To assume that our autonomy often fosters a spirit of independence is not much of a stretch, but to acknowledge that it infiltrates the preaching event probably escapes most of us. It certainly has for me often.
I suggest that in the preaching event we battle the “age of independence” on at least two levels. The first would be in our audience. While this is something on which we may have little impact, it is my opinion that this is worthy of our awareness. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.”* For those who are not new to preaching, this is more obvious than ever and needs little explanation.
Second, there is our own potential independence in selecting a text or in our reliance on exposition, creativity, and technology. Most would argue that all of these are good and necessary in most contexts today. Yet without dependence on the Holy Spirit through the entire process—from conception to delivery—we offer nothing more than a “religious” Ted Talk.
It may potentially be a high-quality presentation but powerless to impact lives eternally. As Paul reminds us in Romans 7:18a, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.”
Taking this principle one step deeper, we must ask this question: Even if we are preaching solid doctrine, are we confident it is what God has for that audience at that moment? Let me illustrate. A friend once said to me, “I bet you could preach at any moment, anywhere.” He was right. The knowledge of Scripture, the ability to connect with a crowd, as well as organization of thoughts are tools that experience has provided. But the intentional dependence on God to hear His heart through specific Scripture and proclaim it to others demands total dependence on Him.
This dependence opens the door for humility rather than independence and only comes by sitting at His feet, recognizing that I can do nothing apart from Him. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) It is therefore critical that I climb up in His lap, press my ear to His chest, and hear His heartbeat long before I ever open my mouth to preach.
For twenty plus years I served as lead pastor in a megachurch model of ministry and preaching. When God called us out of that world, I struggled greatly. Now, after five years, I am finally realizing that not only my identity but my authority is only in Christ and not a position based on size or experience. In our current ministry assignment, our city has an average age of thirty-three. The dilemma is that I am moving into my late fifties. While I try to be a student of culture and continue to learn, more than ever I recognize I have no ability to connect on my own.
On a good day, I hop in my car after preaching and tell the Lord, “Thank you for letting me preach Your word today.” On my not so good days, I hop in the car and say, “Lord, I quit.” The difference is generally that I measure either my perceived effectiveness based on how comfortably and confidently I communicated or, more often, by some visible response from the crowd. All the while dismissing that God is working through His word even when my earthly measurements don’t match His standards.
I must remind myself that God has called me. And I must have total confidence that my preaching is absolutely dependent upon Him. I will prepare with the best of my ability and utilize all resources available, but the sobering reality that God knows us and yet allows us to represent Him through the preaching of His word is truly unfathomable.
My first ministry assignment was a small church in south Mississippi. Over a period of two weeks I had transitioned from a not very good church member to a student pastor. Two things were true. God had called me and they were desperate. I certainly had never preached before, but on my second week on the job our pastor told me I was up the next week. After several minutes of protesting, my pastor spoke these profound words, “Tony, God has spoken through donkeys before.” These words have served me well through the years.
Autonomy is a gift, but the humility of dependence on Him is our power!
*All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
Dr. Tony Lambert is the Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in Denver, Colorado.