My old preaching professor from seminary visited my church last Sunday. And the Sunday before that. In fact, it’s quite common for him to slip in and sit on the back row right before I stand up to preach. Sometimes he brings folks with him. Important folks. People with names that you would know. One week, a few of the Puritans came with him. They got mad and left when I made too many references to Ric Flair and Kanye West.
I should probably explain myself before I go any further.
When I was learning how to preach back in seminary, we had to deliver a sermon in front of the class. It gave our professor an opportunity to see if we were applying what he had taught us. For some in the class, it gave them an opportunity to play the part of Simon Cowell and rip people to shreds.
Honestly, I only cared about two things when I preached in those classroom settings. First, impress the professor. Second, don’t get ripped to shreds by the Simon Cowells of the class. If I may be even more honest, all these years later I’m still tempted to let the same motivation drive me when I preach in front of an actual congregation.
Don’t get ripped to shreds over the Sunday afternoon meal.
My old preaching professor doesn’t really come to my church to hear me preach. But sometimes in my mind, or perhaps it’s better to say in my flesh, he is there on the back row. Just to hear me. Sometimes he brings Spurgeon and a few of the other boys with him. And if I’m not careful, I’ll be aiming for only two very small and sinful purposes.
Don’t get ripped to shreds.
Your temptation probably doesn’t look a lot like mine. But, somewhere in the darker parts of your heart, I’ll bet that the same motivation is there. We want to please people. So when someone asks us to fill out a reference form so that their kid can get into school, we do it and get it back to them in record time, all the while hoping that they’re impressed with our promptness. And when we visit someone, we make sure that someone else knows about it. And when we preach a sermon, it has to be nominated for a Grammy. Or maybe just impress our old seminary professor and the authors of the books he made us read.
This isn’t meant to beat you up. I’m not using this space to address the idolatry of our hearts that leads us to perform to impress rather than serve as an act of worship. I’ll leave that for another time. Instead, I want to encourage you.
When my son was little, he was fascinated with airplanes. Whenever we were outside and one flew overhead, I would point it out to him by telling him to look up. One time, I noticed something strange. He wasn’t looking up to the sky, you know, where the airplanes are. He would just look straight ahead, at the trees or the swing set. To him, looking straight ahead was looking up. I had to gently grab his head and direct him to look higher.
Pastor, are you a slave to performing for people? Are you driven by perfection? If so, you need to look higher.
Your performance and presumed perfection might impress your old professor, a famous author or the influential people in your church. So what? That isn’t what God has called you to do. And besides that, playing that game will burn you out. There’s no real freedom or joy in it.
Pastor, step out of the performance prison and step into the grace that comes with knowing Christ and who you are in him. You are not your last sermon, regardless of how good or bad it was. You are not the visits that you can’t quite get to or the ones that you handle with ease. You are a child of God. There is nothing you can or need to do to earn that standing.
So just enjoy it.
Perhaps you are a fantastic preacher. Maybe your seminary professor offered you a book deal right there on the spot when you preached in front of the class. Maybe the Simon Cowells in the room said, “We’ve got nothing, that was really good,” when you finished. If so, congratulations! But know this: your best sermon doesn’t come close to the Sermon on the Mount or the Olivet Discourse. God is perfectly fine with that. And he loves you anyway.
So, pastor, stop performing.
Just love and serve and preach for the glory of God and trust your failures and successes to him.
After all, he really was at your church last Sunday. And he’ll be there this Sunday too.
But there’s nothing you can to to impress him.
Jesus Christ took care of that for you.