The Fear of Preaching

The three most frightening moments in my life, in descending order:

3. The breath that precedes the first word of every single lecture I’ve ever given.

2. The half-second between the end of me asking, “Will you marry me?” and my wife answering, “Of course.”

1. Every single second between now and approximately 9:00am CST this coming Sunday, when I take the pulpit at Salem Covenant Church to deliver my first ever sermon.

Old Ship Church Pulpit
The pulpit in the Old Ship Church, Hingham, MA - Historic American Buildings Survey

Now, I’m willing to believe that John Chrysostom (perhaps the greatest preacher in church history) wasn’t lying through his teeth when he said that “Preaching improves me… When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears” (quoted by Carl A. Volz in Christian History, Oct. 1994). Perhaps I’ll get up there and find a strange, energizing calm come over me.

Or I’ll shake so hard that the U.S. Geologic Survey will register the first earthquake in Minnesota in over 35 years.

Either way… I should acknowledge that I did offer my services — I gave a somewhat homiletic talk at our church’s annual meeting this past July that seemed like it could fit a sermon if the need arose — but I’m not sure I ever thought our senior pastor, who’s one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard, would actually take me up on the offer. Let alone for All Saints’ Sunday, which is an especially meaningful service at our church, year in and year out.

I think I’ve had this coming ever since I started speculating aloud that one distinctive of the Pietist college is that its professors occupy a somewhat pastor-like role: often expected to serve as moral examples, encouraged to provide something like the “cure of souls” for students, and perhaps blurring the distinction between teaching and preaching. (That last courtesy of my Pietist Impulse co-editor G.W. Carlson, who never sees a colleague walking off to class without asking, “Off to preach?” “No, to teach,” responds our department’s resident Calvinist, without fail.)

So here I am, reading and praying over my text, perusing commentaries… the whole deal! And while I’m at it, I thought, why not preach from the Book of Revelation? (7:9-17, to be specific) After all, I’m already terrified, and as author Virginia Stem Owens writes, introducing that book in the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible:

The Revelation to John is a scary book. It may well be the least read and most feared book in the New Testament. Not only is it full of malicious monsters, but even the good guys strike us as bizarre creatures—a lion, an ox, a human face, and an eagle, each with six wings and covered all over with eyes (Rev 4:7-8). In addition, some of the settings—glassy seas, bottomless pits, rivers of blood—are like nothing we’ve seen before, nor are we sure we ever want to.

Not only are there monsters, but the action often seems incongruous, disjunctive. One moment we are listening to the heavenly choir sing praises around God’s throne, and the next we hear angels pronounce terrible plagues upon the earth and its inhabitants. (p. 2265)

Dürer Woodcut, Revelation 10
Not sure if I need to approach pre-sermon Bible study the way the angel has John prepare to prophesy in Rev 10:9-10... (as imagined here by Albrecht Dürer) — Wikimedia

Fortunately, I’m preaching about the former kind of moment, and will leave it to a better preacher to make something of, say, the chapter following. But what’s really frightening about Revelation (especially once you choose to preach from it) is what Owens points out next:

…when you open yourself to a vision, as John did on that barren, volcanic prison island of Patmos, you don’t get to choose its contents. It’s not like going to the video store to pick out a movie that fits your taste and mood.

Even knowing as little about this trade as I do, I think I already understand that preparing a sermon (maybe especially on this book of the Bible, but probably on any of them) means not getting to choose its contents. So I’m trying to leave myself open to the leading of the Spirit.

Still, I’m nervous. I don’t intend to, well, lead anyone into heresy, but still, the stakes for this seem much, much higher than those for, say, the Western Civ exam or the lecture on Italian Fascism I gave yesterday…

Anyway, I’d certainly appreciate any sermon prep/delivery advice from any pastors or experienced lay preachers who happen to be reading. (Thanks to Christian Humanist Nathan Gilmour for an early assist!)

And if you’d like to provide more than moral support — or if you’re going to be near New Brighton, MN on November 6th and are just curious to hear and see this for yourself — we have services at 8:30 (traditional), 9:50 (traditional), and 11:00 (contemporary). Here’s the church website, plus directions.

Update: here’s the text of the sermon that I ended up preaching.

4 thoughts on “The Fear of Preaching

  1. Just a mild suggestion for you, Chris:
    Prepare adequately, but then forget if it’s teaching vs preaching and just let the Spirit lead as He will.

    We had a seminary student give the sermon at our church Sunday; only his 3rd time to do that. He was nervous, but pressed on. I KNOW his comments specifically addressed two issues people in our congregation were dealing with (ones he could not have known about, being from out of town). They had to go home encouraged and blessed by his words.

  2. What a blessing! Your writing here says you are no stranger to preparation! May you equally prepare your heart in humble submission! If you are living in the text, prayerfully asking God for wisdom and throwing yourself before His great mercy, He will be faithful to provide a word!

    And what a great text for a first message! It is certainly a challenge, but I have found that the Holy Spirit often responds in such moments. Always remember that God’s grace is sufficient, and His power is made perfect in our weakness!

    May the words of your message this weekend bring glory to Jesus and incite great worship among His people!

  3. Knowing you are a much-admired and respected leader at Salem, I am praying for you to continue to hear God speaking to you as you prepare, and will be praying as you speak His message Sunday.

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