When I was growing up it was always a treat to be taken to the farm with my dad. I was less than helpful, but he graciously let me tag along and explore. It was on that old family farm that I first learned how to drive. My dad, often courageously, let me out into the pastures in his pickup truck to trek the grassy fields with freedom. Whether it was the early days of learning to drive simply by steering that truck while sitting on his lap or the later years when I could reach the peddles myself, the instruction was always the same: stay on the roads. By roads my dad meant the two tire ruts that had killed the grass and been driven into the dirt over many years. Those ruts had been made by my grandfather, my uncle, my dad, and then by myself. There were many canyons and varying terrains on that farm, but as long as I stayed in those ruts, I would be safe.
Unfortunately, not all ruts are equal. Ruts on the farm can keep you from driving into a hole. But what about when you feel like you are in a rut when preaching?
Preaching is simultaneously an astounding privilege and a weighty burden. Most preachers actually love to preach. It is difficult for a preacher to go too long without standing behind the pulpit declaring God’s Word. However, the weekly grind of preaching can also prove itself to be difficult. Not only are there many demands on a preacher’s time, but the ever-impending deadline of Sunday morning quickly approaches week after week. Once finished preaching, the preacher must then begin again. This inevitably leads to preaching ruts: those seasons of preaching when communication is difficult, the soul is uniquely distracted, connection with the church is elusive, and gratification for the preaching task is often choked out with feelings of inadequacies and squandered opportunities.
The Preaching Rut isn’t a path of safety, but a hindrance to the preacher. It is often a place of difficulty that no preacher delights to live in. Yet, it can yield the disciplined fruit that proves good for the future of a preaching ministry. What is a preacher to do? Here are four tips for navigating the preaching rut.
1.) Remember That Its God’s Word Doing the Work, Not You
The temptation for preachers is to think that all the fruit and success of a preaching ministry falls squarely onto the preacher’s shoulders. The truth is that very little of it actually does. Yes, the preacher must be faithful in study, preparation, crafting, and delivery. But, none of those things are guarantees of a successful sermon. Rather, the fruit of a preaching ministry is entirely up to God. The reasoning is simple: preachers cannot persuade, convince, enlighten, or change the hearts of human beings. That is a work that God alone does. However, we can trust His promise regarding His Word: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but is shall accomplish that which I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).”
This Word that comes from the Lord is both written and Incarnate (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16 & John 1:1-3). Both self-disclosures of God accomplish His purpose of changing the hearts of humanity. Preachers have to trust that if their words aren’t connecting or are jumbled in their mouth, God’s Word is not; and His Word is the one doing the real work in preaching.
2.) Remember That Faithfulness and Discipline Matter
If a preacher finds himself in the Preaching Rut, sometimes he just needs to keep preaching through it. In other words, keep trusting God’s purposes in His Word and keep faithfully and with great discipline giving it to His people every week. This can prove exhausting in the moment and even burdensome to the preacher’s heart. But it cultivates a long-term discipline in the preacher’s practice to not rely so much on his feelings of disconnect, but to trust in God’s blessing of His Word. It also serves to teach God’s people that even in the difficult seasons of preaching it is God’s Word being faithfully communicated that matters. It isn’t cleverness that is needed, nor sound bites or lofty speech, it is clear teaching of Scripture that we need.
3.) Be Honest with Yourself and Your People
I’m not sure if it is harder to be honest with God’s people or harder to be honest with ourselves. Truth be told, people rarely like either. It is easier to self-justify, dismiss, or redefine our inadequacies and inabilities. But it is good for God’s people to remember that preachers are people too. And as people, they are subject not only to the same temptations, but also the same complex emotional struggles as everyone else. This means that not every sermon can be a home run. In fact, more than is wanted, our sermons aren’t even singles. Most pastors walk away from the pulpit feeling as if they have struck out. In my experience, it isn’t always a bad thing to confess this to your people. In doing so, you often gain their prayers and encouragement. That is not to say that preachers should stand behind the pulpit and grumble or complain every week. No one likes a whiner. But it is never bad to confess to your people your need for their prayers because you sense that you are in a spiritual rut. After all, it isn’t about propping ourselves up as awesome communicators of God’s Word without any needs or struggles, it is about communicating God’s Word to God’s people with God’s help for God’s glory. But more than that, preachers need to be honest with themselves about their inabilities and grow in their dependence on Christ. Remind yourself that you don’t have it all together and are utterly reliant upon God for even one Word of clarity and faithfulness. You are preaching about things and a Person whom you cannot fully comprehend. To think you are adequate for the task is foolish.
4.) Look to Jesus Constantly
One of the most important lessons I am learning in life is where to set my eyes. Colossians 3 tells us to set our minds on the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1-4). If we fix our eyes on ourselves, or even on God’s people, we will often find that our barometer of success is wildly off. We slowly begin to measure and live by the wrong standard. But, if we set our eyes constantly on Christ, we not only have a perfect example, but we are also reminded of our heavenly calling and purpose. Preaching isn’t about making a good name for ourselves. Preaching is about exalting Christ and His truth in Scripture. Setting our eyes on Christ helps us preach better, trust Him in the dry seasons, and point our people to Him with greater faith and adoration.