Does the Holy Spirit ONLY Work When Preachers are NOT Prepared?

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Does the HS only work

If you preach regularly you’ll resonate with this quip about sermon preparation, “Somebody’s gonna suffer. Either you do before, or they do during.” -Howard Hendricks

Sermon preparation is not an easy task. It takes great patience and the ability to stick through even when inspiration and creativity are lacking.

This is why I have written a lot of articles on sermon prep:

I know that sermon preparation can be vexing, and I want to help in any way I can. I also know how important it is to put in the necessary hard work and deliver a sermon that is worthy of a listen.

I get interesting feedback when I write about the importance of working hard at sermon preparation. Well-meaning people respond with misplaced piety when the subject of preaching is brought up. It is their desire to protect the purity of the process and not tarnish it with technique. They see preaching as this otherworldly exercise that the Holy Spirit superintends.

In their view, the work of the Holy Spirit is thwarted when the preacher makes an effort to improve his preaching. I want to deal with some of these bits of feedback and explain why I believe they are misguided.

Comments I’ve received in response to my articles on sermon prep:

“No need for preaching technique. All that matters is #prayer & #biblestudy #always”

This one seems almost saintly. All we should do as pastors is pray and study the Bible. The purity and simplicity of this approach seems unassailable. I mean, how could you argue with prayer and Bible study? I’ve received this kind of feedback dozens of times.

If you preach without praying and studying the Bible, then stop preaching. Prayer and Bible study are assumed practices for every preacher. Nothing in my writing suggests that prayer and Bible study are unneeded. What I suggest is to add to prayer and Bible study by improving your communication skills, becoming a better presenter, sharpening your storytelling abilities, and lots of other things to become better at getting your message across. None of these are in place of prayer and Bible study but in addition.

“Jesus didn’t ask for feedback from His disciples. He didn’t need to. He just told the truth. Start with that and see how a congregation responds. Some listen, some don’t.”

This was in response to an article I published on how to get more helpful feedback on your sermons. One of the best things you can do to help prepare for the next sermon is to receive meaningful feedback on your last sermon. Maybe Jesus didn’t need to ask for feedback. He is perfect, and he is God. His sermons didn’t need any help, but the rest of our sermons do.

As a preacher who is serious about connecting with people and making an impact, I am not satisfied with a “some listen, some don’t” approach. I will always do everything I can to be as effective as possible. This is the same attitude Paul had when he said: “…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23)

Paul was willing to learn, grow, and adjust in order to reach those far from God. So am I. And so is any committed preacher who takes their calling seriously.

“Seriously? This does make me wish I was dead. I see nothing from The Holy Spirit here, donkey.”

The Holy Spirit argument is made a lot in the preaching context. It usually goes something like this, “The Holy Spirit only works in sermons where the preacher is not prepared.”  As if the Holy Spirit cannot work in your preparation. He can only work the moment you stand up and begin speaking.

This particular comment was in response to the article on getting helpful sermon feedback. The book of Proverbs has much to say about seeking counsel from others. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). When I seek feedback from my congregation it is a form of seeking counsel. This is a Holy Spirit guided process.

“Gauging and polling how relevant a part of the message is to a demographic seems a little weak sauce. God is captivating. We are people called to usher in the King of Glory.”

This comment refers to a post that says nothing about polling or gauging people for relevance. It was actually about preparing sermons with a team. The idea was that you will begin to draw from the same well if you consistently prepare in isolation. My suggestion was to speak with many different kinds of people to broaden the potential impact of your message.

It’s also a bit presumptuous to assert that for God to come through as captivating, you have to prepare the sermon alone. This puts the emphasis on you as the mouthpiece of God and less on his glory.

There is no disconnect between the Holy Spirit’s power and rigorous sermon prep.

Great preachers understand fully that the work they do is a work of God. They also understand their own responsibility to do all they can to bring their best to every sermon every time. Paul says it this way in Colossians 1:28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (emphasis added) 

Does the Holy Spirit ONLY work when preachers are NOT prepared? No. Of course not. He works best in us when we prepare most. God works within us as we work in his strength. God honors diligent labor in sermon preparation. This is why I will continue to provide resources to help with sermon prep. This is why I will never settle for anything less than the best I can do every time I preach. This is why you’ll strive to do the best you can as well.

Why do you think people struggle with the idea of working hard on communication skills as a preacher? Do you see this as an affront to the Holy Spirit? Why or why not?

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  • Eli Marez

    Matt, I have preached for 30 years and to this day it is still a strenuous task for me. Thank you for your honesty. I need all the help I can get. And YES I continue to trust and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit in me to help me. Staying fresh and insightful and creative takes hard work especially when you pastor a small start up church where much work is required by a few; so preparing as a team is not an option. Therefore, I spend much time reading and listening to what other may say and I thank God for their insights. I thank God for you.

  • Good article. Thanks for posting. The underlying idea heard as I was growing up was that the Holy Spirit didn’t know which direction to go until Saturday night. Seems to me He would know whats happening next year. Thanks!

  • Shanky

    I am in tears. After reading this, God has touched me and moved my heart. I am so thankful to Jesus for using you to help us. OMG! I had not known such wonderful things if God would not have used you. I’m so thankful to the the publisher of this article. Will remember you in my prayer.!!! Praise the LORD.