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When (and why) your best isn’t good enough.
In all my years of preaching, it was the most mortifying thought I'd ever had—I just flat out didn't care about the next service. How could I preach when I had lost my heart?
The crisis erupted following a trip that took me out to Philadelphia and ended up with me on the Canadian West Coast. I spoke at a weekend seminar and, no doubt due to the three-hour time shift, didn't sleep well at all. The seminar began Friday night and went through Saturday afternoon; I had three hours off before coming back to the church on Saturday evening for their first "Sunday" service.
I felt tired when I woke up on Sunday, but prayer, adrenaline and a venti cup of chai tea from Starbucks got me through the first two services. Just before the third Sunday morning service (fourth overall), I sat by myself in the pastor's office and finally had to admit something I'd never faced before: I just didn't care about the following service.
The travel schedule, combined with the time change (and the fact that I'd been running two weeks straight) had taken my heart away. Besides, how compelling can a sermon be when you've already preached it three straight times? At first, I felt appalled—how could I get up in that pulpit when I honestly didn't care? And yet how could I make myself care?
I prayed a simple prayer: "Lord, before I came here, and again this morning, I asked you for Your words. Now please give me Your heart. I don't want to give a 'lecture.' I want to share Your passion for these people, and preach out of that." Nothing happened.
I picked up my notes and walked back into the church. As I stood up front, one of the pastors leaned over and asked if I would pray for people as they came forward during worship. "We're a bit short on elders and pastors for this final service," he explained. "It's pretty packed, and we might need some help."
I stood up front and four people came directly to me for prayer, one after the other. Three left in tears after I had prayed for them. As the final one walked back to the pew, I realized that God had restarted my heart. He reminded me that I was not preaching to a crowd but to real, hurting people with concrete problems. People who, like all of us, desperately needed His wisdom to make their next move. In a brilliant turn of events, God had given me a renewed heart.
I smiled as I sat back down and got ready to take the pulpit. I hadn't been asked to pray for anybody in the first three services. If this was just a "coincidence," it was about the millionth coincidence of my life—all following prayer.
It Doesn't Matter
Sometimes it's a cold. Sometimes it's weariness. Sometimes it's a sense of personal failure or compromise. Sometimes it's relational distance with a spouse or a child or a church member. In fact, I can't tell you how many times I have stood up in front of a group feeling tired or sick or defeated, and then watched in awe as God's Spirit literally carried me through the day or evening.
Self-empowered ministry is so limiting. We're rarely at our best—fully rested, fully prepared, most energetic and feeling strong. Usually, something niggles at us that will hold back natural-based ministry: a sinus headache, insomnia, family concerns, an overly busy schedule, nervous anxiety, financial problems ... you name it. But when ministry flows out of God-reliance, when our service issues from supernatural dependence, then a full night of sleep, a clear head or even a clear conscience matters far less than allowing God to do what He does best—glorify His name through us.
Preach It Like You Mean It
How do we open ourselves up to this kind of ministry that goes beyond just preaching? I'm not a three-step kind of guy, but I do think there are some key elements we can follow.
1. Believe in it. The Bible certainly teaches it, so we have to accept it as a possibility. Paul testified to the Colossians, "To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me" (1:29, NIV). I don't think it was mere imagery when Paul likewise told the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (2:20, NIV).
Too many pastors preach a living God but then rely on natural means for what should be a supernatural ministry. Relying on God's power doesn't mean we fail to study or prepare; it simply means that even our best efforts aren't enough without God's touch, empowering presence and life-giving energy. This is a call to humility: "God, I really, really need You right now."
Even if you've preached a thousand sermons from this very pulpit—especially if you've preached a thousand sermons from this very pulpit—you still really, really need Him.
2. Acknowledge Christ. Before I get up to preach, I like to imagine Christ preaching in that very place, to that very congregation. It's my way of acknowledging that He is going before me—that ultimately, I want to be His mouthpiece, speaking with His heart, feeling with His passion. I am His mouth, speaking His thoughts, with the passion of His heart, to that congregation.
I'm fond of using the following prayer: "Lord, You've created this moment, You've created these people, and You've created me. Not only have You created me, but You've shaped me and prepared me for such a time as this. You've brought us all together, and now I ask You to release Your life-giving power to accomplish Your aims and Your purpose. May the living and ascended Christ manifest Himself through me today."
3. Live it. To minister out of supernatural dependency, we don't turn this God-reliance on and off; it has to remain the tenor of our lives. I can't ignore God for days on end, and then get in front of a group and expect to rely on His empowering presence. But when my life becomes a prayer, when my service becomes an act of worship, when God-granted humility becomes my companion, then relying on God becomes the only thing I know how to do. There is no other way.
What this has given me is renewed confidence in ministry—not in myself, but in the history of God's work through my feeble life. I may be feeling tired, sick, defeated, lonely or empty, but so many times I've discovered that what I bring to the pulpit is almost irrelevant, except for the reality that God will work through me. As much as anything, this has taken a lot of fear out of the pulpit and replaced it with a lot of joy and even intimacy—God and I are co-laboring, building memories, cooperating on behalf of His kingdom.
I never want to go back to depending on myself.
Gary Thomas is a speaker and award-winning author of several books, including his latest, The Beautiful Fight (Zondervan). An adjunct faculty member at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., Gary lives with his wife and children in Bellingham, Wash.
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