Preacher Pitfalls

An occasional series of articles on some of the common pitfalls that the preacher needs to be wary of when preparing sermon material.

1) Textual Variants (link)




The Prayer Life of the Leader 

Spoken at a pastors’ ministry day in 2008

“...the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Exo 20:21)

 The distinction between the leader and the people that is seen here is striking. The people stood afar off because under the old economy they were commanded to: only Moses had the right to approach God.  Under the New Covenant the people no longer need to stand afar off; all can now approach, but nevertheless God still requires of leaders above all others, that they be men who will come near to Him in prayer. The distinction we see in this passage is therefore much less pronounced now but it still exists. That expression “thick darkness” doesn’t sound very pleasant, but the attraction is obvious and is stated: the darkness was “where God was”. Men like Moses are attracted to God’s presence like moths to a flame. We too, as men of God are called into the thick darkness where God is. Whatever else we might be called to be, we are called to be men of prayer. 

  Paul gives instruction to Timothy that is aimed specifically at the men in the church, that, “the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Tim 2:8). Why the men, I wonder? My experience suggests that often men need more encouragement to pray than the ladies do-and God knows how important it is that they pray! All men are called to be leaders, if only in their own homes; and thus all men are called to be men of prayer. 

 But our focus today is on the designated leader within the church. Moreover we are speaking of his personal prayer life.  When I speak of praying, I take it as read that the principal leader will be at the forefront of the church’s corporate prayer life. I have heard that the motto of the officer corps in the Israeli Defence Force is, “Follow me!”. So it is that in corporate prayer; as in all other things, the principal leader must show the way. But today we are talking about the personal prayer life, or the closet prayer life of the leader.  Jesus called it “the secret place” (Mt 6:18) and it is to Him that we must first turn if we would know the secrets of the leader’s life of prayer.

Jesus' prayer life.  I doubt if the disciples ever said anything that thrilled Jesus’ heart more than on that day when they said: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1). It has been observed that the disciples never said, “teach us to preach” even though they had heard the finest preaching that anyone will ever hear. Clearly there was something in Jesus’ prayer life that demanded emulation. 

At all of the key moments in His ministry, Jesus is found at prayer:

 The Choosing of the Twelve:- Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before choosing His 12 disciples. “If we did that before selecting our deacons, most of them wouldn’t get in” said Leonard Ravenhill.

The Mount of Transfiguration:-He did not go to be transfigured, He went to pray. He didn’t normally take His disciples to His times of prayer, and somebody has asked the question: was he always transfigured at prayer, but usually there was no-one around to see it?

Upper Room Discourse:- This was ministry away from the crowds and for his key disciples alone. In essence they were words spoken to the leaders and the preachers of the new dispensation. What Jesus taught them above all else that night was the need for ever-deepening relationship. John’s Gospel outlines the development and deepening of this relationship, “No longer do I call you servantsbut I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15).

 Their years of association with Jesus and their growing obedience to His teachings had promoted them from mere servanthood to joining the ranks of His friends. How quick we are to call ourselves His friends! But have we met the criteria stipulated for such a privilege (Jn 15:14)?  But Christ had not finished. Later, He went still further. 

“Go and tell my brethren” (Jn 20:17).

His death and resurrection allowed them (and us) to become part of the very family of God. This is the relationship to which we are called. When Jesus brought about the restoration of Peter after his three-fold denial; the key issue was not, “how is your faith?” though that was what Jesus had prayed would not fail, but, rather “Do you love me?” (Jn 21:17).

 Gethsemane:- Never has there been more prayer from the heart than in Gethsemane. Since it seems almost irreverent to deal with the episode, I will touch on only one aspect of that momentous night. Jesus sought companionship in the Garden but found none. This reminds us that this is the loneliest aspect of the leader’s ministry. For much of his time he will be surrounded by people, but in prayer it is only him and God. It is the vital time where God is working on his own heart and turning him into the man of God he is called to be.

 The prayer closet is where God prepares His men. There are many self-made men in church positions; but the God-made men are there because they have spent time alone with Him, and have allowed Him to fashion them into His image.

  Surely the most fundamental difference between true Christianity and all mere religion is relationship.Theological colleges are full of men who can tell you all about the Bible, but many have no idea what the Bible is all about. The Christian life is a call to intimacy with the Lord Creator of the Universe.

 The Bible is replete with examples of men who didn’t just know about God but actually knew God.  
 Abraham-“the friend of God” (Js 2:23)

 Moses- with whom God spoke “face-to-face as a man speaks to his friend” (Exo 33:11)

 David-“a man after God’s own heart”(1 Sam 13:14)

  It is prayer and prayer alone that sustains and develops this relationship, and it can be lost without ever realizing it. As busy church leaders it is frighteningly easy to fall into the trap of relentless activity, whilst forgetting to maintain the relationship that gives meaning to that activity. There are times when we are so busy with the work of God that we lose touch with the God of the work.  One of the first snares the apostles successfully sidestepped in the early church was the temptation to be drawn away from their spiritual duties in order to “serve at tables” They understood and insisted that their first calling was to give themselves continually to “prayer and the ministry of the word”(Acts 6:4). Without the relationship forged from a vital prayer life our church activity soon becomes mere ritual. Witness this remarkable questioning of the people by their God:
                  “Who has required this from your hand? To trample my courts?” (Isa 1:12 )

 Who had demanded it? Well He had! This trampling of His courts would have been the appointed feasts of the Torah. But their appointed feasts were meant to take place in a context. They were performing the rituals, but the rituals were only ever intended to serve as vehicles, expressions of the relationship between God and His people. If the relationship is gone, then the rituals have actually become an “abomination” to Him (Isa 1:13). 

