking back up on this thread, in this article I want to "put some skin on those bones" and flesh out three different journeys that the preaching process can be and what I believe the Lord is doing in each one of them. This may seem to be a bit of a different take than what is typical, but I believe that is because I am trying wrestle with the ministry of preaching separate from the communication process it flows through.
Many who have preached regularly have recognized that the preaching preparation process can be trying. Every once in a while a message comes together quickly and easily, but most of the time preparing to preach feels like wondering around in the dark, hoping to stumble into something we can say that is worth saying (yes, it's like that for everyone, not just you). As I've conversed with preachers who are growing and developing in their craft of preaching, there is often a desire to grow out of the challenging preparation process and hit a groove where it feels less difficult. There are layers that do get clearer with time, but I think this sentiment can come from a misunderstanding; I believe the preparation process and the delivery experience are both part of one spiritual journey that God uses to minister in the vehicle of preaching. I don't think it's helpful to see the preparation as the a necessary evil that we have to do in order to get to the delivery, but rather indicative and foundational to the ministry we are called to do as we preach.
Put another way, the preparatory process and the delivery experience are one spiritual arc which the Lord uses all of to impart his grace to his people - and I believe that it is really this spiritual journey that we sign up for every time we preach. Stepping into that spiritual journey and walking it faithfully is what results in effective preaching, and as such, I would suggest that being a good preacher involves not just being a good deliverer, but a good journeyer. If we journey well, we will see the fruit in having something of the Lord to give away by the time we preach. What's more, I've found that not every preaching journey follows the same trajectory, and I think this makes sense because God has lots of different things he does through preaching at different times. There are times where the point is to inspire, other times to challenge, etc.
As I've reflected, I can see three different journeys that I've experienced during the preaching process. Here are my thoughts as to what they are and how to partner with God in them.
Preaching from Revelation
Of the three preaching journeys, this one is by far the most enjoyable because it is usually the easiest (LOL). In this journey, we are preaching on a topic or a passage that the Lord has already established in us in some way. We've already taken a journey with this text or this idea, and in that journey we have been spiritually formed. This spiritual formation is so critical; it is what gives us the ability to access not just our (and other's) ideas, but to go deeper and release spiritual resources because this has become a place of spiritual authority for us.
This is one of the general principles that sits behind the ministry of preaching; where we have revelation, we have the ability to release transformation. Look at how Moses writes it in the final book of the Pentateuch:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:29
Secret things are the Lord's prerogative (though seeking them out may very well be his invitation to us), but things that have been revealed to us belong not only to us, but to our children forever. Things that have been revealed to us are part of our spiritual inheritance that we have permission to pass along to those who share in our spiritual lineage. In Moses' case he is referring to how God revealed the Law to Israel, but the principle broadens beyond that to include the revelation the Lord has given to each of us as well.
The preparation to preach a passage or a topic where we already have had revelation on is then mostly a matter of organization. We have to figure out what parts to say and what parts are extraneous. We need to find illustrations or stories that help capture the attention and invigorate the imagination. We need a solid introduction and conclusion. All of this matters, but in a sense, this is all easy work, because we're not grappling with a process of spiritual formation at the same time. As a result, this preaching journey usually doesn't feel heavy or difficult. We have hope and anticipation because we've already seen the fruit of what God has formed in our lives and it's easy for us to imagine that same fruit in those we preach to.
In this preaching journey, I find the Lord is often welcoming others into a new area of spiritual development. Preaching from revelation often results in the opening of revelation for the hearers, and revelation is often the door opening to a new area to live in faith. (Revelation being the revealing of something unseen, faith being the ongoing conviction of things not seen). Preaching from revelation often provokes a sense of wonder and awe in people as they feel new doors being opened to them in the spiritual realm and new spiritual pastures to explore.
Preaching from Breakthrough
The preaching from breakthrough journey feels very different from the previous one because layered on top of all the natural organizational elements of preaching preparation we have a spiritual journey as well. In this preaching journey we still bring revelation the Lord has worked in us while we preach, but rather than coming to the preparation table with the revelation already formed in us, we receive that revelation through the preaching preparation process. This journey is difficult in that we are simultaneously working out what God is working in us, while at the same kind figuring out precisely how to say it. This results in a process that often feels muddy or murky; we have this vague sense of heading in a certain direction, but we don't have clarity exactly what it is we're supposed to say.
This process often feels like an internal wrestling to me, and probably for that reason I often think of the famous "Jacob wrestling with God" passage when I'm working through this preaching journey:
And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:24–28
There are two things that stand out to me from this passage that resonate with this preaching journey. The first is that most of what Jacob does here is just hang on and not give up. At the end of the day I'm not sure that Jacob wins the wrestling match so much as he just doesn't lose. And this is how it is with God isn't it? Let's be honest; we never wrestle with God and beat him, but we can wrestle with God and not give up, and I think that's the point. Sometimes it's about how much we care, how invested we are in indeed getting from the Lord what he has for us. We never earn anything with the Lord, but there are things that he doesn't entrust to those who seek him lightly. When we are on the journey of preaching from breakthrough, we need to hang in there and keep wrestling with what it is that God is working out in us.
