I will never forget the deep reluctance I wrestled with when I first began sensing that hard to describe “call to preach.” I say reluctant because I gave The Lord a million reasons for why I shouldn’t “preach” and to be honest I couldn’t think of a reason for why I should—other than the searing conviction that literally seemed to palpitate like a thundering drum within me. But my frustration with this wrestling was deeper than some surface level lack-of-confidence. A large part of my wrestling was due, by God’s grace, to my deep reverence for the preacher’s task. I have never considered it a light thing to proclaim the glories of Scripture to the Lord’s people and I pray that I never do. It seemed to me like a burden that weighed two million tons—the giving of an account to God for the manner in which I dealt with the truth of God and with the eternal souls of people. To this day the preacher’s task still causes me to tremble…
Now I’m not writing this to scare some young buck away from taking up this weighty responsibility. My goal is to encourage and possibly, by the Lord’s grace, provide some clarity to any student who feels that thundering drum in their bones but is unsure if The Lord is really calling them. So here are some clues I look for when having this conversation with students who approach me with “I sense a calling” questions. Let’s call them the makings of a preacher.
1. A pupil of The Word.
Don’t misunderstand me. Every born again child of God is called to be a student of The Scriptures. However, I must affirm that there seems to be instilled in the divine makings of a preacher a holy hunger from heaven. A holy hunger for truth in a way that sets the mind and the heart on fire. Yes, the makings of a preacher begins with an insatiable thirst to know and pursue the truth of God. A hunger which is not satisfied with surface level ideas but desires to study the deep things of God. The makings of a preacher is noticeable when one desires a commentary, theological reflection, or doctrinal study as opposed to the latest film about the Marvel storyline. The mind is set on fire with a desire to study and know the Word but the hunger is not for the mind alone. The makings of the preacher occurs when what begins as a holy hunger in the mind takes root as a holy conviction of the heart. This is what sets the bones on fire; this is where the thunder rolls from. For you can only preach what your mind learns, but you will never preach what the mind has learned until the truth tattoos itself upon your heart.
This is one of the first questions I ask any student who comes to me and claims they are sensing a call to ministry: How often do you read The Bible? If their answer leads me to think that perhaps dust has collected on their Bible then I reckon their zeal, while admirable, is misguided. But if I learn that tears are staining the pages of their Bible—I reckon it a certain thing that I am blessed to be watching the makings of a preacher.
2. A prayer closet wet with tears.
E.M. Bounds, a Confederate chaplain during the Civil War, once said that “Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still. He will never talk well and with real success to men for God who has not learned well how to talk to God for men.”
Now, once again, I find myself at something of a dilemma. Certainly every child of God ought’ to speak to God daily in prayer and certainly to plead and intercede on behalf of lost men and women. It is not a discipline reserved for the preacher only but a discipline that is necessary to be a disciple! Yet it seems to me that when God is making a preacher He does not do it in the spotlight of a large crowd, but in the quiet privacy of the prayer closet. I learned this early on that what the mind learns in the study can seem dry. But in the prayer closet, what your mind once thought to be dry suddenly becomes soaking wet with “the dew of heaven.”
Therefore my second question is often this: Tell me how the Lord has stirred your heart in prayer. Such a simple question that certainly reveals some much needed clarity. I once had a student sit across from me and confess that he could not even remember the last time he had prayed. I suggested that he go home and ask the Lord if he was really calling him to proclaim the eternal glories of the Word. I guess The Lord told him, “No” because he did not schedule a second meeting. But I have sat across from several other students whose heart was ripe with conviction that The Lord gives in prayer. So if I discern that the prayer closet is dry then I reckon their sensing, though admirable, is misguided. But if I discern that a prayer closet is soaking wet with tears I rejoice because I am blessed to be watching the makings of a preacher.
3. A priority that is Christ-exalting.
I almost began to speak of this point a few lines up. But I am okay with it being here because I think it is the unavoidable conclusion of the previous two. A heart that is stirred to affectionate prayer by the powerful calling to proclaim the glorious Word should and will eventually lead to a Christ-exalting priority. It is a fearful thing to me when I discern that someone is seeking self-exaltation as opposed to exalting Christ. I think I can say it this way. There are some who want to be preachers and there are some who are called to be preachers. The former may be a disaster, but the latter will be a blessing. I often worry about this because so many “church folk” today attach themselves to “celebrity pastors.” Have we not learned from the immature Corinthians the danger of this? Some say ‘I follow Steven Furtick’ and others ‘I follow Chris Hodges.’ My fear is that because of this some mistake a calling to preach with an ambition to gain a million followers on Instagram. I feel like I am digressing a bit so maybe I should wrap this up before I get myself into trouble.
This is what I think, assuming that you care to know. We will give an account to The Lord. What is done in the name of self-exaltation will not survive the fire and ‘if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’ But what is done with the aim of making much of and exalting Jesus Christ will survive the fire and ‘he will receive a reward.’ Let Christ be the foundation and the exaltation of your preaching.
So how do I discern this? Ha! I am not able to see anyone’s heart. Listen, human pride is a battle we all fight. It seems to be even more difficult in this social media driven world. As a mentor of mine once told me, ‘I always pray for much humility.’ I have learned to pray for that as well. So here’s what I do when a student comes to me with a ‘sense of calling to ministry.’ I let them talk. I simply say, ‘Tell me about this calling.’ It’s amazing what we learn when we simply listen. I once listened to a 16 year old student describe this sense of calling as a desire to just want to give exceeding glory to God in their life. And that was with ZERO prompting from me I promise. All I could do was rejoice because I was blessed to be watching the makings of a preacher.
Now allow me to write this in closing. I don’t want to come across as some type of hard-nosed skeptic that tries to discourage. Believe me, I pray often for the Lord to raise up young men and women to serve His church with much zeal. At the same time I realize that ministry, especially student ministry, can appear to be “always fun.” Okay, so I love what I do but I tell you ministry is not always fun and hardly ever easy. If you know me personally then you know where my heart is on this—I love my work but I am also serious about my work. I began by telling you that I have always trembled at the thought of the preacher’s task. Can I say I tremble more at the thought of haphazardly approving of youth who show no evidence to such a task? For my own good and for theirs I try to the best of my ability to offer guidance when asked. Sometimes the guidance is not “fun” or “easy” to give. But sometimes I find that I am blessed to watch the beginning of the makings of a preacher. And to that end I rejoice and praise God—for only God can make a preacher.