I’ve been in a season of more teaching and public speaking than usual. This has been good for me, as presenting or teaching in public – once easy and enjoyable – has been for a long time now a battle against anxiety and panic attacks. That struggle is getting easier, by the grace of God. Though I still long for much greater freedom in this particular area of ministry.
These opportunities to teach have reminded me of one dynamic that teachers know all too well – that the overwhelming majority of your prepared content doesn’t stick in the minds and hearts of your listeners. I find myself praying as I begin, “Lord, by your Spirit, allow those particular truths that we need to actually stick onto our minds and hearts today.”
As a freshman in college, about to embark on an intense yearlong worldview, history, and missions course, I remember John Piper encouraging our cohort in this area. “You’re only going to get five percent – tops – of what I teach or what your other professors teach you in a given lecture. What do we do with this? Should we despair?” The small percentage I remember from his conclusion is that we shouldn’t worry about that ninety-five percent that falls by the wayside. If the affections have been engaged by God’s truth, then that person has momentarily seen more of Christ, and it has been worth it.
That’s quite a sacrifice. Ninety-five percent of prepared and taught content being sacrificed for the five percent that might stick and engage the affections. An entire sermon spent for the sake of that one sermon idea, point, off-hand remark, or illustration that a listener holds onto. Hours and hours of preparation so that a listener might remember a few convicting words and might move a few millimeters toward faithfulness. In the end, the vast majority doesn’t stick. It melts away, like a snow dusting on our Central Asian street as soon as the sun rises.
Thinking of this can be a bit discouraging. It leads some missionaries to scoff at lengthy lessons and sermons as Western and ineffective, not reproducible and a waste of precious time. But does the amount lost – the amount that doesn’t stick – actually mean we are doing something wrong?
I have found encouragement recently in reflecting upon how very “wasteful” God seems to be in his secondary book of revelation – the book of creation.
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork – Psalm 19:1.
Creation – all of it – is preaching about the glory of God. It is constantly doing this. And it is doing it everywhere, whether we are paying attention or not. It simply proclaims and keeps on proclaiming, even when there is no one around – no humans anyway. God, and the creation itself, don’t seem to be bothered by this great “waste.” Rather, it seems as if they revel in it, like it’s some kind of fun secret that we are the poorer for not being in on.
Was it a problem that creatures like the angler fish (horrifyingly fascinating and bio-luminescent) and the grasshopper mouse (eats scorpions, immune to their venom, howls like a wolf after eating) weren’t discovered by humans until 1833? What about all their “sermons” they were preaching in the previous thousands of years about the glory, creativity, and unexpected artistic flourishes of God? Was there an exasperated sigh in heaven when these bizarre creatures were at last discovered? Or… perhaps rejoicing? “Ha! They finally found that one! They never saw that one coming!”
God, it seems, delights in all of this excess. He does not seem concerned that we are getting such a small percentage of the rich homilies pouring out of nature day and night. He is beyond lavish in his sermons, and knows that most are not being retained by our limited minds and attention spans.
Perhaps this is because we were never the primary audience in the first place. Those angler fish and grasshopper mice were intended primarily for the pleasure of the king. The songs of the stars? The same. They exist as an overflow of the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Their purpose is first God-ward, and then after that we are invited to listen, learn, and join in.
This then leads to an encouragement for the discouraged teacher or preacher. That sermon or lesson was never meant to be primarily for your hearers. Instead, it was an act of worship to the king of the universe. And the hearers might hold onto that one random sentence for years to come. What a bonus!
I am regularly encouraged by the seemingly random things that do stick. “You took away that from my teaching? Huh.” And I am even learning to find joy in the parts no one seems to remember. Those parts, like some bizarre creature not yet discovered, are a secret between me and heaven.
The king sees and delights in them. And that is a stunning thing.
Photo by Wikimedia Commons