Why Should Anyone Listen to Me?
Are your life and preaching a testimony of your integrity? Are your listeners inspired to follow your lead? They will, if you follow two very important principles.
by Herb Cooper with Scott Harrup
Whether you stand behind a pulpit or on an open platform, whether you speak in an auditorium or a coffee shop, whether your audience is a dozen church-planting contacts or thousands of longtime members, you need to ask yourself the same fundamental question with every message you deliver: Why should anyone listen to me?
This question is both humbling and reassuring. Humbling, because when you are honest with yourself, you readily admit your deep spiritual need before God and your lack of merit in His sight. You are no better than anyone in your audience.
Reassuring, because when you are honest with God, acknowledging your need, you absolutely know He has created your giftings, initiated your ministerial calling, and drawn fellow members of the body of Christ into your sphere of influence.
I am convinced people are drawn to any preacher’s ministry in direct proportion to two factors in his or her life: (1) the extent to which he or she builds every message on the foundation of God’s Word, and (2) the extent to which that preacher’s life and character reflect that Word.
Every time I stand before our growing and diverse congregation at People’s Church in Oklahoma City, I am reminded anew of their great needs and even greater potential. I am reminded anew of my dependency and God’s enablement. I again recognize that the Word is the bottomless reservoir for answers to our deepest questions, and that my obedience and submission are the catalysts for the Holy Spirit to communicate answers.
Preach From the Word
Pastor Dan Anderson of First Baptist Church in Wewoka, Oklahoma, was my pastor during high school. He preached unvarnished and undiluted truth from the Word of God. I never remember him standing behind the pulpit in an election year trying to sway the congregation to vote for this or that candidate. I never remember a sermon on the latest fad theology or sin du jour. He simply preached the Word.
“Preach the word,” the apostle Paul enjoined Timothy. “Be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Preachers can lose sight of this most fundamental element of effective ministry. Whenever fads, politics, or personal opinion shift the focus from the Word of God, we diminish our ability to shape lives into the growth patterns God envisions for them. People want to hear a preacher teach and preach Scripture. If they truly are in tune with the Spirit, they do not want to listen to a preacher who has any other motivation than proclaiming the gospel and seeing lives changed by the power of Jesus Christ.
This past election season has again sensitized me to the dangers of prostituting the pulpit to politics. I am not saying politics of itself is evil. We need politicians, just like we need lawyers, doctors, and dentists. But I am not going to preach about your favorite lawyer, doctor, or dentist. I am not going preach about your favorite movie star or basketball player. I am going to preach the Word of God.
Preaching the Word of God is far more than an exercise in homiletic prowess or a display of exegetical finesse. Beyond proclaiming the inspired words from Scripture, we must rediscover the heart of God for the people we serve.
We must preach the Word of God with love. Every message must communicate the same love of God that motivated Him to give us His Word in the first place. We must never allow dogma to destroy our ability and responsibility to love.
There were times early in my ministry when I probably came across to my listeners as harsh, condemning, and critical. I traveled as an evangelist, and I knew I had a responsibility to stir up and move an audience to action. I have grown in my own relationship with Christ and in teaching and preaching God’s Word; I have learned when I preach truth with a loving heart it creates the best possible environment for change.
With every message I preach, I want people to sense my desire for God’s best in their lives — for their marriage, for their family, for their kids, for their career, for their finances. I want them to discover anew God’s all-encompassing love that brings to life the truth of His Word in every corner of their identity.
We must preach the Word of God with compassion. Compassion demands our personal identification with our people’s pain, with their temptations, and with their seasons of hopelessness. Many people come into our churches on Sunday following a week of renewed evidence that their lives are broken — a marriage is failing, a business is ruined, a child is living in addiction or in the grip of a lifestyle choice. What do we see when we look out on our congregations?
“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things” (Mark 6:34). Jesus saw the crowd and was moved with compassion for them. What He taught the crowd was an outgrowth of His compassionate awareness of their need. When you look at the Scriptures and the life of Jesus, you catch His vision anew. Your messages become lifelines to your people; and, the more clearly they perceive the rescuing and restorative nature of a message, the more powerfully they will be drawn to listen and to apply what they hear.
We must teach the Word of God with grace. It’s easy for any of us, whether we are writing, teaching, or dealing with people in the workplace, to become tainted with a spirit of expectation. We allow ourselves to mentally list conditions for others’ lives, where we treat people differently based on how well they meet our criteria.
Churches are places of rescue and healing. But too often we create environments where the lost feel they are on the outside looking in — even when they take the initiative to come into our building. How this grieves the heart of God. We must invite people into our church and accept them unconditionally. And this sense of acceptance must come through in our preaching.
