Preaching With Character
Heart qualities for effective pulpit ministry
The pattern was solid as granite. Monday: Begin studying the passage. Tuesday: Continue the study. Wednesday: Complete the study and begin forming the sermon. Thursday: Finalize the sermon. Sunday: Preach the sermon. Sunday afternoon: Ruminate about all the shortcomings of the sermon, sink into despair, question my calling, and wonder whether what I was doing mattered for eternity.
Regardless of the response by the congregation or the technical precision of the message, these feelings usually settled into my heart like a heavy mist that clouded my vision for hours, and even days, following a service.
As much as I knew in my head that this cycle was imbalanced and destructive to my ability to follow the calling of God on my life, the root of the issue became apparent only recently.
The Holy Spirit revealed it was a matter of character. This was surprising. After all, I associated character flaws with shameful moral failings. Surely, I thought, character can’t be my problem.
Yet it was my problem, and it was robbing me of the joy of my calling. This revelation became clearer when I considered character in terms of my identity in Christ.
To become more like Jesus, I realized, I needed to grow in love. If I am not careful, my need for affirmation and approval can make me a people pleaser. Preaching to receive compliments is far different than preaching out of sincere love for God and people.
In a related way, I sometimes let pride seep into the exposed areas of my insecurities to fill them up with a false identity that is more comfortable than it is accurate.
It can be tempting to blame busyness, lack of skills, or people in the pews, but identifying issues of personal character is a healing pain because it addresses the genuine problem. This process leads to increased growth, health and long-term pulpit effectiveness.
Character isn’t mere avoidance of bad actions. Rather, it is the nurturing of God-given potential. In fact, character goes much deeper than actions; it involves inner realities that drive actions, including thoughts and motivations.
It is possible to do the right thing, such as preaching the Word of God, for the wrong reasons.
Furthermore, biblical character is not a momentary ideal that changes according to the situation. It is a practiced and reliable expression of the true nature of the heart. In other words, a preacher’s character on Monday morning should not look drastically different than it did on the platform Sunday morning.
In New Testament times, everyone — Jews, Greeks, and Romans — would have been familiar with the concept of character, or virtue. For them, virtues shaped how people lived, acted, thought and communicated. The teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and others, along with the cultural exchange of ideas under Alexander the Great, contributed to this understanding.
By the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem, virtue ethics permeated the entire Mediterranean world.
The New Testament does not adopt Greek philosophy, but it uses its vocabulary, reframing popular ideas in light of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.
New Testament writers present virtues as deeply embedded qualities that reflect God’s design for humanity. Lists of virtues show up throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:3–12; 2 Corinthians 6:6–7; Galatians 5:22–23; Ephesians 4:1–3; Philippians 4:8–9; Colossians 3:12–17; James 3:17–18; 2 Peter 1:5–7).
It is possible to do
the right thing, such
as preaching the
Word of God, for
the wrong reasons.
Unlike in Greek philosophy, Christian virtue is dependent on the working of the Holy Spirit. Where others made virtue the result of human effort, the apostles highlighted the dynamic interplay of the Spirit and the believer in the nurturing of character.
As church leaders, we must strive to represent the character of Jesus in all areas. We should be able to say, like Paul, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
However, three virtues stand out as especially valuable for pulpit ministry: love, humility and perseverance. Without these virtues, it would be difficult to sustain a lifetime of preaching that fosters joy internally and fruitfulness externally.
Jesus emphasized the importance of love when He said loving God and loving others are the summation and highest expression of God’s law (Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34).
Love is not just a general feeling. It demands focus in the form of devotion and commitment to something or someone.
If preaching is to be virtuous, it must emerge from a deep love for God, the truth of His Word, and the people who may hear the preaching.
When love is the guiding quality that motivates the study and proclamation of Scripture, it transforms the experience before, during and after the preaching moment.
A virtuous preacher rises above the need for temporary feelings of adulation or immediately observable results, finding joy and satisfaction in the knowledge that the message comes from a sincere love of God, truth and others.
It is easy to mistake feelings of inadequacy and insecurity for the true virtue of humility. However, humility is not self-loathing. Nor is it a profession of weakness for the sake of eliciting affirmation from others.
Humility involves a clear awareness of our own limitations and capabilities. Instead of crushing us, this understanding should spur us to pursue God more earnestly, minister more compassionately, and preach more graciously.
Humble preachers admit they don’t have all the answers. We can’t save, deliver or heal. Our job is simply to point people to the One who can.
An effective preacher needs a range of qualities: a cultivated sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, audience awareness, exegetical skills, and communication proficiency. A healthy covering of thick skin helps, too.
Perseverance is only necessary when the task becomes difficult. In fact, keeping the faith through difficulties is what builds perseverance.
James 1:2–3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
Persevering leaders not only meet and overcome barriers, but they do so joyfully. These barriers can be practical, like an overly busy schedule, or profound, like spiritual forces aligned against the proclamation of the gospel.
James goes on to say, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (verse 4).
Persevering is not just about making it to retirement without crashing and burning out. It’s about growing in Christlike character — developing in generosity, creativity, wisdom, and other virtues.
Character growth is more foundational to ministry success than expertise, the size of the crowd, or the homiletical model employed. Such growth begins with a fresh work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.
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