Prayer is a natural progression from the priming we just discussed. Any preacher would be foolish to preach a single word without first petitioning God to do what only He can do. While I never set out to make a recurring prayer list for Sunday morning, here are a few requests I pray regularly.
God, guard my speech.
I have a tongue that tends to run quicker than my mind, and I communicate for a living. This is a dangerous combination. A quick tongue and a faulty filter go together like fire and gasoline. Some of my greatest regrets are times when I’ve said something “off the cuff ” in the pulpit that was questionable. It may be an unplanned comment, a phrase that lacks clarity and causes confusion, or even something that may in some way lack godliness. I’ve prayed the heart of Ephesians 4:29 more times than I can count: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” That’s what I’m after. But to be honest, I have so much room to grow here. I need God to sanctify every part of me, including my speech. God forbid we ever speak even one word that is biblically inaccurate or pastorally insensitive. I need help in this area, so every Sunday, without fail, I ask God to guard my speech.
God, soak my heart in the sermon I’ve prepared.
I never want my sermon to sound like I’m trying recite lines I’ve written. Some preachers are so ill prepared or overly concerned with rhetorical precision that they end up sounding like a prepubescent boy trying to remember lines in his first juniorhigh play. It’s awkward, unnatural, and distracting. I want to prepare every word yet preach in such a way that it flows naturally, spilling from the overflow of my heart. This is why I ask God to soak my heart in the sermon. Each week, I ask Him to press the notes I’ve prepared deep into my heart and mind so I can remember what I’ve prepared. I don’t want to be buried in my notes when I’m preaching to people.
The first step is to get the sermon on the page. You may not write a word-for-word manuscript—though I do commend this to new preachers—but you should write out the vast majority of what you plan to say. Roughly 90 percent of my sermon is written on the page. The second step is to get the sermon in my heart so I can then preach it to others. Like everything else, I need the Lord’s help in this. Like a needy child, I ask my loving Father for help in this intensely practical and absolutely important aspect of my preaching.
God, protect my tone.
One of my great fears is saying the right thing the wrong way. I’ve heard my friend James MacDonald say, “If you’re wrong in the way that you’re right, you’re wrong even if you’re right.” This has major implications when it comes to tone in preaching. How you say what you say is as important as what you say. As I’ve said, it’s critical that our tone mirrors the text. Saying what God says but missing the heart from which He says it is as damaging as misrepresenting what God has said. For instance, the New Testament contains many hard sayings of Jesus, but He is not harsh. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle” (emphasis added). If we repeat a hard saying that Jesus said and say it harshly, we are misrepresenting His heart and character. Furthermore, if we are cold in the way we address sin or call people to repentance, we misrepresent the compassionate heart of God. Psalm 78:38 says, “Yet [God], being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath” (emphasis added). Faithfulness to the text is a non-negotiable for Bible preachers, and faithfulness to the text demands that we be faithful in our tone. To do this, we need God’s help, so we ask Him to protect our tone.
God, prepare the hearts of those listening.
The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 has to be one of the most humbling stories for preachers. It highlights that not everyone will be receptive to the word of the gospel when preached. No matter what you say or how you say it, some will respond and some will not. Paul reminds us that “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7). And in John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” People’s receptivity to the gospel rests in the hands of God, not in the hands of preachers. This alone should drive us to our knees quickly and constantly. You can preach like a man on fire, and people may even clap and affirm your passion with an obligatory “Amen.” But no one other than the Spirit of God can open a heart to receive His Word. That’s why every Sunday I ask God to prepare people’s hearts in whatever way is necessary for them to welcome what God says and to leave changed.
God, grant me unction.
The word unction simply means “anointing.” The Puritans and Reformers understood unction to be the type of powerful and passionate preaching enabled by the Holy Spirit. As preachers, we are desperate for the Holy Spirit to rest on and work in and through us as we preach. Unction—the Spirit of God using the Word of God—makes preaching pierce the hearts of those listening. Unction is not about being inspirational or loud, and it’s far more than mere excitement about the topic or text being preached. Unction doesn’t comes from inside us. It comes only from God and thus demands that we beg Him for it. Charles Spurgeon put it this way:
One bright benison which private prayer brings down upon the ministry is an indescribable and inimitable something, better understood than named; it is a dew from the Lord, a divine presence which you will recognize at once when I say it is “an unction from the Holy One.” What is it? I wonder how long we might beat our brains before we could plainly put into words what is meant by preaching with unction; yet he who preaches knows its presence, and he who hears soon detects its absence.
I want this. Per Spurgeon’s point, unction may be difficult to define, but I know I want it. I want the Spirit of God to work through my preaching, because if He does not, what’s the point of preaching?
I can’t overstress the fact that this “unction” is from God and comes to us through prayer. Methodist minister and Civil War chaplain E. M. Bounds wrote,
This unction comes to the preacher not in the study but in the closet. It is heaven’s distillation in answer to prayer. It is the sweetest exhalation of the Holy Spirit. It impregnates, suffuses, softens, percolates, cuts and soothes. It carries the Word like dynamite, like salt, like sugar; makes the Word a soother, an arranger, a revealer, a searcher; makes the hearer a culprit or a saint, makes him weep like a child and live like a giant; opens his heart and his purse as gently, yet as strongly as the spring opens the leaves. This unction is not the gift of genius. It is not found in the halls of learning. No eloquence can woo it. No industry can win it. No prelatical hands can confer it. It is the gift of God— the signet set to his own messengers. It is heaven’s knighthood given to the chosen true and brave ones who have sought this anointed honor through many an hour of tearful, wrestling prayer.
The only true power a preacher has is that of the One preached. We need His help, His power, His unction. So let’s storm the throne of God and humbly ask Him to supply it.
Ryan Huguley planted Redemption Bible Church in Arlington Heights, IL in 2009 and served as lead pastor for seven years. In 2016 he accepted a call to become the senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Hickory, NC, a growing congregation of 1,000. Ryan has worked in church planting since 2001 and has a passion to help the next generation know Jesus and make Him known. He helps assess, coach, and train church planters and hosts a podcast called In the Room.
Taken from 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley (2017). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. www.MoodyPublishers.com.