 Think on that.  It is possible to be daily carrying on all of the normal “spiritual” duties and yet have completely lost sight of why we are to be doing it. The relationship has been severed.

 There are lessons to be learned from history here. Denominations grow out of revivals. They start as movements driven forward by men on fire for God. But eventually they always end up as monuments. A denomination ceases to be a movement and becomes only a monument at the point where it exists only to service itself. Once leaders see their primary purpose as running the denomination and not extending the Kingdom of God, then the point will be reached someday when God will do what He has done time and time again throughout history. He will dispense with the old and draw out from what has become only a dead shell, something new. And He will seek out new men -men after His own heart- whose desire is only to serve the King.

Prayer is practical
We must resist the temptation to see prayer as a “niche” ministry; i.e. some leaders are called to it, others are called to be more “practical”. I believe all leaders are called to be men of prayer.

 There is a popular notion that it is OK to do a bit of praying, but we must get it over with and then “do something practical”. Nehemiah refutes the popular notion that prayer is somehow, impractical.

Here is a superb example of prayer in action:
                             we made our prayer to our God and... we set a watch” (Neh 4:9).

Prayer is the most practical thing a leader can do. In fact if your work isn’t covered by prayer then what you’re doing, however accomplished and skilled you might be at doing it, is actually wholly impractical because God will not ultimately own it as His.

Two unattributable quotes in this regard:-
 “we can do many things after we have prayed but we cannot do anything until we have prayed”
“We must pray as though everything depended on God, and then act as though everything depended on us”

The setting of vision
Nehemiah prayed a prayer that was like a small pebble triggering a huge landslide. His prayer life set in motion a chain of events that mobilised many hundreds of people, many hundreds of miles away; into rebuilding the walls and the gates of Jerusalem. He seems to have begun his praying without any consciousness that he was to play the leading role in the restoration of Jerusalem’s fortunes. He was a long way off and holding an important position already; but as he prayed there seems to have come upon him the growing awareness that he was called to do the work himself! This is vision and it comes only in prayer.

 There is an important distinction between the prayer life of an intercessor and the prayer life of a church leader (though obviously they are not mutually exclusive groups). An intercessor may be called upon to stand in the gap for a wide range of issues that are outside of his personal domain. He may be standing in the gap for people on the other side of the world whom he will never even meet in this life; labouring intensely over issues that he has no apparent connection with.  In contrast to this, the things that God burdens a leader with in prayer, are the specific matters that are to form the bedrock of his own ministry.

Sermon preparation.
The people can tell when a sermon has been prepared on the knees.

 We are all busy men and I dare say we all re-use sermons. But we ought to know that most people in our congregations can tell almost immediately whether they are listening to something that has been produced fresh from the oven that week, or brought out from the back of the larder where it has been for some time.

 The best sermons are the ones that reveal what God is saying to us at the moment and not something He said to us two years ago. The Lord once challenged me about why I kept an old sermon in the back of my Bible for “emergencies”. I saw under the Spirit’s prompting that, if my prayer life and study of the Word were healthy enough, then there would always be bread in the oven; and that at the point of need, it was better to bring the people a fresh half-loaf than a mouldy full one!  

 A close walk with the Lord and a strong prayer life will knock hours off sermon preparation. I have known many occasions simply in prayer without any motive of sermon-finding, that a sermon idea will come to me and I have scribbled it down in ten or fifteen minutes, and it is virtually ready to use. In contrast, simply sitting down and leafing through the Bible looking for something has often led to hours of fruitless labour. Indeed, I believe that God often deliberately withholds the germ of a sermon idea until we have sought Him in the approved manner.  I recall an occasion when the Lord dropped into my spirit a thirty- minute message between the start of the meeting at which I was to preach, and our sitting down after the worship! But God will only do that if our hearts have been prepared in the secret place beforehand. 

E.M. Bounds, the prayer-teacher extraordinaire said, “Pray without ceasing is the trumpet call to the preachers of our time. If preachers will get their thoughts clothed with the atmosphere of prayer, if they will prepare their sermons on their knees, a gracious outpouring of God’s Spirit will come upon the earth”.

Gospel preaching
“We have no right to speak to men about God until we have spoken to God about men”.

