On May 14, 1989, I preached my first sermon as a “full-time” preacher. I can’t believe it has been 25 years! I have so many wonderful memories of my first work with the Oak Hill church outside of Mount Sterling, KY. And to be honest, I have been spoiled by the members everywhere I have preached. God has blessed me with wonderful relationships through the years in the various churches I have worked with.
Since this is a milestone year of sorts for me, I have been reflecting on what I would do differently if I was just now starting full time ministry in the word. Knowing what I know now, with a quarter century’s worth of hindsight, here are some random reflections. I hope that these thoughts can be of help to any younger men who are considering preaching or who have already begun to preach. And of course, I would love for those of you who have been preaching even longer than I have to share your thoughts as well.
1. It’s all about the text.
If I was just starting to preach I would focus more on the biblical text. I have always used lots of Scripture in my lessons, but here I am talking about systematically studying the text. If I could start again, I would do even more personal study through books of the Bible, more expository preaching through books of the Bible, and more Bible classes of a textual nature. For the first 15 years of my preaching, I did far more topical preaching, and most of my personal study was oriented around books about theological doctrines or practical issues rather than on the text of the Bible. Those sorts of books have their place, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to what the biblical text means. I wish I had spent far more time reading the Bible, and I wish that I had spent far more time reading commentaries than other sorts of books.
2. It’s not all Greek (and Hebrew) to me.
In conjunction with the previous point, I wish I had learned the biblical languages when I was younger. As my awareness of the vital importance of studying the biblical text has grown, so also has my awareness of how crucial it is to have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. If I had been disciplined in college, I could have begun preaching with both. Instead, I chickened out of Greek after only one year! Now, at age 46, I am trying to re-learn first year Greek (I spent two hours trying to make sense of aorist and future passives this morning!), and it is not nearly as easy to pick this stuff up as it was 25 years ago. If you have access to a college that offers these languages, please take advantage and do the work. It will pay enormous dividends.
3. Write and wrong.
A third thing I would do differently is write even less. I haven’t written a lot through the years - just a few articles for various magazines, my own blog, and a few chapter submissions to some books. But even with the relatively few things I have published I have certain regrets, because as I have grown and learned I no longer agree with what I wrote! I am just glad I have not written any books! I once heard a prominent evangelical author say that you should never wrote a book before you are 50, and I am going to stick to that plan.
4. It’s all about the people.
Finally (and as I think about all the mistakes I have made I realize this article could get out of hand!), if I could start over again, by far the single most important thing I would do differently is be more sympathetic to the challenges and struggles facing the people in the pews. I started preaching right out of college, and other than a brief career at Wendy’s to make ends meet one semester in college, preaching is the only work I knew for the first ten years of ministry. Full-time preaching is hard work, but it is not a realistic life in comparison to the lives of the members of the congregation. When you preach, you are almost always surrounded by fellow believers, and that is a much different climate to live and work in than the average member experiences. I think it is crucial for preachers to have some outlet in which they can be around a more diverse group of people; otherwise, preachers can lead lives in a spiritual bubble, disconnected from the real world experiences of their brothers and sisters. For three years I taught in the Biblical Studies faculty at Florida College, which was also a very cloistered environment, but that experience at least helped me understand what a grind it can be to work a job during the day then turn around and go to Bible study or a gospel meeting without having all day just to prepare for it.
I am so thankful for all the people I have had the privilege of serving over the last 25 years. I hope that I have taught all of them something, but I can assure you, I have learned far more from them than they have from me.