How to Teach in America without Losing Your Soul

Seven questions to ask before opening your mouth


Reprinted from Youthworkers Journal, July/August 2015. Used with permission, Salem Publishing, Inc.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. —James 3:1

I was 17 when I decided to become a pastor. I had spent my high-school years begging my friends to follow Jesus. My concern over their eternal destinies drove me to share the gospel with any who would listen.

My thinking was pretty simple: If Heaven and Hell are real, what else matters? So I decided to spend the rest of my life warning people of God’s wrath and sharing the good news of His love and grace.

Upon graduation, I took a job as an intern for a youth ministry and began preaching. I loved it; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

Fast forward 30 years, and a lot remains the same. I still love teaching God’s Word, and I am still driven by the reality of Heaven and Hell. What has changed is that I now understand how hard it is to teach Scripture and remain godly.

I’ve watched the enemy destroy so many of my peers. Satan loves arrogant and unholy preachers. So he attacks us aggressively. He uses any means possible to destroy us. Pride, fame, money, women, pressure, insecurity, frustration, loneliness, false accusations, betrayal, slander, busyness, expectations, heresy, laziness, selfishness, anger, indifference—and that’s just naming a few.

As the years passed, I began to notice patterns in my life. There was a shameful regularity in areas where I would stray from what I knew God had called me to. To fight this, I developed a series of seven questions that I began asking myself before preaching. For years they have helped me quickly readjust my heart before standing behind a pulpit. These questions have ended up helping many others, as I found that I am not the only one who is prone to wander . . .

Am I concerned about pleasing God or people?

It is rare that I’ll preach a whole sermon without my ego interfering at some point in the process. I want to speak for God, but my desire to please people often gets the best of me. I can’t tell you how many times I have stepped onto a stage, wondering if people will like me. Before I know it, I’m more focused on people than God, and my voice sounds far from prophetic.

Here are some thoughts that have helped me overcome my desire to please people. These may sound harsh, but I tend to respond best when the stark reality of the situation is obvious.

When my words are driven by a desire to convince the audience to like me . . .

1. God knows that my motives are prideful, so He will oppose my efforts rather than bless them. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5).

2. I’m being a hypocrite. I’m using the pulpit for personal gain rather than for the Kingdom. Jesus blasted the Pharisees for doing what I’m about to do (Mark 12:38–40).

3. God could literally end my life in the middle of my message. When I see God, I’ll have to give an account for everything I say right now (1 Cor. 4:5). I don’t want to stand before Him now amidst the shame of a man-centered sermon. “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isa. 2:22).

It’s better not to teach than to teach with pride, hypocrisy, and selfishness (James 3:1). You have no choice other than to get your heart right.

Do I genuinely love these people?

During my first 10 years of ministry, if anyone had asked me why I preached, I would have self-righteously said: “Because I love the Word of God.” I really did fear God and wanted to teach exactly what the Bible taught. Passages like Matthew 10 taught me to fear God, not people. While this is good and biblical, I had been neglecting another truth that was equally biblical: God wants me to teach because I love people. Yet I preached to many crowds without loving them.

“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:3–4).

John taught so that others could enjoy the fellowship with God that he was enjoying. Is this the reason you teach? Do you teach because you love the people and want them to enjoy the sweet fellowship with Jesus that you enjoyed this week? So often we teach out of routine, obligation, or pride. John was motivated by a desire to see others enjoy God. It wasn’t enough for John to enjoy God. His joy would be “complete” only when he brought others into fellowship with Him.

Before you speak, look into the eyes of the people you’re about to address and ask God to give you a deep love for them. Remember that without love for these people, they will hear nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1).

Am I accurately teaching this passage?

If you lose your fear of God or love for people, you can quickly repent and get your heart in the right place. But this one isn’t so simple. You don’t just quickly discover the interpretation of a passage. Accuracy demands hard work, and our confidence in what Scripture is actually saying comes from hours of labor.

I need to fear God and love people. But if I’m teaching inaccurately, I’m still misleading people. It’s always better not to teach than to teach heresy.

There are few things worse than giving others an inaccurate picture of God. God gives terrifying warnings to leaders who teach that God said something He did not. He calls it “an appalling and horrible thing” (Jer. 5:30–31). God says that when people “prophesy lies” in His name, they are “prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds,” and God promises to “pour out their evil upon them” (Jer. 14:14–16). He opposes these false prophets because they “pervert the words of the living God” and so “do not profit this people at all” (Jer. 23:30–40). God promises to “make a full end” of those who say, “‘Declares the Lord,’ when the Lord has not sent them” (Ez. 13:6–13).

Instead, God gives this command to those of us who teach: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Ask yourself before you teach, “Have I done my best? Am I rightly handling God’s Word?” Remember your unique role as a teacher. When you are put in a teaching position in the church, most listeners assume your words are biblical. You have a responsibility to make sure they are.

If you don’t have peace about the interpretation of a passage, then preach something else. Grab an old sermon. Choose a simpler passage. Or perhaps you could present the main interpretations but focus on the overall point of the passage rather than the disputed details. Accuracy is too important to disregard. Let’s not exaggerate stories to make them more interesting, or use Greek when we really don’t know what we’re talking about. And let’s not overstate the force of a passage to motivate people toward repentance.

