It was Sunday, September 12, 2021, and I was nervous as all get-out. I stood at the mic stand that served as our pulpit, my manuscript fully written and displayed on Emily’s iPad, my printed backups placed beside them for just in case. It wasn’t my first time preaching. But it was my first time preaching at the church I call home.
Preaching at “home” for the first time
For years, I had felt a desire to someday do this, if the Lord allowed the opportunity. I served as pulpit supply for more than a decade, assisting churches in Canada and the United States. The elders of the churches I called home encouraged me to preach and offered guidance and support. Despite desiring to serve my church in this way, I was content to serve wherever the Lord would let me.
During the summer as our church prepared for a reset as we moved forward out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dustin, our pastor, gave me the go-ahead. September 12th was the weekend. Nehemiah 4:1-14 was the text. I was supposed to do somewhere around 25 minutes, to keep us on track with our member meeting. (It went closer to 35-40.)
It was a pretty good message, all things considered. Gospel-focused, heresy-free, and, from what I heard, appropriately challenging. Not perfect, but faithful. And if it were the only time I ever got to do it, I would have been content. To my delight, more opportunities came, and I’ve become a part of our teaching team, serving when and where I’m needed. So far, this has worked out to an average of once every 6 weeks or so. (We’ll see what the next year brings.)
3 things I’ve learned in my first year
What I’ve loved about this so far is how teaching is helping me to experience gospel culture in practice in a different way. What I mean by that is that it allowed me to experience its three ingredients—gospel, safety, and time—poured into me, even as I aimed to do likewise with our congregation. And a lot of that comes from the feedback I get from both my pastor and from people in the church.
Application needs to focus on the people in front of me
One of the consistent pieces of early feedback about my preaching that I received from Dustin was that, while all the exegetical work was good, I had room to grow in applying it to our specific congregation. His suggestion was to think of specific people in the church and consider what they needed to hear that Sunday—where did they need to be strengthened, challenged, encouraged in the gospel? What would help them get through the week?
While that might seem incredibly obvious to some, this was a game changer for me. For years, application had always been a struggle for me, particularly because I was always preaching to people I didn’t know. But thinking in this way allows me to be specifically general, if you follow.1 Not focusing on one or two individuals, but on the needs of a specific group that I actually know. On our shared struggles, challenges, and gospel opportunities.
Not everything is for everyone
A second challenge is like the first, but particularly as it relates to illustrating principles and challenges in our day. One of my earlier mistakes would be to present illustrations or comparisons of which maybe three people in the entire church would have any knowledge. And those three were most likely Dustin, and David (another of the church’s elders), and me. For everyone else, it was either a distraction or a stumbling point. The same has been true in considering application. Learning what is for me alone, what is for me and maybe my community group, and learning what is for the whole congregation has been challenging, but necessary. I’m not perfect at this by any stretch, but I’m getting better at identifying those potential problem areas as a result.
My church wants me to “win”
Finally, what I am most grateful for is that there is a definite sense that the rest of the church is as for me as I am for them. They want me to “win” in this ministry. They want me to do well. And that takes a lot of pressure off, especially in terms of a temptation toward performance-ism. Of trying too hard to be something I’m not. I have the freedom to embrace the idiosyncrasies that the Lord has wired into me. I can make random Canada references and they’re cool with it. Whatever my quirks, they want me to do well. They’re praying I do well—and specifically that I make much of Jesus, not just deliver an interesting 30-35 minute talk. And so when people offer both praise and ask pointed questions, I know why. It’s not to puff me up or tear me down. It’s to spur me on to continued and greater faithfulness, and help us all love Jesus more as a result.
- Contextually appropriate is the proper term.