I’ve been preaching over the past twenty year period, and I’ve never once managed to do so without being nervous. In talking with friends and colleagues I have a sneaking suspicion that this is not personal to me nor owing entirely to my temperament. Standing Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day and declaring what God has said in his word does not diminish that nervousness by one iota, but perhaps increases it as I realise my own limitations more clearly, and the glory of the God I serve more fully. Often when I tell people in Millisle Baptist that I’m nervous every time I preach they widen their eyes and tell me that they would never have known, but this owes more to being able to regulate and channel one’s nervous energy over time, than being able to eliminate it.
In this article I want to share five of the (many) reasons why preachers can get nervous in preaching:
1. The task of preparation never feels finished: the proverbial assessment of how long a piece of string is might just be easier to quantify than when a sermon is ready. For me preparation begins on Sunday evening at 8:30pm when the previous week’s ministry concludes. By that I don’t mean that I’m at the desk from that point, but I am already beginning to chew over where things will go next, and how the passage I am due to preach next week relates to what I have just taught on that day. The cut off point is harder to pin down. When my exegetical notes are sealed off, my work is not finished, when my sermon manuscript is in a readable form I’m not done, when I climb the steps of the pulpit and stand before the congregation I am still nagged by a sense that more could have been done, or read, or thought through, or written on the passage I am about to preach. I am not speaking here of laziness nor of a slipshod approach to preparation, but rather when I’ve put the work hours in to getting ready – even then I don’t feel like I’m finished. This produces a sense of nervousness, of concern that I will teach truth in a faithful and winsome way, and I know that there is nothing inherent in my notes which means that what I have to say will work.
2. The responsibility of preaching is huge: occasionally I have to engage in public speaking in other contexts than the pulpit, and I am surprised at how little nervousness I feel (with the exception of poetry readings, but that’s more to do with giving something of yourself). An academic paper, a lecture in a university or semi-formal setting require a certain amount of nervous investment, but they don’t carry the same weight or sense of responsibility that preaching does. I am in the pulpit reading the word of the living God who has breathed out this truth, I am declaring to the people before me that this is what they ought to believe (or do believe) and this is how they ought to behave (always in that order) because God has said so. I need to know in the privacy of my study that I’ve done due honour to listening to what the Lord has said in Scripture, and I need to articulate the message in a way which is faithful. There can be a fearful chasm between those two elements: my apprehension of a text can be sound, but my articulation of it is a horse which constantly needs a rein on its neck and bit in its mouth. If I teach less than what God says, or add to what the text of Scripture says then I have wandered into the terra incognita of human wisdom, or fallen pride. This is enough to waken me early on a Lord’s Day morning, and keep me trembling as I stand behind the lectern.
3. The sermon is created while it is delivered: we have become accustomed to word processors, of undo and redo, of drafts and redrafts, and most of what we listen to and watch as consumers is not being delivered live. A sermon is a live event in which the living souls of people meet with the living word of the living God – that’s enough to make anyone nervous. Even though online sermons are fairly ubiquitous, the actual moment of delivery is when the sermon itself is created – even if the preacher ministers from a verbatim manuscript. There is an unseen element in preaching, a kind of energy and dynamism that comes from the fact that a sermon is only coming into being while it is being spoken. I use prompt notes when I preach, and am glad to extemporise in my sermons, but that creates a sense of tension, of suspense in my own heart as I rely on God to fill the gaps of what I cannot say, and what he alone can communicate – something that belongs to the prophetic aspect of preaching. I can’t think of how I could be part of that supernatural process without nervousness.
4. I am a sinful man, and human approval matters to me: the approval of people is not the driver for how I speak or what I say, but I would be a liar if I said that fear of public failure and humiliation is not a factor in the nerves I feel on a Lord’s Day morning. The fact that other presentations don’t provoke the same reaction in me encourages me that this is perhaps a minority element, but it is there none the less. I dread the pratfall of bad preaching, of mincing my words or missing the mark, or seeming a fool. This is perhaps the only part of my nervousness that I should ask God to sanctify, that he might give me an increased confidence in his sufficiency, and the complete unimportance of my own dignity and self-image in the pulpit.
5. People matter: when I preach I am speaking to people, people who matter to God. It is a huge thing to expect to be taken seriously, to be credited with explaining what Scripture says. Whether people are Christians or non-Christians they have a right to expect that I will speak to them with kindness, self-consciousness, sincerity, integrity and a concern for their good. It is not simply that I am nervous of wasting their time but of laying waste to their hearts by carelessness of exposition or awkwardness of expression. I want to be faithful to my hearers by being faithful to God, and that is quite a thing.
Nerves will never go away for me as preacher, I know that much. On the Sundays when I am not preaching I get butterflies in my stomach at 11am and 7pm, as though there is some muscle memory or biological marker which says that I ought to be feeling a sense of fear at that moment. I can lean in to those nerves which spring from wanting to be a conscientious preacher, and from a realisation of the awesome responsibility before me, and I can ask God to teach me less fear of my own failure before the eyes of others.