Over 25+ years of ministry I’ve had some terrible talks. Some were colossal public failures that could have shamed me out of my career (if I had been mature enough to realize how inept I was). Others were biting personal nightmares that still sneak up to haunt me at three in the morning. It’s time, I believe, to confess to my worst talks ever:
#5. That One Time When I Messed-Up-Noah’s-Ark – At the intersection of deep passion and zero content is an unavoidable accident. As I looked out at the smiling faces, my brain simply had no output. There was nothing but blank space in my thoughts. I knew the story of Noah, but I suddenly had no idea what to say about the story of Noah. As my mouth opened I said random things about God’s love, tried to make a couple dumb jokes about boats, and wondered aloud why God saved the platypus but not the Patagosaurus, and then I just quit. It was a jumbled up twisted wreck.
#4. That One Time When I Couldn’t-See-Thousands-Of-People-Getting-Bored – One of the biggest crowd’s I’ve been asked to speak to was also the one I couldn’t see. When I went out on stage I expected to be able to make eye contact and have interaction, but the stage lights were so bright, it seemed I was staring into the darkest recesses of a black hole. Instead of trusting God, I wandered in my notes for a while. To this day, I still have no idea how it went.
#3. That One Time When I Made-A-Stupid-Joke-To-Illustrate-A-Point – Okay, so this has actually happened dozens of times. For some reason I sometimes feel compelled to impress people with something other than solid content from Scripture. I’m tempted every-now-and-then to add some questionable illustration to make the content more “lively”. When I decided to tell the joke about an old widow who was reluctant to spend eternity with her husband in heaven, I thought I was hilarious. The old woman in the third row who had just buried her husband thought I was just plain mean.
#2. That One Time When I Made-Fun-Of-A-Friend-To-Get-A-Laugh – Okay, extending that last point further to prove my idiocy, sometimes, it is my own insecurity that leads me to open my mouth. For instance, I threw a friend under a bus in order to make a point during a sermon. It was a fantastic point, really cleared the path for my awesome argument and passion… Plus it made everyone laugh and I really wanted people to think I was the cleverest speaker they’d ever heard. How blessed everyone must be to have me as their speaker! Later, when someone pointed out that my friend seemed bruised, broken and flattened by my remarks, I checked the transit charts for a bus to throw myself under.
#1. That One Time When My Passion-Missed-It’s-Mark – John 1. Amazing chapter in the Bible. And I thought I would preach the whole thing. The whole thing. I was given 25 minutes. After 60 minutes I felt like I was just getting going. What a message I had to share! When I finally ended, I noted how quickly the church emptied out. Overcome with emotion, I suspected. A few people made eye-contact with me, I assumed, as if to say, “Great job you passionate man of God”. I assumed this, of course, because I was a dolt. What they were actually saying with their eyes was, “Finally! We’re done! I only stayed in that pew that long because I couldn’t get past Betty because she was asleep and because my legs had gone numb!” At the luncheon afterward, in my honor, when the whole church of 150 was supposed to greet me, 15 people showed up. As I enjoyed the large untouched selection of bratwurst, desserts and casseroles, it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I hadn’t preached so well.
Oh, the ironic blessing of piling up failure! As a result of all of my verbal bombs over the years, I’ve begun to make notes of some best-practices for giving talks in the future:
- Articulate the truth, then shut up. If the message is true, don’t embellish it. No need to add little jots and tittles to the unquenchable truth of Jesus. Only speak what is edifying to the message God has given. It can still be creative and witty, but let the truth speak for the truth. The Apostle Paul said this to the Corinthians: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 12:1-2, ESV)
- Trust God. What it comes down to is this: Do I trust the Holy Spirit is at work? If not, then what in the world am I doing giving a message about God? The Apostle Paul also told the Corinthians: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 12:3-5, ESV)
- Pray before. Pray during. Pray after. The focus should be upon Jesus and upon those who will hear the message; the focus should not be on the message-giver. Having a prayer-full heart will encourage the speaker to come to Scripture with the right frame of faith.
- Prepare. Dig, hydrate, rest, repeat. The message is worth the investment of your thoughts and the sweat of your effort. Dig into God’s Word: study it, learn it, understand its context and meaning. Hydrate your soul: keep the well of Jesus nearby as you dig. Rest a while in the message: Give yourself time to saturate in what God wants you to say. Repeat this process until you’re ready (or until it’s time!).
- Be humbly honored. It is such an incredible privilege to be able to speak to people about Jesus. When invited to share a message, take it seriously and take it humbly. And if you mess up, like I so often do, get back up in God’s strength, make amends as needed, and pray about the next opportunity with thanksgiving in your heart.