Keep Swinging


It is the dread of every hitter in baseball-the batting slump. Even the greatest players of all time in the Major Leagues have experienced it. From Ted Williams to Derek Jeter, batters have had to deal with dry spells at the plate. Usually, slump-busting tips focus on either the mental or the mechanical aspects of the game. Granted, it does seem hard to hit a round ball (moving with great velocity) squarely with a round bat.

What about a sermon slump? A preacher with any experience knows that dry spells can occur at any time. One writer defines a slump as "a period of substantial failure or decline."[1] It is a time of underperformance. What should we do in those seasons? Before we attempt to answer, it might be helpful to acknowledge that a slump is more a matter of degree than it is anything else, usually characterized by a prolonged period. A batter is not in a slump if he goes 2 for 4 at the plate, but it is something different if he goes 2 for 24. Dryness that persists for a few sermons should not be considered a slump. If it extends over a period of time, that is another matter.

What can we do when we find ourselves in a sermon slump? Here are some simple steps to keep in mind in dealing with such moments.

Expect it

That may surprise some, but it is true. None of us is immune from the dreaded slump. A season of underperformance, dryness, or inexplicable difficulty in sermon preparation and delivery can overtake us without warning. Thomas Long writes:

Preachers inevitably experience periods of drought in their preaching, times when sermons come even more painfully than usual and creativity ebbs. These times should neither surprise nor dismay us. In some ways, the best counsel is to acknowledge that all preachers have them, to expect them, and to allow them to run their course. Many times, though, dry periods in our preaching signal empty moments in our own growth in faith. The best response, then, is not to fret about sermon technique but rather to set out in some new direction in our understanding of and commitment to the gospel.[2]

Prepare yourself for such a contingency. No one rises above encountering these moments.

Immerse yourself in the spiritual disciplines

Don't discount the spiritual element in this experience. What the enemy intends for evil, the Lord means for good. Fight through the discouragement, and let it drive you to the Lord. Prayer and the personal intake of Scripture can infuse spiritual power back into your life, especially your preaching. Could it be that the Lord allows such seasons to come in order to disturb us and drive us to Himself? Moreover, the disciplines can be preventative; they can ward off dryness and fruitlessness. George Whitefield, the great English evangelist, engaged in multiple, itinerant preaching campaigns that covered both sides of the Atlantic during his lifetime. How did he prepare himself for arduous service and remain fresh in the midst of a busy ministry? Dallimore supplies the answer:

We can visualize [Whitefield] at 5 in the morning in his room over Harris's bookstore. He is on his knees with his Bible, his Greek New Testament, and a volume of Matthew Henry spread out before him. With intense concentration he reads a portion in English, studies its words and tenses in Greek, and then considers Matthew Henry's exposition of the whole. Finally, his unique practice of "praying over every line and every word" in both the English and the Greek, feasting his mind and his heart upon it till its essential meaning has become a part of his very person. When we see him shortly preaching forty and more hours per week with virtually no time whatsoever for preparation, we may look back upon those days and recognize that he was then laying up a store of knowledge on which he was able to draw amidst the tumult and haste of that later ministry.[3]

It would be wise to emulate Whitefield's pattern and look upon such habits as investments in a fresh and fruitful ministry.

Read good books on preaching

This step should be nuanced somewhat. Balance should be sought in book selection. It is always good to go back to the basics and review the mechanics of sermon construction and delivery, but don’t overlook texts which focus on the heart of the preacher.[4] Classic and contemporary books can be trusted guides providing timely insights in needy moments. If you prefer personal interaction, then seek the counsel of a godly, experienced pastor who could provide inestimable help in such a season. Perhaps, an ongoing mentoring relationship could be established.

Remember your calling

When we revisit the core components of our call to ministry, something usually happens deep within to renew our excitement and commitment to the call. Paul rehearsed his call to ministry multiple times (Acts 22:1-21; 26:1-23). We should also remember how the Lord has helped us in the past. Every preacher should erect an "Ebenezer" to remind him of the Lord's faithfulness (1 Sam. 7:11-13). It is worth noting that even in our slump the Lord is not limited. I can recall times when I felt most inadequate and unworthy and the Lord moved in significant ways (2 Cor. 3:5-6). We should not make idols of our feelings. The apostle reminds us that when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10).

Conclusion

Slumps can be precursors to growth. Seeking the Lord can bring realignment and adjustment to our lives and ministries, thus setting us up for remarkable seasons of effectiveness. Burdens pave the way for blessings. Finally, we may have to slay the idol of perfection, of having to be on top of our game, in every sermon. Like a batter at the plate, when in a slump, keep swinging. Ray Ortlund affirms, "Not every sermon has to be amazing. No one bats a thousand. Just stay biblical, prayerful, Christ-exalting."[5]

Endnotes

[1] "Hitting a Slump: What Does it Mean and What Can You Do?" (http://team-dignitas.net/articles/blogs/CSGO/5691/Hitting-a-Slump-What-does-it-mean-and-what-can-you-do: accessed on 9.15.17).

[2] Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 241.

[3] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 22.

[4] One classic work and one contemporary work are recommended: C.H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960); Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Ministry: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007).

[5] Ray Ortlund (https://twitter.com/rayortlund/status/891097704344035328: accessed on 7.28.17).

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