We all minister with mixed motives. It is important to be aware of that, and to prayerfully stay before the only One who can really know what is going on inside of us. Sometimes it can be helpful to delineate some of the unhelpful or sinful motivations that can sabotage a ministry. It is not possible to avoid every negative motive all the time, but we must beware lest any of these start to fester within and then characterise our ministry.
1. Preaching to impress. The inner child may not be as gone as we think, and it can so easily creep out and we then start to show off.
2. Preaching to be liked. The insecure self can manifest in public ministry and we can start to crave affirmation.
3. Preaching to be needed. The shepherds of a flock do make a difference to the lives of the sheep, but something is off if the need to be needed starts to grow. You are replaceable.
4. Preaching to validate our worth. The unsettled soul can seek validation for our education, our calling, our sense of identity, etc., through the medium of ministry. If your worth is not firmly rooted in Christ (as just you, minus all trappings of ministry position), then you have a problem and you may well become a problem.
5. Preaching to control behaviour. This may be more common than we think. Instead of patient ministry trusting God’s Word and God’s Spirit, we can shortcut the process and start to pressure conformity in our listeners. Quite simply, our life is easier if they will just behave like Christians.
6. Preaching to build a mini-kingdom. Again, too common to count, and probably involves a combination of the above issues … but it happens when we preach in order to have a little empire where our influence, our voice, our significance, and our ego get propped up.
7. Preaching to be paid. It is absolutely appropriate that churches recompense preachers and do so properly. It is shocking the way some churches do not care for their preachers. However, if I am preaching in order to get the paycheck, then my ministry motivation is broken.
8. Preaching because it is all I can do. The fires within will not always burn bright in perpetual personal revival. At the same time, if the fire has really gone out, please don’t just preach because you have no option. You do. Trust God, ask others for help, and choose not to preach until you can stand with a fire for Him again. By faith hold back from doing damage and trust God to carry you through it.
There are plenty of other mis-motives that could be listed. What have you seen in others (no names please), or in yourself?
When the Covid-19 crisis rolled across Europe in March, everything changed. Maybe you found the experience overwhelming, or challenging, or perhaps even invigorating. Somehow, when crisis hits and our adrenaline surges, we tend to lean on the Lord and find ways through the situation. But after adrenaline there is always a settling period, when it is the most normal thing in the world to feel emotionally flat. Maybe by now you have arrived there too?
Two Types of Feeling Flat
When we feel flat we tend to have lowered motivation and energy. We may be doing less, but somehow feeling more tired. We feel a loss of creativity and initiative. Flatness is not a new feeling, but having so many of us experience it at the same time is slightly unusual.
“I’m feeling flat” is something I’ve heard a lot recently. But there is another type of flatness that is perhaps more concerning. It is the unconscious flatness that we don’t tend to recognize in ourselves – we don’t spot it in the mirror.
Unconscious flatness could be called spiritual coasting. Coasting is where you disengage the motor of the car you are driving and allow past momentum and present circumstances to roll the car forwards. This kind of driving is dangerous. It changes the braking and steering in the car, but perhaps most concerning is that it can give a false sense of security. After all, the engine noise reduces and the car keeps moving forwards.
We need to respond when we are feeling flat, especially when we become aware of this unconscious flatness, or spiritual coasting.
Responding to Feeling Flat
The typical human response to feeling flat will not be spiritually healthy. We may default to distraction, to self-recrimination, or to laziness. That is, we can fill the void with busy work, new pursuits, or entertainment. We can beat ourselves up with the “I need to try harder!” kind of self-coaching. Or we can settle into our flat state and get comfortable. Typical human responses will tend to be self-oriented and spiritually unhealthy.
What should we do when we understandably feel flat or discover we have drifted into a state of flatness? Our emotions are great indicators of deeper realities in our hearts, and they should be prompts to connect relationally – with others, and with God.
When we feel flat, we tend to pull back from others. Living through a pandemic only reinforces that possibility – it is a government-mandated withdrawal! But spiritually we need to connect and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can (even if that means using Zoom!)
Most of all, we need to re-connect with Christ. We need to spend time with Him, because only Christ can invigorate our hearts and stir life in us. And yet our default fleshly response will be to pull in the opposite direction.
