“It was not Paul’s ambition for the Corinthians to know how much he knew. That was beside the point. His ambition was for them to know Christ alone.”
– Steven W. Smith, Dying to Preach
The first book I ever read on preaching is considered, by many in seminaries across the country, to be a seminal work on the subject. It started with a chapter bemoaning the place of today’s preacher. “In the past,” it had said, “the preacher was seen as a learned man, and treated as such.” (I’m paraphrasing, but this is actually pretty close to exactly what was written.) The premise of that first chapter was that in the past the preacher was respected, trusted, believed. Today, however, that preacher is seen more as a senile grandpa – a person with a big heart and neither foot in reality. After that first chapter, the book was very helpful in how to craft sermon outlines and manuscripts and so on, but that first chapter always confused me.
Dying to Preach, by Steven W. Smith is an entirely different book. And while Smith doesn’t deal with the actual process of crafting a sermon, he speaks in direct, passionate language about the purpose and means of preaching.
“For the Word of God to live in people, the preacher must die to his right to be thought of as a great preacher. He must embrace the reality that what people need the most will not always be what they want to hear.”
For a preacher to effectively preach the Word, he must commit to preach Christ alone. This means he must die. The preacher must die to himself – his name, his axe to grind, his popularity; to the text – he must be faithful to preach only what is in the text, being careful not to use the text to push an agenda or message by placing anything onto the text; and finally to his people – he must put their need to hear Christ at the forefront.
Smith lists what he calls the “Four Musts” of preaching:
- [Preachers] must suffer to get the text clear so that the light of Christ can flow through us to ignite the human heart (2 Cor 4:1-6).
- We must suffer to invite people to the center of everything, which is Christ (Col 1:24).
- We must identify with Christ and His suffering (Heb 13:10-14).
- We must imitate Christ’s surrender to the will of the Father, in the same way that He died so that others could live (Phil 2:1-6).
One of the things that stuck out to me most while I was reading this book was how often I make preaching about myself. I think most young pastors feel this tension. To a degree, there is a feeling that our preaching legitimizes our ministry when we are young men in the pulpit. “Well, he’s young and kind of wet behind the ears, but he can preach.” In many ways, this over-emphasis on preaching has been to the detriment of the church as a whole. We find ourselves with a glut of men who can fill a pulpit and throw their voice around the room, and possibly even stir some hearts, but whose ultimate intent is to legitimize their right to stand behind that pulpit.
I’m including myself in this group of young men.
And all of this over-emphasis on preaching has been to the detriment of discipleship within the church because my preaching is all about me. And if the main focus of my ministry is about myself, why would I ever focus my attention on intentionally discipling another believer. Furthermore, how could I focus my attention elsewhere?
The answer is I can’t.
But if the focus of my preaching is Christ…
If I die to myself, if I die to the text, if I die to the needs of my people, who are living lives of quiet desperation, going from interest to interest, devouring self-help sermons, all the while starving to hear Christ preached, then that changes the entire dynamic of my ministry. It changes the entire dynamic of my church.
Some have misidentified this death to self, death to the text, as “making Jesus Lord.” Smith confronts this head-on. “We cannot make Him anything, much less what He already says He is. … My right, privilege, and only response to this reality is to adjust my life according to what God already has established as true.” Renouncing my name, preaching only what is in the text, and seeking only to make Christ known to my people, I am simply walking in what is already true.