The beautiful thing about this preaching journey is that we get to be the first one transformed by the message. We get transformed in the preaching process, and then we bring a transformed us into the pulpit and share from that place of fresh transformation to others. This is the second thing that stands out to me about this passage; it is not just that Jacob is blessed, but that blessing transforms him. He gets a new name, a shorthand for a new identity. Sometimes this preaching journey can result in massive growth in a short time for us as the preacher. That's hard, but in my experience intensely rewarding.
In the preaching from breakthrough journey, I think the Lord is making us the tip of the spear for breakthrough that he wants to invite the whole church family into corporately. This is an element of spiritual leadership; sometimes we go first into spiritual breakthrough, softening the ground and making that breakthrough more accessible to others. Paul writes about this to the Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God...If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 2 Corinthians 1:3–4,6
He says that because we all have to endure sufferings, God comforts the apostles, so that the Corinthians can enter into comfort as well. There is a sort of "breaking ground for others" dynamic in play here, and this is why this type of preaching journey feels so difficult - we are breaking through not just for ourselves, but opening something up for others to step into as well. It's our personal development on spiritual steroids as it were, which is why it is so intense.
For this reason, I think when we are preaching during a preaching from breakthrough journey, it is important to invite others to take responsibility to press in and breakthrough for themselves. We kick the door open, but the hearers need to step through it and take responsibility to match our breakthrough with their breakthrough.
Preaching from Faith
This final preaching journey is different from the other two in that we are preaching without having something formed in us in the way described above. It's okay to preach without revelation about a given topic or passage, I think it's just important to realize that is the case.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12:3
None of us has revelation and faith wrapped around everything; we have a life-long journey with this in which we will never fully arrive. One of the most important areas of self-awareness as a preacher then is to be aware of where the Lord has formed things in us, and where he hasn't yet. (And for what it's worth, I think many of us - myself included - overestimate what God has formed in us significantly.)
The potential threat for this preaching journey is that our message would become just a set of ideas and be devoid of spiritual authority. How do we avoid that, given that spiritual authority is strongly connected to what God has opened up to us? The answer is that we need to have revelation and faith in God and in the Bible itself that we can fall back on. There are some times when we all need to point to something that has not been fully opened up to us yet (consider for example preaching on what eternity will be like, or "greater works than Jesus"). In this instance, we want to have a rock-solid conviction that the Bible is God's word to us, the sole rule of faith and practice for our faith, and that what God invites us into through his Word is real and legitimate and good, even if we haven't fully tasted it in this area yet.
(Brief aside: this is where the postmodern wrestle may be important to work through)
In this type of preaching journey we also need the humility to be honest that we haven't been formed in this area and that we are on the journey as well. This is indeed a journey that we are inviting everyone to join us on. We need to be able to take a "I'm not there either, but let's go together, because I know God is faithful in what he promises" posture and welcome others into what is possible with the Lord. For this reason, the preaching from faith preaching journey can feel more aspirational than the other journeys. Rather than pointing to a reality that is because it has already been established in us (at least to a degree), we are dreaming about a reality that could be because God is incredible and amazing and this is what he has for us out there. So long as we have faith in God's invitation to us through his Word, this aspiration comes with faith threaded inside of it and ministers to lift our spirits and to dream with the Lord again.
How do we know that we're on this preaching journey and not the previous one? In my experience there is a different texture to the two journeys. The preaching from breakthrough journey comes with something that feels just out of reach and invites the wrestling process. The preaching from faith journey instead stirs our hearts to dream without having to pin that dream down to something more specific or concrete. A different part of us is stirred toward a different end. That may sound fuzzy, but as we learn to sense these distinctions, it can become quite discernable.
In my experience, this preaching journey invites us together as a family into what God has ahead for us. There is a kind of level-playing field here; no one can claim to have laid hold of something more than others and that unifies us together as a church family in pursuit of what the Lord has for us. This preaching journey often knits our hearts together as we dream about the people God wants us to be and link arms together in journeying into that future together.
As you can see, each of these preaching journeys is very different, and each ministers to our church family in a different way. If you're preaching with any regularity, you're probably already experiencing these three, though you may not even realize it yet. I write this to try and give some mental framework and language around these different preaching journeys so we can understand them and cooperate with what God is doing in them. Preaching from breakthrough? Great! Expect the wrestle; it doesn't mean anything is wrong - it just means you're opening something up for the whole church family (and so on for the other two).
Preaching the Word of God is a beautiful privilege and a deep honor. Let us undertake this ministry the Lord has given us with passion and vigor, and in that see the Lord minister his grace to us all.