The phone rang at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday. Generally I would have long since been at the church. But this Sunday morning I was caring for our sick son while my wife taught her Sunday school class. Our game plan was for her to finish early and come home. Then I would rush to church for the morning service.
The call was from one of our lay leaders at the church. "Steve, the district superintendent just walked in. He mentioned he was in the area and wanted to worship with us today. Did you know he was coming?"
"No, I sure didn't," I replied. "I'll be there shortly."
Oh no, I thought. What a lousy day for the district superintendent to show up.
My thoughts raced ahead to my message. I had some misgivings about my sermon. Besides my Sunday rhythm being thrown off by a sick child, the previous week had been filled with interruptions, meetings, and necessary paperwork. The time I'd planned to fine-tune my sermon had vaporized. Now I faced preaching a "best I could with the time I had" sermon with the D.S. sitting in the second pew!
After the service, the D.S. made several kind remarks about the service and the message. But I mentally dismissed his comments, moaning to myself, Why didn't he come a few weeks ago when I had a good sermon?
Afterward I pondered my feelings and asked myself some hard questions: What is a good sermon? How can I preach with confidence a message I have not had time to polish? Who am I seeking to please, anyway?
The Congregation's Criteria
In the past, I've promised myself never to get caught without being fully prepared. No matter what it takes, I vowed, I will be at my best. So the next week I meticulously crafted my message, doing the biblical spadework my seminary profs would applaud. But is that a good sermon? The real grade, I've concluded, comes not from what my profs would think, but from the congregation, and ultimately, from God.
My congregation judges a sermon based on two criteria.
(1) Is the message specifically for them? Being their pastor allows me to know my audience as other speakers cannot. They want this close relationship reflected in my words.
I became painfully aware of this when I preached in a nearby city. I used a sermon that had been well received in my home church. In an unfamiliar setting, however, it bombed. My delivery seemed fine, but the message did not connect with the audience. It lacked the personal element.
(2) How well have I pastored them? They respond better if I've ministered to them personally. If I have been with a family going through a crisis or gone out of my way to make a visit or phone call, they get more out of my homiletical efforts. If, however, my pastoral care has disappointed them, their ears close to even my best sermon.
Three Measures of Good Enough
Even though my congregation's love will normally transcend my mediocre sermons, I still struggle with perfectionism. When is my less-than-best effort still good enough? I am learning that on those infrequent occasions when I haven't had adequate time to prepare, I can still enter the pulpit with confidence and a clear conscience if I have accomplished three things.
(1) If I have done my best under the limitations I have providentially experienced. Like the two-talent person in Jesus' parable, I must accept what God gives—in this case, the schedule God allows in a given week. A pastor can only be faithful with what he has been given. But whatever amount of time that is, I must work my hardest.
Failing to maintain this perspective, I become anxious with those who interrupt me. As I sit in the hospital with a parishioner, I catch myself watching the clock. But if I accept that God may give me certain weeks filled with pastoral care rather than extensive exegesis, I don't have to begrudge my time at the hospital. And I can enter the pulpit with peace, knowing I've put as much time into my sermon as God intended.
(2) If I have been honest with the text. When time is tight, a preacher can be tempted to use a biblical text as a springboard to whatever random thoughts he wants to communicate. Such a sermon is not "good enough." I rarely have time to research every aspect of a passage. But I can almost always focus on one aspect of a passage, and research and develop that well enough to speak with confidence and integrity about its application.
(3) If I have anticipated listeners' questions. Even though I can't address every issue, a sermon is "good enough" if I can identify and address the issues important to my people.
In my preparation I frequently use an inductive study method and ask many questions about the text. As I have matured in the ministry, I realize that often the congregation does not ask the same questions. Theirs are far removed from the academic understanding of the text.
God's Perfect Preparation
My greatest confidence comes when I rest in the sovereignty and calling of God.
Once in a message on body life, I explained that we all have a ministry of encouragement and, at times, confrontation. I mentioned how people sometimes ask me as their pastor to do the dirty work of correcting a fellow church attender.
During this part of the message, I struggled because my example didn't seem to fit anyone in the congregation. Later that afternoon, however, a member revealed that she had been on the verge of asking me to talk to someone else in the congregation about a problem between the two of them. Later she spoke to the person on her own, and they resolved the problem.
Preaching God's Word is a serious task, yet one I also want to enjoy. With a dose of realism and a recognition of God's sovereign work in my life and my congregation's, I am more at ease as I stand to deliver God's Word.