Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 2 continued

Does homiletics quench the Spirit? Yesterday I sounded a warning note concerning “false positive” feedback.  We’ve got to be careful not to assume the Spirit is at work in great ways merely because our listeners are excessively polite to us as they shake our hands and head for the door.  Obviously that is only a minor side-point. Here are some more important points:

2. The Holy Spirit does work during delivery, but also during preparation. Preparation is not unspiritual.  The Holy Spirit is not hindered by careful and prayerful preparation.  The Bible does not promise that we will be given what to say when we preach (only when brought to witness before authorities under persecution – Matt.10:17-20).  In fact, the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible and cares more than we do that it is understood properly and applied appropriately.  How can shooting from the hip be more spiritual than a prayer-soaked preparation?  We should be careful how we define what is spiritual and what is not.

3. Just because the Spirit can work despite us, why would we want to limit Him to that? The best study of the Scriptures that we can manage, the best structuring and development of messages that we can achieve, the best communication skill that we can use . . . it’s all a matter of good stewardship, is it not?  God is not limited to our strengths, He specializes in using us in our weakness, for He gives grace to those who humbly recognize their need.  But shall we deliberately go on preaching poorly that grace may increase?  Not if we are being a good steward.

4. If homiletical instruction causes us to preach in our own strength, then we have a problem, Houston! Having said everything that I have in the first three points, there is a concern that we must all face.  In our good stewardship, we must not end up self-reliant or flesh-powered.  God opposes the proud.  We must allow any training or instruction we receive to humble us (good homiletics training is like opening a window shutter and discovering how vast and intricate the task of preaching really is!)

So that’s a start.  More thoughts tomorrow on this issue of defending the teaching of preaching!

Apologetics for Homiletics – Part 2

The whole issue of whether homiletics training and methodology might quench or restrict the Spirit in some way is a critical issue.  Today and tomorrow we will scratch the surface of this issue, then another issue after that.

Doesn’t homiletics quench the Spirit? There is no doubt that God is not limited to working through and with us, He can also work around and despite us.  A passing comment, perhaps even when we preached error of some sort, sometimes has been used of God to “bless” someone.  Several things need to be taken into account, the first of which is subsidiary but worthy of note:

1. Not all positive feedback should be trusted. It’s an experiment I do not suggest you try.  If you stand up and read a passage and then preach biblical sounding truth with a certain amount of enthusiasm or seriousness, but deliberately don’t preach the text before you, deliberately slip in some error, contradict yourself a few times and avoid all specific application . . . what will happen?  You will receive positive feedback.  If it sounded too intellectual to be intelligible, then people will say “That was so rich!”  If it included an amusing anecdote at some point, then some people will shake your hand firmly and declare that they’ve been blessed.  If they can’t think of anything positive to say, they’ll shake your hand and say thank you anyway.  Why?  Because people are polite to preachers (they wouldn’t want to stand in front of a crowd and speak!)  And sadly, in some cases, they have not heard enough good preaching, or trained themselves by constant use of the Bible, in order to recognize poor preaching when they hear it.

Remember that the test of “biblical” preaching is not just the preaching of biblical truth that blesses people (the usual test to which people default), it is the preaching of the truth in the passage preached that appropriately and genuinely influences people. All positive feedback is not a trustworthy indicator of your effectiveness in ministry, nor even of God being at work in their lives.

I have three more thoughts on this issue of the quenching of the Spirit by homiletics, but I’ll add them tomorrow to avoid making this the longest post ever!