In a few months, the Rio Olympic Games will burst into our living rooms. We’ll instantly become expert commentators on obscure sports we watch only every four years, and ‘no-names’ will become household names through their few minutes (or seconds) of success. But what are those no-names doing now? 100 days from the Games, they are sweating, lifting, pumping, falling, heaving and hurting. These hidden hours of training away from the crowds and cameras will determine just how well they can perform.
It’s the same in gospel ministry: the hidden hours lay the foundation for what happens publicly. The clamour of pastoral and teaching ministry can make it tempting to hold to public priorities, while neglecting more private responsibilities.
Over this series of articles, I want to explore five responsibilities that make up a large part of the hidden hours of public ministry: preparation, prayer, personal godliness, pastoral care and private evangelism.
In 2 Timothy, Paul charges Timothy to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). This involves gentle instruction (2 Tim 2:25), as well as teaching with “complete patience” (2 Tim 4:2). Opposition to the truth and people’s natural desires to please their itching ears means that Timothy needs to apply the “careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2 NIV) of God’s word to his hearers. Our context is not that different from Timothy’s: the need for the careful instruction of God’s word is as urgent as ever.
Many ministers I know regularly take shortcuts of one sort or another in their preparation for Bible teaching. Often legitimate demands curtail regular in-depth preparation and, like many inadequacies in ministry, the immediate effects may not be apparent. However, over time, the effectiveness of their teaching is greatly undermined.
Here are three of the dangers of engaging in shallow preparation.
One of the joys and benefits of Bible teaching is engaging with God’s word and being transformed by it before teaching it to someone else. If you take shortcuts (e.g. lifting directly from commentaries or mimicking other sermons), you remove yourself from the process. You risk running dry by reducing teaching to a mechanical process of transferring information from one source (the commentaries/other sermons) to another (your congregation).
Shallow preparation can result in general teaching on the theological or practical themes of a Bible passage, rather than on how the passage uniquely contributes to those themes. This happens when the teacher spies a familiar theme and uses it to springboard into well-worn material. Application may be biblically true, but not necessarily deriving from the passage. Although topical sermons can be helpful, when they are repeatedly passed off as expositional sermons, your listeners are not trained to read and apply the Bible for themselves. Over time, your preaching becomes repetitious, pat gospel presentations are shoehorned into sermons and your congregation’s spiritual growth slows.
When we prepare shallowly, we rarely get beyond teaching what we think the passage means. Several times I’ve had the humble but transformative experience of seeing a passage in a completely new light after careful study and meditation. I’d be wary if this happened week after week. But if it is not happening regularly, we implicitly affirm that we sit above the Word, rather than under it. Deep preparation gives the text the opportunity to speak for itself and brings us closer to teaching what it means, rather than what we think it means.
With this in mind, here are a few tips to help you carve out enough preparation time for the careful handling of God’s word.
I used to just schedule meetings and public commitments, and leave the rest of the week as unscheduled time for everything else. I’ve since learned to schedule my ‘hidden hours’ and assign preparation as an appointment in my week in order to devote adequate time to it. Furthermore, I continually ask myself, “What has crowded out my week?”, “Why did I let that happen?”, “Was this a scheduling issue, a training issue (i.e. something I need to learn how to do better) or a spiritual issue?”
What phases of preparation do you use regularly? What phases of preparation do you shortcut? I’ve found it helpful to create mid-week deadlines for the various stages of my preparation so that I can see whether I am on track.
I find it hard to get into the zone for deep preparation every week. I’m not great at switching between different tasks, so whenever I’m actually in the zone for deeper preparation, I find it helpful to do as much as I can. Before starting a new series, I do preparation that will help all the sermons, instead of just this Sunday’s. When I’m studying the language, I’ll look for key words, constructions or themes that run through a series of passages, rather than just the set verses. If I’m trying to understand a current trend in pop culture, I’ll attempt to do it for a batch of sermons, rather than tagging on an application at the end of the week.
If you happen to be in sync with others’ teaching programs, coordinate preparation. There are several online tools that could also help coordinate with people further afield. That said, when I’ve done it, I’ve found it helpful to check in with others in their preparation, even if we are preaching on different parts of the Bible. There are great benefits and encouragements in being accountable throughout the process, even if we are applying it to different topics and passages.
The explosion of online material took place after I left university. I don’t believe I’ve learned how to use and build on the wealth of online material effectively without shortcutting the thinking and preparation process for myself. These days, the preacher-teacher has access to more resources than ever before in the history of the church. It’s tempting to plunder anything and everything, and appropriate it for our ministries, but we need to learn how to use that multitude of resources well.
We all have that week in ministry when we simply cannot prepare the way we desire, but the teaching deadline arrives anyway. So let us also remember that the Spirit’s work through God’s word is not controlled by our level of preparation: his word is powerful and effective, and works despite our faults . Nevertheless, let us strive to handle God’s word as carefully and faithfully as we can.