The key to pastoral persistence is private personal worship.
Stepping into the pastorate has easily been the most challenging thing I have ever done. This is not only because it came with the stipulation of relocating from Florida to Pennsylvania, but also because of the enormous task that shepherding a body of believers represents. I was both willing and enthusiastic to embark upon this assignment, though, since I knew that that is the purpose for which I am called of God. One of the most subtle, though nonetheless sinister, pitfalls with which I have already had to combat in my ministry, however, is the invasion of my personal worship by the spirit of presumption. There is a jeopardizing notion of presuming and assuming what the Scriptures convey that threatens to dismantle and deaden the actual message of Scripture itself. I will confess to already confronting this struggle on several occasions, as I have striven to keep sermon preparation from creeping into my devotional reading. That might seem like an odd thing for a pastor to confess. The notion that a preacher of the Bible has to consciously combat against losing his wonder of the Bible seems like an oxymoron or something that is incompatible with the pastoral office itself. Yet at the same time, the preacher, like any other sinner saved by grace, is likewise susceptible to overfamiliarity.
The most insidious and predominant peril in the life of a pastor is, to be sure, the danger of losing the sense of awe that ought to be stirred upon reading and studying the Scriptures. This, of course, is nothing new or novel. Author and speaker Paul Tripp talks about this in his titular book Dangerous Calling, in which he states, “Your private devotional life has the power to kill you like nothing else does.”1 In his talk at the 2018 Grace Encounter Conference, Seattle pastor Alex Early similarly asserted that the sermon is simply the overflow of a prayer closet spilling out onto others. Both sentiments aim to illustrate that a pastor’s life of personal worship is, perhaps, the quintessential quality which sustains his public ministry. Such is what I am fighting for in my own ministry, namely, fighting to know and believe and live in the Word of God without relegating it to the simple role of a sermon manual. Acclaimed Protestant minister John Henry Jowett identifies the same conflict with overfamiliarity as that which uniquely plagues the pastorate:
You will not have been long in the ministry before you discover that it is possible to be fussily busy about the Holy Place and yet to lose the wondering sense of the Holy Lord. We may have much to do with religion and yet not be religious. We may become mere guide-posts when we were intended to be guides. We may indicate the way, and yet not be found in it. We may be professors but not pilgrims. Our studies may be workshops instead of “upper rooms.” Our share in the table-provisions may be that of analysts rather than guests. We may become so absorbed in words that we forget to eat the Word. And the consummation of the subtle peril may be this: we may come to assume that fine talk is fine living, that expository skill is deep piety, and while we are fondly hugging the non-essentials the veritable essence escapes.2
Jowett’s trenchant words resound the brilliant necessity of the preacher to feed off the Word before attempting to disperse the Bread of Life to others. Such is why I often reiterate that I’m preaching to myself in the middle of my sermons. That is not a clichéd sentiment. It is the reality which keeps my preaching fervent and alive. The passionate preacher is the one who feels in the deepest parts of his soul that the message with which he has been entrusted by God is not only one that his congregants are needful of, but that he himself is desperate for as well. A faithful preacher is an urgent preacher — one who knows that he himself is the chief of sinners for whom Christ came to represent in life, death, and resurrection. The most ferocious evangelists are those who sit quietly at the feet of Jesus. “The very spring and heart of all effective preaching,” writes Scottish churchman Patrick Fairbairn, “may be said to stand in this, feeling with all the soul, and then speaking with all the soul.”3 Such, too, is why the preacher exits the pulpit utterly exhausted: because he has just emptied his soul of that grace which saves souls from the brink of oblivion. But that’s how it should be.
Churchgoers step over the threshold of the sanctuary in search of something. They come with their griefs and emotions and distractions and worries and cares and ideas and anxieties. They come longing to be filled. It would be nearly impossible for the preacher to utter a message that resolves each of the issues that are represented by the congregants in the pews. And yet, such is what the preacher is charged to do in his calling to preach the message of Christ Jesus. The pastor’s duty is to “press on their regard what is uppermost in his own,” writes Fairbairn, “namely, the surpassing love and beauty and preciousness of the Crucified One, and the alone sufficiency of His great salvation.”4 Such is the only message which stops the search and satisfies the soul. If the preacher is not proffering that message, he is no better than a life-coach or a motivational speaker. “If we lose the sense of the wonder of our commission,” Jowett asserts, “we shall become like common traders in a common market, babbling about common wares.”5 Indeed, rather, the paramount errand of the preacher is to announce the good news over and over, week after week, “in season and out of season.” (2 Tm 4:2) In so doing, the preacher is not “so properly declaring his own mind, as expounded and setting forth the mind of God,” writes Fairbairn.6
And so it is that the remedy for the pitfall of Scriptural familiarity is the same for both pastor and parishioner, namely, a zealous humility in the face of a sovereign God. “It is never to be forgotten, as one of the unalterable laws of mental agency,” Fairbairn continues, “that if one is to beget thought and feeling in the bosom of others, there must first be the conscious possession and exercise thereof in one’s own.”7 Or, in other words, you cannot give what you do not have. The preacher will be unable to effectively proclaim the grace that rescues souls unless he himself has been rightly humiliated and uplifted by the grace that rescued his own soul. The best messenger of the good news that saves sinners is the preacher that knows himself to be the chief of sinners for whom the good news has come. Thus, indispensable to the longevity of a pastor’s ministry is his discipline in private personal worship. So writes Paul Tripp:
Private personal worship is an effective tool of grace in the hands of God to kill those things in you that must die in order that you be what you have been called to be and do what you have been appointed to do . . . Personal worship has the power to progressively put us in our place . . . private worship exposes us again and again to God’s life-altering grace . . . Personal worship is one of the things God uses to free us from any remaining trust we have that we can do what only the Messiah is able to do.8
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 190.
John Henry Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), 45–46.
Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875), 208.