What can we do when we’ve lost the heart to preach?
Many of us are familiar with this experience. But many of us bury our lack of enthusiasm and feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness and ignore them out of shame and guilt. I want to bring those feelings out into the open by sharing a few reflections from my own preaching life. These are not grand theological truths but simple words of encouragement for fellow preachers going through a weary season. I hope you’ll sense a kindred spirit behind the words on these pages and know that you’re not alone if you are going through such a season right now.
It took me a while to realize that perfection is an illusion when it comes to preaching (at least ours, unlike Jesus’s!). Like a moving goal post, perfection is unattainable. To chase it is to deplete us and our ministries of every last drop of energy, joy, and purpose. Rather than enjoying the reality of being in Christ, whose love is boundless and frees us to live as God intended, perfectionism traps us in our minds and paralyzes us with a sense of inadequacy and fear of failure.
Has your pursuit of perfectionism left you exhausted, skeptical, and hesitant to preach, as it once did me? If so, replace that drive for perfectionism with a more realistic yearning to keep practicing. Both perfectionists and practice-minded people value do-overs, but there is a critical difference. Perfectionists obsess about correcting and reworking details endlessly in an attempt to make the final product flawless, whereas practice-oriented people understand the importance of a skill rehearsed and repeated over time so that it gradually becomes part of us.
Instead of striving to nail one impeccable sermon, see your personal development as a preacher and your ministry as a lifelong journey. Immediate change and radical improvement are not impossible but changing ingrained perspectives, values, and habits generally takes time. So, be honest about where you are today and set realistic expectations about what you can achieve. But don’t stop there. Take a step toward a different you by seizing big and small opportunities to practice. Break free from the paralysis of self-awareness and instead lose yourself in the call and in the One who has called you to proclaim the good news in and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). As you do so, keep learning and experimenting, accepting that ho-hum and even awful sermons are part and parcel of growth and continual equipping, as is honest self-assessment. When it comes to preaching, practice may not make perfect but at least it makes us more proficient over time. And that is perfectly enough.
Have you ever wondered how an outcome of a problem might have been different if you had had eyes of faith to see the situation differently? How a situation might have resolved differently if you had trained your imagination and disciplined your heart to reflect on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8)? Would you have considered different options and choices? Would you have been more open, courageous, creative, and willing to go on an adventure even if the future was uncertain and scary? Would different values have guided your decision making?
In difficult ministry circumstances I find myself focusing on things that generate anxiety and fear more than things that foster Christian delight, confidence, and expectancy. But I am learning that in everything I face, I always have a choice. I can seize and capitalize on hope and joy rather than fear and despair, no matter how small and insignificant my hope and joy compared to the seemingly insurmountable problems facing me. So this is what I am practicing and recommend to you.
Whether you’re feeling lost in your sermon writing or plunged into a deep, dark ocean of worries about your life and ministry, what if you practiced nurturing the hope you have in Christ instead of feeding despair and doubt? This may mean that you have to turn down the volume of some critical voices and tune your ears to God speaking words of assurance and promise to you. You could stop focusing on what is not going as well as you had hoped in your ministry and instead celebrate small, subtle changes in your own and others’ lives and treasure those unglamorous stories of equilibrium and victory. I’ve found that’s not easy; like me, you might worry that whatever hope you can scrape together is insufficient to sustain you in the bleak place in which you find yourself at the moment. But if you make even a little space to hope—and even believe—that the faithful almighty God is with you, you might be surprised by how he multiplies your scant hope to nourish and preserve you, and even many others through you.
How can we preach from joy when we feel broken and unworthy? It may sound oxymoronic to suggest that we can. But let me remind you that some of the most heartfelt, jubilant sermons are forged in periods when we feel most wounded, dejected, and low. Like David and Israel’s prayer in Ps 51, such sermons are usually marked by a painful-but-truthful acknowledgement of our sins and wretchedness, by the hope that we will be renewed, by gratitude for God’s generous mercy and grace, and by an earnest desire that we will again worship God with our lips and our lives.
Now preaching out of a sense of the joy of salvation does not equal a blithe enjoyment of Christian life and cheerfulness in the pulpit. When we feel most damaged, undeserving, and want to give up, then, stripped of our pretensions, we are closer to the divine throne of grace and more able to recognize again the sweet taste of salvation that we do not merit but that God generously gives us. This should not cause us to take sin lightly, but should rather encourage and embolden us to proclaim God’s steadfast loving-kindness.
