Inadequacy and the pulpit.
This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
Growing up a pastor’s kid, you’re privy to a lot of dilemmas the general church-goer doesn’t see or understand. This isn’t meant to sound haughty, it’s just the nature of the beast when it comes to growing up in ministry. Being a “double p.k.” (as both my grandfather’s are former pastors as well), I’ve seen my fair share of ministry ups and downs. The ebb and flow of pastoral ministry is more dynamic than most realize. From pouring hours into a series of sermons that receive little to no reaction; to getting enormous response from messages that are I’ll-prepared; to incorporating too much humor; to not being interesting enough, and so it goes.
I recall one such instance months ago, when I stood up to speak on almost zero sleep, with stress levels maxed out after moving to a new state, buying a new home, and being let go from my job. The Holy Spirit’s presence during that hour has never been more palpable. The students’ attention was fixed, and the presence of the Holy Spirit was real and moving. Yet, in contrast, a few weeks later, a lesson I had put hours into was delivered with fumbled words and endured constant distractions.
The call to preach the gospel is, perhaps, the most daunting and difficult task one can undertake. Sure, there are plenty of other occupations that are more precarious, that deal with life and death scenarios on a daily basis. (Yes, you, guy-who-cleans the Burj Khalifa!) But I would contend that there’s no more perilous position than to stand vulnerably behind a pulpit, speaking God’s words, fighting for men’s souls. In fact, this is a life or death scenario.
The Monday-morning blues affect pastors too, maybe even more so than others. The weightiness of preaching the gospel is taxing and terrifying, especially because it’s nigh impossible to evade the earthly pressures others put on you, notwithstanding the significance of being God’s voice in a world that often doesn’t want to listen. Preaching is much like a tug-of-war between impressing your hearers and honoring the truth of God’s Word. There are so many instances when I’ve felt the pressure to speak eloquently and precisely, while also maintaining poise and posture, exuding confidence, and remaining humble and approachable. That’s a lot — and with all that in the balance, it’s no wonder preachers everywhere feel down.
I remember my dad telling me about several members leaving his church in the same month, for contradicting reasons. Some said his preaching wasn’t “doctrinal enough,” while others said he wasn’t “practical enough.” The burden of preaching as well as teaching, speaking to students’ minds as well as their hearts, being succinct and yet saying everything you feel led to say is enormous. You can’t offend anyone, and yet you’re expected to challenge your audience to change their thinking. Notwithstanding the burden of avoiding error, in misspeaking or mistreating the words of Christ while doing justice to his gospel, it seems as though we’ve set ourselves up for failure. But it’s vital to remember that God’s measure of pastoral success doesn’t ride on the results of a sermon.
The amount of people who “come forward” isn’t an accurate barometer of a faithful message. God isn’t desirous that you preach impressively or speak eloquently, for him or your congregation. God wants you to preach his Word because his Word is truth and it’s only by hearing his Word that grace is understood and change is experienced. (Rom 10:13–17) A preacher is to yield to the call to preach Jesus’s gospel of grace regardless of what people say, think, or respond (or don’t) Remember the scene of Moses at the burning bush? God called him to face Pharaoh and demand Israel’s liberty. This was a weighty assignment, and Moses gave every excuse as to why he wasn’t the man for the job. “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh?” he protested, “I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.” (Ex 3:11; 4:10)
It’s very easy for me to slip into a similar mindset, fearing my skills are lacking, that someone else is better suited for the task, or that the burden of the call is too great. But the glory of the gospel is that a primary qualification for being a preacher, in any capacity, is recognizing how terribly unqualified you are. Remember how the Lord replied to Moses’ grievance? “Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.” (Ex 4:11–12) “Now go” — such a simple and direct command. God promised that Moses wouldn’t be defiantly speaking and standing before Pharaoh in his own ability and strength, using his own words and rhetoric. Rather, the power, presence, and grace of God would go with him, and the words of God would flow through him.
In some ways, inadequacy and unworthiness are precisely how we ought to feel as youth pastors — inadequacy should be a part of your job description. The emotions we put into preaching should never be characterized by self-assurance. Instead, we should feel our way forward tentatively but confidently, with a sense of unfinished business and total reliance on God. Preachers are merely channels of his grace. All of my eloquence and tact in delivering a message are merely distractions designed to tear me up if I fail, or swell my pride if I succeed. A pastor’s capacity for preaching rests on God the Father to perform the work. I’d contend that inadequacy and unworthiness are signs that God has done the work for you. You can fully rely on the power and grace of Christ because his gospel can shine a light on the darkest soul, regardless of how vividly it’s presented.
Furthermore, a pastor’s mission is never over. It’s Monday, it’s time to forget all the times of misspeaking and begin letting God speak to you again. The battle lies in evading these downcast feelings and distracting thoughts and allowing God to use you again and again, despite what you think about yourself. And that’s the best part: God only uses broken, inadequate people to proclaim his perfect, unyielding gospel. Recall the encouraging, inspired words of Paul: “Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one may boast in his presence.” (1 Cor 1:27–29)
Youth pastors — perhaps foolish, weak, low, or despised — put your confidence in Jesus. God will fulfill the rest. Your errand is “Now go!” He will help you to speak and persist unashamed in the message he lays on you.