Let me share one thing about Christ that may encourage you to bring your tired and emotionally flat heart to Him in these days. I want to point to two passages and focus particularly on what they teach about how Christ cares for the weak and vulnerable. Does going to Christ mean accessing the ultimate personal trainer who can shout the loudest? Not at all.
Motivation for Connection
Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of Isaiah’s famous “Servant songs.” At first glance it could look intimidating. After all, three times it declares that this servant of the LORD will establish justice on the earth. Surely one who is tough on crime will be overwhelmingly powerful and intimidating? But not so. Verse 2 tells us that he is not full of himself, nor does he demand everyone’s attention. And verse 3 describes his way of dealing with the weak:
“a bruised reed he will not break,
And a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”
That is the kind of God that motivates me to lift a bruised and tired heart up toward him. Feeling flat? Connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.
That truth is painted in narrative colour in John 21. The adrenaline of the first Easter has faded and seven of the disciples are back in Galilee, heading out to fish for the night. Whatever their motivation, I am sure that part of the issue was that they felt flat. Read the chapter and watch Jesus care for them. He could have criticized, shouted, corrected, berated, or chastised them. He didn’t.
Instead, Jesus gently reminds them of their calling to ministry by miraculously filling their nets with fish, again. He gently reminds them that he will continue to provide for them by lovingly preparing a barbecued breakfast, a God-given meal of fish and bread, again. He gently re-established Peter’s position within the group by re-affirming his shepherding role. In this chapter he reminds them of their calling to evangelism and edification ministries, he reminds them of his ability to continue to provide for them, and he even grants Peter his desire to die for Jesus – only this time with a 30+ year warning. The content of his teaching is powerful and challenging, but his manner is gentle and tender.
This is the kind of God that can motivate us to lift our flattened hearts up toward him. Dare to connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.
I was with a group of preachers last week and we had a conversation about good reasons to preach. Along the way we generated a few not so good reasons to preach … actually, five downright rubbish reasons to preach (for non-England English speakers, “5 Bad Reasons”). Just in case this is helpful:
1. To keep my job – I understand that both ministry and life are often challenging. I also understand that we at times will find ourselves preaching without the fire we know we should feel inside. But when it gets to the stage of simply trying to keep your job, you are long overdue a conversation with some trusted friends.
2. To make them laugh – There are probably a million variations of this. Essentially the goal is to make people respond to you. Maybe it is to make them appreciate you. Maybe it is to show off your intellect rather than your wit. Whatever the case, if the motivation in your heart is for them to be appreciating you, then your ministry is misfiring.
3. To get the petrol money – Whether it is official honorarium, or a kind gift to cover travel expenses, or even your salary … the chances are that you are not being adequately remunerated for the time spent in study, in ministry experience, and in message preparation. We are far better off trusting God for our support and serving wholeheartedly, rather than worrying about the gift. Once we start directly equating our effort for whatever may come back in return, we are probably better off looking at most regular jobs – not just because of the money, but also because of the state of our hearts!
4. To arrive at the end of the service – Sometimes you aren’t thinking about job security, or the response of the people to you, or even the money you might receive, but you are simply longing for the minute hand to reach the appropriate ending point for the sermon. If you are new to preaching, don’t worry, this feeling won’t last long and you will soon be wondering how your time disappears so quickly. If you are just going through a really low time, prayerfully make it to the end and sit down with someone safe who can listen and pray with you.
5. To get invited back – This is a weird one in preaching world. Whether you are a visiting speaker hoping to not offend enough to get another invitation, or whether you are “preaching with a view” and hoping for a pastoral call, the motivation seems off here too. In every situation we should be trusting God and saying what we believe is appropriate for the text, the listeners and the occasion. Too many “pulpit dating” sermons and the church won’t be getting a healthy diet, even if they are getting “your best sermons.”
There are plenty of reasons why we should preach, but what would you add to this list of rubbish reasons?
Here are another pair of thoughts as we reflect on the why? behind the ministry. Perhaps these two should give more pause for thought than the others already posted?
