What Does a Good Sermon Cost? The Glad Sacrifice of Christian Preaching
The Mondays. Sometimes they even creep into Sunday nights.
Various physical, emotional, and even spiritual letdowns often follow pouring yourself out in the pulpit. Lows that inevitably come after the highs of corporate worship. Regrets about what I didn’t say, or didn’t say quite right, or said and should not have. Even when “it went well” from all the preacher can tell, we feel an emotional deficit because of all it takes to prepare and deliver a sermon.
Maybe the most underrated aspect of the Mondays isn’t what’s now past, but what’s still ahead: next Sunday. Another week of preparation. Another seven days to shoulder the burden. Another week of pondering what to say, and the often harder work of what not to say. Another week of waiting on God to provide a word from his word to again feed and preserve the people.
Good Christian preaching and teaching requires regular, and at times enormous, self-sacrifice. In the preparation. In the moment. And outside the pulpit. It’s often a quiet, private, behind-the-scenes mantle the preacher’s wife and children see, but the congregation does not. It is not heavy lifting physically, but it can be unusually taxing spiritually and emotionally.
It is a burden good preachers gladly bear, and yet it is a burden.
Every Christian knows what it’s like to hear a sermon, but very few know the personal costs involved in faithfully giving one. Hearing a sermon takes half an hour. Giving one takes days, if not weeks, and in some sense a lifetime. How easy it would be for a listener to sit comfortably in the pew thinking, I could do this, and better. It’s simple to see what he’s doing wrong. It would be a quick fix if he just asked for our help, right?
One of preaching’s many paradoxes is the disparity between how hard it is to stand up and preach well, and how easy it is to sit there and take it lightly.
Wouldn’t it be great if I were up there and telling people what I think? Wouldn’t it be nice to have all these people listen to my thoughts? All with little to no consideration of the actual pressure, the demands and deadlines, the dying to one’s own perfectionism and putting yourself forward to be misunderstood and criticized. Pride in some of us dreams of ourselves up front as the center of attention. Pride in others terrifies us from saying anything firm to so many, especially in public, face-to-face with a crowd of potential critics.
Pride will not only jump to speak when it’s puffed up, but button the lip when insecure. Preaching bids a man come and die to both.
Cost of Preparation
Preachers, aspiring preachers, and non-preachers alike do well to consider the costs of faithful word ministry in the church. The cost begins in preparation, long before the moment of delivery. Preachers often bear the burden weeks before a particular message, a weight that gets greater the week of, and is especially heavy the night before and morning of.
Perhaps the most stress comes in the pinch between a coming assignment, on a fixed day, and the uncertainty of what specific direction to take in the message. What does God want me to say to this people and at this time? The pinch is especially acute because the message we have been charged to give is not our own but God’s. “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Faithful preaching resists the allure of simply telling other people in public who we are and what we think and what we have done. Rather, it is a stewardship from God (Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) to serve others, not self, by announcing the good news about who he is, what he thinks, and what he has done and will do, based on what he says in his word. “Whoever speaks, [let him do so] as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). We are stewards, and “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Before we graciously expose the church to the words of God, he calls us first to submit ourselves to him. To preach his words well requires that they first land hardest on the preacher himself. We bear another’s message, not our own. In our preparation, we carry a weight that involves not just the mental work of study, but the heart work of repentance and the spiritual work of shepherding a particular people.
Cost in the Moment
For Christians, corporate worship, in a real sense, is our most important hour of the week, and single most important habit. We want to be careful with this way of thinking and talking, because the importance of the hour lies not in our performance or individual roles, but in what God delights to do by his Spirit when his people gather together in worship. And yet it’s unavoidable that the preacher plays a significant part — which should humble God’s spokesman, not puff him up.
For preachers, the public nature of the sermon is both a necessity and a cost. It is necessary because the very nature of the task is heralding God’s word to his church. And it’s a cost because, among other pressures, most of us agree that public speaking is challenging. Survey after survey reports that on the whole, modern people fear public speaking more than anything else, including death.
Add to that the solemnity of the task, as Paul charges his protégé in 2 Timothy 4:1–2, of which John Piper writes, “There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Scripture. . . . I am not aware of any other biblical command that has such an extended, exalted, intensifying introduction” (Expository Exultation, 66). Note the “five preceding intensifiers” to Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word:
(1) I charge you
(2) in the presence of God
(3) and of Christ Jesus,
(4) who is to judge the living and the dead,
(5) and by his appearing and his kingdom:
Preach the word.
To those today who suspect previous generations overestimated the place of preaching, Piper comments, “I doubt that anyone has ever overstated the seriousness that Paul is seeking to awaken here.”
Beyond the solemnity of the moment is the call to courage. Public speaking is one challenge. Speaking into the church’s most important hour is another. Preaching with courage, when God’s word is at odds with the prevailing word in society (which inevitably takes root in the church in some form or fashion), requires even more. If we are faithful to God’s voice, it is almost certain that someone within earshot each Sunday, if not many, will not like what we are saying.
Preachers also are unusually exposed spiritually. Extended monologue, on God’s behalf, to human souls, unavoidably reveals a man’s own heart, both by what he says and what he does not — which produces a deep, unconscious aversion to preaching in many men.
Cost Outside the Pulpit
Finally, sacrifice in good preaching is intimately intertwined with the preacher’s own life. Faithful preaching is not just a once-in-a-while event but a lifestyle. Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word includes “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and “always be sober-minded” (2 Timothy 4:5). When a man stands before God’s people as God’s spokesman, the stakes are not only raised for his words in the moment but for his life outside the pulpit.
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
The man who addresses God’s people as his herald will be looked to, inevitably, as an example. “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Lazy preachers may get by for a time, but their laziness will be revealed soon enough. “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). Sunday after Sunday becomes a public demonstration of whether the preacher is growing or stagnant, and it will be plain over time (1 Timothy 4:24).
One of the greatest costs outside the pulpit is the subtle (and at times not-so-subtle) way the preacher’s wife and children endure the ups and downs Daddy navigates. It is no small thing to carry the height of one’s vocational responsibilities during the weekend, when the kids are out of school and most available. It takes work, and emotional fortitude, to give yourself fully to family all day Saturday, without being distracted by the task of preaching to dozens or hundreds of hungry Christians in less than 24 hours.
My Burden Gladly Bearing
Yes, the costs are great, and aspiring preachers should count them, but when God lays hold on a man to make him his herald — in preparation, in the moment, and outside the pulpit — he will gladly bear the burden, like a husband and a father, for the sake of those God calls him to lead, provide for, and protect. Faithful preachers say to their people, as Paul said to his, without pretense, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15).
True preaching is not easy work, but good preachers do it with joy. The kind of week in, week out investment that is most beneficial to the church is the preaching done, with all its attendant costs, with gladness. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17). Pastors who bear the burden begrudgingly do not bless their people so much as those who do so happily — “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).
What will a faithful sermon cost your pastor this Sunday? Much more than you might think.
By David Mathis
NB – Say all prayers with Faith