Prayer opens the “door of utterance”, especially for gospel preaching. (Col 4:3-4; 2 Thess 3:1-2). In short, it opens men’s hearts. Even the mighty apostle knew that he couldn’t work effectively unless prayer had opened the door to effectual evangelism. There has never been a true revival that was not birthed in prayer.

Intercessory Role.
The sleeping-place of a Middle-Eastern shepherd is at the entrance to the sheepfold, and the place of the leader is standing in the gap for the people in prayer. Some examples:

Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you”(1 Sam 12:23).

The leader has the ear of God in a sense that no-one else in the fellowship has. God is always listening out for the voice of the man whom He has put in charge. God is, of course, listening for the voices of all His servants in the local assembly, but make no mistake He is most keen to hear from those to whom He has assigned leadership; and therefore there is a peculiar burden upon them to pray for the people. Sometimes God will hear the intercessory prayers of His man for an individual over and above even the prayers of that person for himself, “My servant Job shall pray for you for I will accept him”  (Job 42:8)

Moses There is no more singular example in Scripture of a man who stood in the gap for the people than Moses,“forgive their sin- but if not, I pray blot me out of Your book which You have written  (Exo 32:32)

  I can say with confidence tonight that no man here has ever- from the heart- prayed such a prayer.Only God can produce this type of sacrificial spirit in the heart of a man. It is totally alien to man’s nature, and even in our regenerate nature it is hardly ever found. Yet there is to be something of the sacrificial in all of our praying for the flock. 

 Paul  Another example of a man who prayed that most remarkable of self-sacrificial prayers,
                      I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my brethren” (Rom 9:3).
Paul constantly prayed for those to whom he ministered,
                                      I labour in birth again until Christ is formed in you(Gal 4:19)

And those who worked with him caught the bug,
Epaphras [is] always labouring fervently for you in prayers, that you may be able to stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12).

Epaphras was one of their leaders; absent in body because of his duties with the apostle, but always present with them in spirit. Paul spoke of  his “deep concern for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28)  which came upon him daily. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we are “those who must give an account” (Heb 13:17). How easy it is, then to look at the myriad problems in any local fellowship and say with Paul,“who is sufficient for all these things?” (2 Cor 2:16)
But a leader who is a man of prayer will find that God is his “all-sufficiency” for the ministry.
 Issues arise within the local congregation that make a strong personal prayer life an indispensable tool for the leader. Joshua led the people into a disastrous battle because there was an Achan in the camp. And he had failed to spot it because he hadn’t consulted with the Lord first. How will we spot our Achans if our communication line to Heaven is severed? Do we think that Ananias and Sapphira would have been so easily “outed” if the apostles had not been men given to much prayer? With some problems in church the issue is manifest: we can clearly hear “the bleating of sheep” in our ears, but with others the problem is buried. How many such situations in our churches would be quickly uncovered if the principal leader was a man of prayer? 

 Fear of the people is a great snare to the leader. I detect in King Saul’s leadership this fatal weakness.
But a man who has wrestled with God no longer fears mere men. I am a timid character by nature, but there is a boldness that comes only from spending time with God in prayer. God was able to circumvent or overcome the natural temperaments of men like Moses and Jeremiah and make them into fearless men of God. Hence, when the apostles were threatened by the religious establishment and ordered to stop preaching the name of Jesus their solution was simply to pray for ever-greater boldness.

                        “If you are always with people you will be of no use to people”
                                                              Howard Hendricks Dallas Theological Seminary

            Someone has spoken of  “The ministry of withdrawal” Another recognises the importance of “the unbusy pastor”. This has echoes of Martin Luther’s famous statement that he was “too busy not to pray”. 

 I love God’s commandment to Moses:“Go up the mountain and be there” (Exo 24:12). Revelation would come later, but first came the call to stillness in the presence of God. Moses was to put down all his burdens and simply “be there”. There are things God would say to us that cannot be communicated in the hurly-burly of daily ministry. We will only hear the “still, small voice” when we have retreated from the constant commotion of church life.

 It seems to me that in the Apostolic Church the notion of sabbatical has become seen as simply an early retirement scheme. I am certain that this would not be a popular notion, but I believe there is a need to re-discover the original purpose of a sabbatical, not as an early retirement but as a mid-ministry retirement. A time in the midst of a man’s ministry when he can put down all burdens and go away to be alone with God. It would be a  time of refreshment, re-energising and a time for the receiving of fresh vision. Someone complains, “why are Christians always going off on retreats? We are an army”, they say:“shouldn’t we sometimes go off on advances?”. I take the point, but the time of retreat can become the time of advance if it is a time when we have regathered our spiritual forces ready for a new campaign.

“Prayer that costs nothing gets nothing”. The demands of the leaders prayer life are costly in terms of time and commitment, but the rewards are incalculable. Both the Bible and Church history agree that the men who have most shaped the Church, and shaped history have been the men of prayer.

  “There will be no smiting of the forces of evil that now hold the world in thraldom…by any but praying Christians. All others are merely playing at Christianity, make-believe soldiers with no armour and no ammunition, who are absolutely helpless in the face of a wicked and false world” (E.M.Bounds).