By Chuck Sackett
After nearly 25 years training preachers at a Christian college, I returned to the local church to discover ministry is a lot harder to do than it is to talk about.
I thought I had done a good job of staying in touch with the church. (I’m convinced most Bible college and seminary professors believe that.) I preached nearly every weekend, served in my local congregation, met with and sought to learn from local ministers, and attended and taught at various conferences.
And still, full-time service in the local church proved to be a lot harder than I expected.
When I started my first preaching ministry (January 2, 1973), I was expected to preach two sermons, teach Sunday school and Wednesday prayer meeting, go to the hospital, do weddings and funerals, and call. I was expected to “be there,” give counsel, love people, and in my spare time, study the Bible and grow in Christ.
When I reentered full-time preaching on June 1, 2007 (after a 24-year hiatus), everything seemed different. We have two Sunday morning worship experiences, so I can’t teach a discipleship class. We don’t have Sunday evening services. The elders make the hospital calls. There is a counselor on staff.
It sounds as if it should be easier, but the problem is, there are no boundaries.
THEN AND NOW
When I began I was 22 years old, recently married with no children. No one was expecting me to provide leadership or direction. Now, 35 years later, that’s what everyone wants. Ministry now involves more casting vision than preaching and evangelizing and shepherding; more personnel management than going door-to-door; more shaping the future than planning sermons.
When I started preaching in 1973, I was anxious to see things change. I knew what we needed, even though no one else seemed to want to know. Now, I’m the one who feels pushed by those who know what we need. Instead of being a cheerleader for change, I find myself tempted to drag my feet. It frightens me to think I’m becoming the epitome of what I used to find so frustrating.
As a professor, I covered change in my classes. Sometimes I could get through the material in two to three hours. In a seminar setting I would take as many as four to five hours. I taught (because I knew) how to make change: how to spot the obstacles, plan the strategies, time the initiatives, tame the naysayers, anticipate the questions. I knew enough to tell students to take lots of time and not get into a big hurry.
I was rudely reminded recently that change takes lots of time. And I was reminded, again, “It’s harder to do than it is to talk about.”
EVEN PREACHING SEEMS HARDER
Knowing the routines of ministry—leading, helping with change, casting vision—all of that seems harder than it used to. Even preaching seems harder. My first exposure to preaching involved listening to a fairly lengthy exposition of the text followed by a period of application. I had the good fortune of listening to good preaching . . . the kind that kept you interested until the application came.
But the preacher made no real effort to get the listener involved. And the idea that Scripture had authority was assumed by nearly everyone (including those who grew up outside the church—like me).
Today, that’s clearly no longer the case. If the preacher doesn’t establish rapport within the first few sentences, chances are he will never get the audience with him. Application begins in the introduction, and stories keep attention. Exposition is still the key to effective preaching, but it can’t be as bare and plain as it used to be. Good Bible teaching and preaching must be adorned with elements of beauty and interest.
Sermon series have changed, too. The idea of preaching for weeks from one book of the Bible is being challenged on every hand. If you look at PreachingToday.com for series ideas or sample series, you’ll notice they come in four- to six-week segments. In fact, the editors rarely accept submissions longer than that. I’m not suggesting I agree with that, nor that there are not examples of successful churches doing longer series, only that the times have changed.
The homiletics teachers I know, and with whom I have experience, are good teachers. They know their stuff. What they say in class works and should be practiced. As a professor I advocated 12-20 hours a week for sermon preparation. That seemed reasonable, and given my experience in the slower-paced world of the 1970s, it appeared doable.
Then I joined the ranks of those who preach every week, 48 to 50 times a year (I can’t imagine preparing two a week like many of my colleagues do). And I was reminded, “It’s harder to do than it is to talk about.”
SPIRITUAL FORMATION ALONE
For approximately 15 years I met with a small group of professors in an accountability group for spiritual formation. We met faithfully every week. We studied together, prayed together, laughed and cried together. We celebrated, and we commiserated. My brothers held my life in check and gave me reason for balance. To this band of brothers I owe my spiritual sanity; they kept me afloat in times of real distress and chaos.
Spiritual formation takes time and discipline. Spending time with God requires . . . spending time. He doesn’t nag and he doesn’t coerce. There are no Sunday-morning-like deadlines that require your attention. You don’t get scolded if you miss this appointment. You take no risk of losing your job if you don’t show up. You are genuinely on your own for this part of your life.
Time demands and ministry concerns, sermon preparation and marriage counseling, vision development and staff relationships all command your time and attention. A segment of your day given to Scripture, prayer, meditation, journaling, solitude, silence—you name the discipline—is a luxury you feel you can ill afford . . . so you move on from the important to the urgent. And in the meantime your soul withers and dies.
Spiritual formation—it’s the heart of who we are and what we do. We spend our time helping people allow God into their lives to form their spirits. We encourage others to make space for God. We give all kinds of delicious recipes and juicy tidbits. Yet we so often fail to heed our own advice. And in the meantime, we learn, “It’s harder to do than it is to talk about.”
I TIP MY HAT
So with a modicum of self-serving (since now I’m in their ranks), I tip my hat in appreciation to the local church preachers who for so long have already known what I’m just now relearning: “It’s harder to do than it is to talk about.”
Thank you for your years of faithful service. Thank you for giving your lives to the most important (yet often most thankless) task in the world. Thank you for never giving in to the sense of helplessness that sometimes comes because “It’s harder to do than it is to talk about.”
Chuck Sackett, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is preaching minister at Madison Park Christian Church, Quincy, Illinois.