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Preaching, Part 5: The Pulpit Strut – Great Preachers or Great Preaching?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a preaching series from Southwestern Dean of Theology David Allen. To view the series, click here.

We all know preachers who are too big for their britches. You know the type. In the extreme, this is the guy who can strut sitting down. He exudes arrogance, either in the pulpit, outside the pulpit, or both. Probably for most preachers, however, our pride is not that extreme, but it is pride nonetheless. It is difficult to remain humble when you are constantly told by church members at the end of most Sundays’ sermon something like: “Pastor, you are my favorite preacher of all time.” “Pastor, you are the next Billy Graham.” “I’ve never heard preaching like that before!” “Pastor, that was a great sermon.”

You’ve no doubt heard about the pastor who was driving home after Sunday morning church with his wife. He thought he had preached the stars down. In a haze of reverie, reflecting on the sermonic diamond with which he had just dazzled his congregation, he mused out loud: “I wonder how many truly great preachers there are in the world today?” His wife sardonically replied: “I don’t know, but there is one less than you think!”

We all know preachers who are too big for their britches.

The Scripture has much to say about pride. Pride caused Satan to be cast out of heaven. Pride caused Adam and Eve to sin and be cast out of the garden. It brought down prophets, priests, and kings in the Old Testament. It kept many a Pharisee and Sadducee out of heaven in Jesus’ day. It caused Pilate to wash his hands concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Pride goes before a fall the Scripture says. Of the seven things God says he hates, first on the list is pride. There are few sins as destructive as pride. The Latin word for pride is “superbia” which means “aspiring to be on top.” More than one preacher has been brought low by pride. Only God is on top.

From the early church through today, preachers have warned their fellow preachers about pride. John Chrysostom (the “golden mouthed”) called pride the chief sin of preachers. He concluded his rhetorically powerful list of sins with the memorable line: “. . . all these and many other kinds of beasts dwell upon that rock of pride.” You will not read four more convicting pages about pride than Charles Bridges’ chapter “The Influence of Spiritual Pride” in Part 3 of his justly famous 19th century work The Christian Ministry. Note especially his reference to Cotton Mather’s comments about his own pride when he was a young preacher. And don’t miss Spurgeon’s chapters “The Minister’s Self-Watch” and “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” in his Lectures to My Students. In the latter, Spurgeon pungently states: “Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are.” Andrew Blackwood, the great homiletician, stated that among preachers, “pride still remains Soul Enemy Number One.”

The worm of pride is ever threatening to eat into the fruit of the Spirit.

C. S. Lewis said concerning pride: “There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves the more we dislike it in others.” When we are genuinely humble, we should beware lest Satan smuggle the thought of our own humility into our mind. The experienced demon Screwtape reminded his demonic understudy Wormwood that he must conceal from his patient God’s true end of humility in his life (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters). Preachers especially must guard against vainglory and false modesty, which is just another form of pride. Beware when pride shows up in the guise of humility. Leave it to Mark Twain to cleverly drive this point home: “If I ever achieve humility, I’ll sure be proud of it.”

The worm of pride is ever threatening to eat into the fruit of the Spirit. The poison of pride ever sits inconspicuously on life’s shelf. Sometimes it takes very little to puff up these proud preacher hearts of ours. A little success, a little prosperity, and we are ready to burn incense to our own accomplishments. Let the world bestow on us a few of its flatteries and we are ready to throw in our lot with it. Pride is ever beside you in the crowded highway and the lonely street. It follows you to the office, to the pulpit and back home again. It dogs your footsteps when you go to church, kneels beside you when you pray, and whispers in your ear while you preach. It assaults your every relationship; your every sacrifice; and every sermon. It is your constant companion at age 20, 40, 60 and 80. Pride always arrives early and stays late. It never leaves you night and day ‘till death do you part. Pride is the hound of hell that can only be defeated by the hound of heaven.

The fact is, most of us just don’t like to humble ourselves. It’s not in our nature. But the Lord knows how to balance our lives. He will allow almost anything to prevent spiritual pride and to quash it when it rears its ugly head in our lives. James reminds us to humble ourselves before God, and in due time, He will lift us up. If you’re not willing to preach in the basement, you have no business preaching in the bay window.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones recounts how once J.D. Jones was asked by a group of local preachers who he thought was the greatest preacher he had ever heard. Jones’ answer is classic. He said: “I do not know that I can tell you who is the greatest preacher I have ever heard, but I can tell you this quite certainly; the greatest preaching I have ever heard is the preaching of John Hutton” (Preaching and Preachers, 57). I tell my preaching students at the beginning of each semester’s preaching class: “Don’t strive to become a great preacher. If that is your goal, you will fail. There will always be someone who is known as a greater preacher than you. Rather, strive to do great preaching. Everyone called to preach who is willing to pay the price can do great preaching.” Great preaching should never be measured by whether one pastors a large church, preaches at conferences, or is known as being a “great communicator.” Great preaching is forged on the anvil of a passion for Jesus, an unwavering commitment to the Bible as the very Word of God, a commitment to text-driven preaching, and a love for the unsaved and the saved. Leave it to heaven to reveal who the truly great preachers are. The trick is improving your preaching talent and skills without simultaneously attempting to carve out your own niche in the Preaching Hall of Fame.

Don’t strive to become a great preacher. … Rather, strive to do great preaching.

So, when it comes to your preaching, instead of an unwelcome intruder, seek to make humility the spouse of your soul to whom you have wedded yourself forever. To reflect God’s light, don’t seek the limelight. Sometimes we get confused as to who is the light of the world! Even the donkey that brought Jesus into Jerusalem knew that the applause was not for him.

If you get too big for your preaching britches, don’t be surprised if God gets you a smaller pair of britches.

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David Allen

David Allen

Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry

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