Whether we are overwhelmed by our failures and struggles or are feeling numb to the saving grace of God right now, these three things I have learned. First, we are never beyond God’s redemption, so turn to him again. Second, joy in preaching and experiences of spiritual failure and fracture are not mutually exclusive. And third, if we find ourselves preaching from something other than the gladness of God’s salvation and restoration available to all of us, it may serve us and our churches well to examine our hearts for where our pain and weariness lie.
“Rest” has become quite a buzzword. Newspaper articles, health journals, and even preaching and ministry-related literature admonish us of the importance of personal wellbeing and recommend rhythms and rituals of self-care to refresh ourselves. What is less discussed is savoring peace. The way our culture thinks of “rest” is as relaxation by ceasing work, a “coming to a stop” of sorts from our daily activities and responsibilities to find relief from stress and be rejuvenated. This is good and even vital for our spiritual, mental, physical, and relational wellness. Yet we need more than a break from labor. Sure, we may strive to observe sabbath as a matter of law. But that isn’t the same as letting our hearts rest in God. We are so wrung out and squeezed dry by the long list of demands in ministry and life that we may rest but have forgotten the taste of peace.
Yet, relishing the divine gift of peace—a sense of shalom¬ and quietness in our souls—is our Christian duty and privilege. The Bible depicts peace as the experience of being suffused with wholeness and wellness in our lives, no matter our circumstances, because “having been justified by faith [through Christ], we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). This peace, bought with Christ’s blood shed on the cross, not only has a vertical implication in our relationship with God, but also a horizontal effect. Such peace breaks down barriers between ourselves and others, kills our hostility, unites the church, and gives hope for true reconciliation and healing in our relationships (2 Cor 5:18–20; Eph 2:16; Col 1:20–21). Moreover, this “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” has the power to “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” as we navigate turbulence within and without.
What an extraordinary gift! Yes, but how recently have I, and have you, allowed ourselves to bask in this incredible gift? When have we last taken time to suffuse ourselves with this unfathomable peace? More than seeking rest by taking time off from our daily routines, such rest and peace is available to us whenever we are tired and burdened (Matt 11:28–30). When we go to Jesus, we are released from real or self-imposed religious and social oppressions, whether they are towering demands about who we need to be, worries about not doing enough to be accepted, or the fundamental struggle to keep up in life. We can experience true rest when we turn to Jesus and fix our eyes and hearts on him alone who satisfies and perfects us.
There is an unhealthy tendency in popular Christian literature to portray the call to ministry as something purely romantic. We love focusing on people’s burning bush encounters with God that irrevocably establish the trajectory of their lives. Yet our preoccupation with such encounters can lead us to believe that calling is something so sacred, so transcendent, and so other-worldly that preaching and ministry should come naturally, without sweat and gritty effort. This twisted perception of calling either makes us believe there is something wrong with us when preaching feels grueling and when we are disheartened, depressed, and doubt our calling, or it makes us complacent and stagnates our growth and potential as preachers.
In contrast, the Bible depicts Christian discipleship and the role of church leaders as that which demands honest hard work, tenacity, our hearts, minds, and bodies—our all. In Paul’s letters alone, we are repeatedly reminded of the real sacrifice, real actions, and real effort required of us in order to live counter-worldly and to live into our new identity as the people of God (e.g., Rom 12–15; Eph 4–5; Col 2–4; 1 Thess 4; 2 Tim 2–4). Of course, we are not alone on this journey as we have the Holy Spirit and the community of believers to walk with us. Nonetheless, we cannot sit back and do nothing, even in times when we don’t feel like trying. Just as marriage and parenting require work, so too preaching is a difficult and sometimes even burdensome responsibility.
When you are weary and mired in doubt, what can you do to refuel your sense of calling and to recover the heart to preach?
Remember God who reveals himself in Scripture. Preach the good news of Jesus Christ to your own soul. Hard as it may seem to believe this right now, remind yourself that God uses your preaching to bring life to others. Recall the marvelous things God has done in your life. Immerse yourself in the community of Christ-followers whose love and obedience to God can carry you until you once again feel inspired and invigorated. Along with rest, allow some peace into your life. And I urge you, fellow preacher, be courageous and keep taking yet another step.