God doesn’t need our exaggerations, and it’s hard to imagine He would bless our dishonesty.

Am I depending on the Spirit’s power or my cleverness?

One of the greatest temptations of a gifted teacher is to rely on himself. It’s difficult to feel helpless when you’re talented. Weekly compliments can lead to pride. But that’s when your power diminishes.

There’s a big difference between sermons that people like and sermons that are powerful. Thousands of “good” sermons are preached weekly that lead to no life-change in the listeners. Clever sermons don’t change lives; the Holy Spirit does. The power to change lives comes from a deep prayer life.

The apostle Paul chose to be a powerful speaker. He chose a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” over “wise and persuasive words.” Take time to meditate on 1 Corinthians 2:1–5. And let’s not forget that Jesus depended on His prayers to change lives. I was caught off guard the first time I studied Luke 22:31–32: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Christ’s concern over Peter’s weakness motivated Him to pray. Even Jesus depended on prayer, so consider how arrogant we are when we forego prayer to develop clever illustrations or convicting stories.

Have I applied this message to my own life?

This is the area where preachers have made fools of themselves and brought shame to the name of Christ. Because of this breach of integrity, the world assumes hypocrisy when they hear the word “preacher.” In my mid-20s, I wrote in the front of my Bible: “Don’t teach anything you haven’t applied.” Once we allow ourselves to preach unapplied sermons, we place ourselves in a dangerous position.

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). It is the teacher who “watches himself” that has the greatest impact on others. More importantly, our own lives are at stake. As Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:27, it’s possible to preach to others but disqualify ourselves.

This is less about being a preacher and more about being a Christian. We can easily get into a habit of studying the Scriptures in order to prepare sermons. We must first study for our own sanctification. We should be living a life of constant repentance. If we don’t change on a weekly/monthly basis, we are poor examples and true believers will become bored of us. The Word should be changing us on a weekly basis. Study for yourself before studying for sermons.

Will this message draw attention to me or to God?

Imagine a couple driving home after your sermon. Who will they be talking about? You or Jesus? While it’s true that some people will speak about you no matter what you say about Christ, the point still stands. Did you craft your sermon to draw attention to Jesus or yourself? Jesus must increase and American preachers must decrease (John 3:30). We live in a culture that wants to make heroes of us. Fight it.

“I am the Lord; that is my name. I will not share my glory with another” (Isa. 42:8). God is serious about His glory. Often in Scripture, He explains that He does things a certain way “so that no one may boast.” Let’s craft our sermons carefully so that they give a higher view of God, not us. Let’s use our platform to display our own weaknesses and the power of Christ.

Do these people desperately need this message?

When your child is about to step in front of a speeding car, you use a different tone than when you’re asking him to tie his shoelaces. There is urgency in your voice because of the imminent danger. Your desperation causes your child to respond. This is the kind of urgency we need when we preach.

Before I speak, I remind myself of why the message I’m about to deliver is vital. There are serious consequences to sin, and we are desperately begging people to repent. If my message isn’t urgent, then I should teach a different message. When there are billions of people who have not heard of Jesus, we don’t have time to preach sermons with little eternal consequence.

Paul says, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11). A few verses later he says, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (v. 20). Paul didn’t just preach sermons; he begged people to repent. Peter called out to the crowd, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!” (Acts 2:40), and 3,000 people responded.

Too often, we casually step onto a stage. We forget what is at stake. We have the best news on earth, and also the most urgent. If you don’t believe that, it’s time to find a new job. As teachers, we have been entrusted with a sacred task. It’s an amazing honor and opportunity to bring light into a dark world. Let’s not make this about us.

All Scripture is from the English Revised Version.

5 responses to How to Teach in America without Losing Your Soul

  1. I have recently been exploring the cmalliance.org web site and doing considerable reading. I read your article and I have one important question. Question 3, “Am I accurately teaching this passage?” I absolutely agree with God and you, that it is imperative to accurately share God’s divine perfect Word in an accurate truthful manner. God holds those who teach others to a higher standard, than those who don’t teach, as it says in Acts 20:28-30; 2 Corinthians 4:1-4 and other verses. My question to you is, how can anyone accurately teach others when they are not using God’s Word, the King James Bible, aka. Authorized Version? It is the only Bible remaining which is still 100% accurate and God’s Word, not man’s reinterpretation of God’s Word. It is clear from the verses you have quoted, this is not the Bible you are using. Why not?

  2. I have been enjoying your website. I have yet to complete the reading of it but do intend to do so.

  3. Pastor Francis,

    God bless you SO MUCH for this insightful, persuasive, and Spirit-filled article. I appreciate you greatly for your heart for God. This is essential exhortation you have delivered by God’s grace. You shall continue to prosper in God’s sight, being faithful to His will and desire. Peace.

  4. This is amazing you hit the nail square on the head the Holy Spirit giving you such insight about preaching after all your years in ministry God bless you for being so open to him

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