Preaching Through Adversity and ProsperityBy Dave Harvey
August 4, 2020
Have you ever heard of Charles Simeon? He had an unusual experience as a young preacher. In 1782, at age twenty-three, he was appointed as vicar—his first pastorate—at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. This wasn’t just a job for Simeon; it was the fulfillment of a dream. Simeon had been a student at the university in Cambridge and he’d later write: “I had often—when passing Trinity Church, which stands in the heart of Cambridge—said within myself, ‘How should I rejoice if God were to give me that church, that I might preach the Gospel there and be a herald for Him in the University.” Now Simeon was installed to lead the most prominent church in the middle of a university that educated the best and brightest in England.
But there was a problem. While Simeon’s bishop had appointed him to this parish, a sizeable faction in the congregation, including many key leaders, had someone else in mind for the job. These key leaders expressed their opposition in an unusual way. They locked the pew boxes, effectively forcing anyone who attended to sit in the aisles. And this opposition went on for ten years! You may be getting pushback from the congregation right now, but at least they’re not locking the pews…for a decade! Remember, this guy wasn’t a weathered leader either; he was the new guy in his twenties!
But Simeon played the long game. He endured that season and stayed for the rest of his life. He eventually saw the pews filled and ultimately, he served the church for fifty-four years. Simeon’s story invites a question: How does one find the determination to preach faithfully through adversity?
While you ponder that question, consider another Charles. Only four years after his conversion at age twenty, this Charles was called to preach at the famed New Park Street Chapel. The congregation quickly outgrew that building and moved to Exeter Hall and then the Surrey Gardens Music Hall. Finally, at age twenty-seven, young Charles Spurgeon’s church built what became known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Young Spurgeon preached each week to thousands. He’s estimated to have preached to ten million people in his lifetime—including over twenty-three thousand in one meeting. He’s the most widely published Christian author in history, and nearly everything of his in print is a sermon. No wonder he’s called “the Prince of Preachers.” Spurgeon’s life raises a related but different question from Simeon’s life: How does one prepare for the experience—the pressure—of preaching through growth and blessing?
Whether problems or prosperity, the truth is that the answer is the same. Before you prepare the message, you must prepare your heart. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote, “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.” The good news is that this preparation can be done each week. To begin, you must look at two key heart areas as you dig down deep into the Word of God: prepare for the right audience and prepare right character.
First, prepare for the right audience. In 1 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul writes, “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” A great temptation in preaching is to preach for the sake of pleasing man—to be accepted, praised, and approved. This sin is often called the fear of man, and it’s an occupational hazard for anyone who is given a pulpit, particularly during the chaos of the cultural confusion.
The fear of man involves swapping God and people. Rather than living for the glory of God, we live for the praise of man. This creates an exaggerated concern with what others think about us. We fear rejection and may even fear critique. Here’s the biggest catch. To be a preacher is to live in a paradox: Each time you speak you will probably enjoy the approval of some and the disappointment of others. That paradox can be so challenging, because the praise can be so exhilarating and the disapproval, so disheartening. For every pastor, there’s a temptation to maximize the former and limit the latter. But a pastor is not called to tickle ears; he preaches to please the Audience of One.
Preaching to please God often means speaking unpopular words—speaking directly to cultural issues, fears or sins. There are few experiences like knowing the next thing you say may push a beloved member towards the exit doors and three more towards Twitter to vent their feelings. Spurgeon once said, “I am aware that my preaching repels many; that I cannot help.” But we must please God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
Second, prepare with your own soul in view. Sermons are not simply duties within your job description. They are shaped by how we personally engage the passage. We preach to others out of what we are becoming in Christ. Before the bible applies to others, it must first apply to us.
One of the greatest dangers to the church is men with large gifts who don’t have a corresponding heart-engagement with God’s Word. To say it another way, their gifts can write checks that their hearts can’t cover. That’s why the New Testament talks so much about character. Character is the fruit of applying our heart to God’s Word. Think about it: You can have fits of anger and still be a qualified engineer. You can be a successful architect and demean your wife or demonize people who think differently than you. But preaching is a heart vocation. Obedience starts with me.
Whether adversity or prosperity, the gospel anchors the preacher. It shows us that we are deeply sinful. We crave the approval of people so much that Jesus Christ had to die to liberate us from that captivity. We are now free to focus on the only one who matters. The gospel also shows us that we are deeply loved. So, we can confidently live in the approval Christ earned on our behalf. We can live to serve others, not emotionally grope for their affirmation. You see the most important message you’ll preach is the one where your words correspond to your life. And you need neither prosperity nor persecution to preach that message; it can start right here, right now. Pray, confess, trust, and preach on. Both Simeon and Spurgeon got it. Before you prepare the message, prepare the man!
D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 166.
C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records by His Wife and His Private Secretary, vol. IV: 1878–1892, ed. (Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings, 1900), 241.