7. Because we can’t help but speak of Someone so wonderful. This should be the case. Sadly, over time, it can easily cease being the case. We can end up in a role, in a ritual, in a rut. We end up preaching because that is what we do, or that is how we pay bills, or that is how we get respect. We feel we should. We feel it is expected. We know it is needed. And somewhere along the way we fail to notice the fog gathering between our hearts and heaven.
A growing spiritual complacency is the proverbial frog in boiling water syndrome for preachers. God can become familiar and distant at the same time. He can become a concept, a set of truths, a source of identity for us, but somehow fade from being the captivating One who so fills our hearts and lives that we can’t help but speak of Him. May we all have a constant stream of newly engaged folks in our churches – constant reminders of the simple reality that a captivated heart can’t help but spill out.
8. Because we care about the people to whom we preach. Again, this should be the case. Sadly, over time, our flesh can easily co-opt the other centredness of ministry and turn it to a self-serving project. We can become preachers doing so to gain respect, to gain credibility, to gain attention, to gain a following, to gain influence. The gain increases and the give becomes token. Of course we can talk about giving – we can frame the ministry in self-sacrificial and spiritual terms. But really?
Just as spiritual fog can go undetected for too long, so a growing self-absorption is hard to spot in the mirror. Our flesh will always justify a subtle pursuit of godlike status. So we must keep walking with the Lord and ask Him to search us and know us. Ask Him to underline the motivations that drive what may look like a gloriously giving ministry. The true biblical preacher is shaped by the Word they preach, and they join God in giving of themselves as they preach it to others. The blessings are hard to quantify, but they must be the by-product, not the goal.
Is it me, or is motivation cyclical? I’ll use the term motivation, but it overlaps with issues of spiritual dryness, struggles with temptation, seasons of spiritual attack and so on.
The One-Week Cycle – Most of us recognize this one. We build toward Sunday and then crash on Monday. Some take Monday off. Others use Monday for brain-dead admin catch-up. Few preachers I know are at their best emotionally or spiritually on a Monday.
The One-Year Cycle – This is easy to spot too. Something about January seems to reinvigorate and stir resolutions. Perhaps December is so busy for you that it takes until February before the new year energy kicks in for you. Nonetheless, there seems to be an injection of energy at the start of the new year for many of us.
The Six-Week Cycle – This is the one that is perhaps most significant for me. Perhaps its just me, but I’ve noticed a roughly six-week cycle in my own motivation. It could be 4-8 weeks, but I’ll call it 6 (I won’t call it 40 days in case it sounds like I have, or am making up, a biblical case for it). It seems like I can trace a dip in motivation, or an increase in temptation, or a dip into dryness, roughly every six weeks.
You may be perpetually up, or unceasingly low, or you may notice some cyclical nature to your spiritual, emotional, ministerial motivation. I think it is good to know our own patterns, to be aware of our own weaknesses, and to seek to deal with these things not through the effort of the flesh, but in an appropriate spiritual manner. I’ll give my thoughts on that tomorrow.
If you preach regularly, it is easy to get into an unhealthy mindset concerning the ministry. It’s the kind of mindset where you will preach next time because it’s what you do. You did it last week and will do it again this week. I’m sure most of us have experienced this at times. If you feel this Sunday approaching, but a numb feeling inside, take some time to thrash it out with the Lord.
The missing pieces might include a loss of several things: wonder at the person and power of God, sense of the privilege of speaking His Word to others, awareness of the very real and personal needs, or even the peril of the listeners, and the reality of the ongoing spiritual battle in which we currently live.
When I find motivation has faded, or there is a dryness inside, I remember men like David, Job, and Jeremiah. In the Bible we find people who were really honest before God, yet I know my tendency to be superficial and aloof. Perhaps the time will soon come, or maybe it is today, that some of us need to pour out our hearts to the Lord in total honesty. Perhaps we’ll find, like Jeremiah, that once all the emotion is spent, and the energy gone, that there is still a fire in the bones and we must speak for God!
Don’t preach just ‘cos it’s what you do, or you are on the schedule. Preach ‘cos there’s a very deep, God-given and God-captivated, need-motivated, battle-hardened, must-ness in your spirit.