Whether it be before thousands of teenagers at a Dare 2 Share conference or hundreds of people in a church I struggle and battle nerves when it comes to preaching the Word of God. When I tell people that many of them look surprised. Maybe because I preach with intensity and passion it comes off as fearlessness.
I remember the first time I preached my first sermon as a twelve-year-old Christian school student. I was so nervous that I literally shook the pulpit. My hands were locked onto the sides of the pulpit and they were quaking. There was a pencil on the lip of the pulpit where my Bible and notes were resting. It rattled back and forth so quickly that it sounded like I was working a maraca behind the way-too-big-for-me pulpit. I was sure that my nervousness was obvious to everyone. But those seasoned preachers who were rating my sermon wrote on my evaluation, “Way to preach with intensity! You were so intense that you were actually shaking the pulpit!” They mistook my nervousness for intensity. I knew at that point I was called to be a preacher.
Maybe that’s why I have always had a penchant for verses like 1 Corinthians 2:3, “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.”After all, if the great Apostle Paul struggled with nerves, then puny little Greg Stier could, too…and so can you.
Over the last three decades plus of preaching here’s how I have learned to conquer my nerves instead of letting them paralyze me:
1. I let my nerves drive me to study harder.
There’s a great line in the movie Unforgiven when a one-armed deputy is asked why he always loads two guns. His answer was classic, “I don’t want to die for a lack of shooting back.”
In the same way I don’t want to choke due to the lack of preparing. I allow my nerves to get me back to the Bible. I let what Jim Collins in his excellent book, Great by Choice, calls “Productive Paranoia” drive me to exegete the text, build a solid outline, insert powerful illustrations and close out with a clear call to action.
2. I let my nerves drive me to pray harder.
How did Paul conquer his nerves? Through prayer! In Ephesians 6:19 he emphasizes this essential component of overcoming fear, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel….”
Prayer is where we wrestle with our fears and pin them to the ground with the help of the Trinity. It sure seems like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane wrestled with what seemed like genuine, knee-rattling fear. But he caused it to tap out before the throne of God (although it was a sweaty, bloody cagematch!). Through the power of His Spirit in us we can do the same.
3. I let my nerves drive me to preach every sermon as if it were my last.
When describing his preaching style Richard Baxter, the great reformer from 500 years ago, said, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” That’s exactly the way I want to preach…because it could be my last sermon. I don’t want to stumble and stutter into the presence of God at the end of a bad sermon. I want to blast into the throneroom of the King of kings, veins in my neck popping and having an aneurysm after my last point, laying down that sermon outline before his feet as my final sacrifice of praise.
As a matter of fact I’m nervous right now as I type these words. Why? Because this weekend I’ll be preaching to almost 3,000 teenagers at a Dare 2 Share conference in Washington DC. There’s more work to do on my sermon notes. I need to go on a prayer walk so that I can pin my nerves to the ground. I need to get back at it.
But I’ll leave you with this final thought. I hope you thank God for your nerves as I do mine. These twitchy, sweat-inducing little friends drive us to our knees and to our study. They add adrenalin to our sermons and fire to our bellies. Without nerves we may think that it’s about us and our ability to communicate. With nerves we’re reminded to go back to the well of God’s presence for the power and unction we need to preach with impact.
Please pray for me and our preaching team this week in DC. Pray for power and impact. This business of preaching is serious business.