Confessions of a Preachless Preacher

by on January 19, 2009

I don’t know about you, but I live in a strange tension. I’m a preacher at heart. Every conversation no matter how casual somehow turns to Christ and his impact on our hearts and lives. Every biblical text I read goes through the internal monologue of communicating it to others. My personal blog posts have too often found themselves in the form of grand multi-part theological treatises no one reads. I often find myself pacing around my room talking to an invisible audience as I sort out my articulations of certain headier ideas. In short, I live and dwell in the land of Sermon. But-

I have spoken in front of a group only once. Sure, I have given class presentations, taught a fifth grade Sunday school class once a month for a semester (as a co-teacher), and given announcements as the “president of the campus ministry.” But as far as exhorting a group of Christians on a topic from a biblical text? Once. It was a poorly delivered message on “Unity & Diversity in the Body of Christ” delivered to a Summer Campus Ministry Fellowship a few years ago. During the message I went to about twelve different texts, filled it with “umm”s, and planned out jokes ahead of time. Yeah, it was a dud. You know those conversations or events in your mind you spend the rest of your life replaying trying to figure out what you should have said differently? This isn’t one of those. I often have to be reminded by someone or something that I ever gave this message in the first place. It has found itself so far in the recesses of my mind that it plays in my memory more like a dream than anything else . . .

But I digress. So what accounts for this seeming discrepancy between my zeal to preach and my opportunities to do so? Wise leaders. With all my zeal and all my passion, it was wise to not let the young theologian out of the cage. Theological truth is a big sword, and when you put it into the hands of boys they start swinging it around thinking they’re men, but they just end up cutting a lot of people. There was no fear in me of my words. Perhaps there still isn’t enough. My overabundant zeal to speak was the signal to the men and women around me that I needed to chill out.

As I came here to Philadelphia for seminary, I already had an amazing church picked out. Even before going through the membership process I started going to every informational meeting for every ministry opportunity only to be shot down every time as I was gently told I couldn’t do anything that put me in front of others until I was a “Covenant member.” This meant going through the twelve-week course covering the basics of the Christian faith. You want to get a passionate, overzealous seminarian frustrated? Tell him he has to go through over three months of a class that he feels like he himself could teach in his sleep, and probably do a better job. After all, he’s a seminarian, right? This was me in the deepest recesses of my fleshly heart before actually taking the class or knowing anything about it. Was I consciously thinking these things? No. But it was in my heart for sure in one form or another. There was another issue as well. Not only did I need to take the class, but I went from my church in Richmond where I would hang out with my pastors pretty regularly to a church with pastors that seemed to put more energy into spending time with their Covenant members than they did me (before I was a member). I began to think: I’m in seminary to be a pastor! Do they not take that office seriously? I believe pastors should disciple pastors, but I can’t even get one appointment with these guys! Will they treat this calling in me as they should? I began looking for another church.

Then one Sunday God sent the entire previous paragraph I just wrote crashing down all around me. The worship was amazing. The message (delivered by a lay congregant I might add) was powerful. Communion was the sweetest I’ve ever had. God showed up. And with Him, he brought the filthy rags I called my self-righteousness. He clearly told me You are just trying to find the fastest track in front of people. That is all your doing. I realized in that moment that even still, God was protecting others from my folly and arrogance. I was willing to leave the church and the authority God had placed me under just so I could gather a crowd around myself. Oh wretched man I am indeed!

So why this little autobiographical sketch? Maybe you find yourself in this same position with a fire in your bones but no avenue to release it. Let me encourage you: I did the membership class at my church. It was amazing. It wasn’t so much about the knowledge and information but more about becoming a family. Getting a common language and character that we would display as a people. Jesus said that he would build his church with us. The mantles and platforms and pulpits are his to decide. Perhaps you, like me, are still a bit too zealous for a stage to make a name for yourself on. Perhaps you, unlike me, are the humble preacher God has built you to be but you have to wait your 33 years before you start your public ministry. No servant is greater than his master. So in the meantime perfect your art, learn from others, and sit in the back of the crowd quietly appreciating the providential narrative God is writing for your life. There’s much to learn when we’re not so ancy and overly zealous to move up front.

Let God decide your mantle, both its significance and timing. Not begrudgingly, but with joy – because there is a rest, quiet humility, and peace available for those of us that can learn to do this well. It’s called dying to self, and it’s in this we find life.


Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.


Wow, your story really resonates with mine. I’m a preachless preacher at the moment. I’ve often found myself to be more engaging in my own room rather than the few times I’ve been able to preach thus far. I’ve filed away tons of mini-sermons or bible studies over the years. Many of them are posted on blogs or post-it notes. Thanks for sharing and helping me to process this struggle of mine, Paul!

That is why God in his grace has limited your public preaching opportunities, brother. Before you or I qualify to preach, we need to be faithful in the little things that God calls us to each day. We need to see that we are just another dumb sheep who cannot find our way apart from the Chief Shepherd. Remember, Paul, that what makes people listen to a preacher of the Word is his character (1 Tim 4:6-16). I need this reminder every day. Grace and peace.

Paul, thanks for sharing. Your first paragraph could have easily been mine. I’ve been blessed to have good of opportunities to preach or teach, which actually led me to seminary, since I was only a few steps ahead of my students.

These days in my role as an associate pastor the opportunity to preach is scarce, but other avenues — speaking to our youth groups, and helping our lead pastor and others prep, are golden. I’ve found there are other ways to contribute and “preach” in a different form or context.

Faithful in those seemingly “little” opportunities.

Dig deep those wells, and we can each take those opportunities that aren’t “up front” to preach the Gospel and expound God’s Word to others, for their good, our experiential learning, and the glory of the Audience of One.

Hey, I ready your grand multi-part theological treatises 😉

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it!

Over 20 years ago I attended Bible College and took Pre-Sem courses. I was a member of a Reformed Church and looked to get a Reformed education in college. The choices were few and far between. I ended up in a Collage that taught a “do it yourself” salvation program. I began searching and learning about what each denomonation taught about salvation. I was shocked to have found that they all taught a “do it yourself” salvation program, even my beloved Reformers. That in turn led me to research Hermeneutics, again I was shocked to discover how all the denomonations taught a “Literal, Historical,Grammitcal” means of Interpretation. This method seemed inept. It robbed the Bible of its spirituality. It was not till I discovered(by God’s Mercy) that The Bible is its own interpreter and how we compare spiritual with spiritual(I Cor. 2:13) to come to truth.
My point is that you must question everything you have been taught by your pastors,churches,seminaries and mentors in light of what the Bible REALLY teaches. Ask the question, Do I trust my pastor or church? or do I trust the Bible? I was amazed how little study of the Bible was given in higher education. it was more about doctrines and creeds. ask yourselves,”What does the Bible Really Teach?” May the Lord Bless our study of His Word.