Am I saying that we accept and endorse sin and the destruction it inflicts? Absolutely not. With the apostle Paul, I will readily affirm: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:1–4).
I will identify from the pulpit lifestyle choices and motivations and daily practices large and small as sin when the Bible clearly identifies them as such. But may I never communicate to anyone sitting under my teaching that they must do A, B, C, or D before I will accept them. From the moment guests first enter People’s Church, my passionate prayer is that I might do everything in my ability to connect them with the Heavenly Father. Every word they hear from me absolutely must be a word of invitation.
Preach With Your Life
Paul called on Timothy to preach the Word, because he knew God’s Word is the only sure foundation for ministry. Paul also understood we must live the Word as well as preach it. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” he wrote to Timothy, “but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). He cautioned another preaching protégé, Titus, similarly: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us” (Titus 2:7,8).
Paul did not claim either Timothy or Titus would set a perfect example. None of us has arrived spiritually. Each of us is on a journey. Paul himself admitted: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” He immediately connected this truth with his ministry by addressing those he served in Christ: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12–14).
One great attractor in your life to draw people to Christ will be their realization that you are on the journey with them. Just like the people I serve, I am growing in grace as I apply life principles from the Word of God. Let me outline four key opportunities where each of us has to lead by example.
1. In our relationships
I talk to my congregation about my marriage and tell them I am growing as a husband. I freely confess God is stretching me as a dad, and I need to be more patient with my children.
I admit that my relationship challenges extend beyond the home. When someone gets on my nerves, I am tempted to fly off the handle.
But there are also positive aspects of growth I pursue in my life and share with our church. I am intentional about a weekly date night with my wife, and I talk about how Tiffany and I are growing closer as a couple. Without sinking to prurience, I communicate to our congregation that our marriage is strong and wonderfully intimate.
My No. 1 ministry is not to the church; it’s to my wife and kids. I am at my kids’ ballgames. I nurture them. I read the Word to them. Tiffany and I pray with them every night. I lead that way in our home, and I let our church know that. I try to weave our family dynamics into messages because it motivates and inspires people to make God and His truth the center of their homes and their lives.
2. In our priorities
Praying, fasting, and personal Scripture study are priorities to me at home and in ministry. I read the Word of God and pray and spend time alone with the Lord before my family wakes up. I join with my staff in times of spiritual renewal.
We begin each year at church with 14 days of prayer and fasting. I lead in these disciplines. I don’t ask our church or our staff to go on a 14-day fast if I am not doing it. During those 2 weeks, we offer all-church prayer meetings in the morning from 6 to 7 and from noon to 1. Our staff is required to come to at least eight of these prayer meetings. I attend even more. I come to more meetings than anyone else because I must lead by example in my own relationship with the Lord.
Physical and spiritual health contribute to each other. I work out at a gym three or four days a week. I guard my Friday and take that day off. I model for our staff a personal commitment to restful and healthy living, and I expect them to maintain the same priorities. If you cannot take a day off every week, you are not healthy.
I have heard it said, as if it were some kind of spiritual merit badge, “Bless God, we are growing so much, we are so busy, I cannot get a vacation.” I do not accept that. I take my vacation. I just told the church recently, “I know some of you tell me, ‘Pastor, we miss you when you are not here.’ Well, I miss you too, but I am still going to be gone.” They laughed, but they understood.
3. In our finances
I work hard to be an example of godly stewardship. I tithe. I give offerings. I give until it hurts. When I ask the church to give a pledge above the tithe to a building campaign, I know I must lead the way. I must be willing to sacrifice if I am going to see God bring about a spirit of giving.
Tiffany and I worked to get out of debt when we were in our 20s, and we do not have any debt today besides our home. We live debt free. We may not drive the nicest cars, but they are paid for.
We committed to eliminating our debt because we recognize excessive debt is really evidence of greed. We struggle like everyone else to be content and to reject the materialistic siren song of our culture. With God’s help, we have determined that our purchases will never create a debt load that impacts our tithes and offerings. We do not want anything to eclipse our view of God and His goals for our lives. We live that way, and I preach that truth.
4. In our pain
Our first building program about 8 years ago nearly overwhelmed me. Between raising money, buying 50 acres, and building our first building, I came to a place where I felt like quitting.
When you are in a season of pain, the temptation is to allow that pain to shape your preaching. It might be as subtle as shifting your emphasis from a theology of joy to a theology of Job. There is certainly plenty of pain in the Bible. But circumstances must never replace the Holy Spirit as the source for your inspiration.
I can now tell stories about that difficult season and the lessons I learned, because I do so now with the right perspective. My pain is not dictating the content of my message. And when I share those vignettes, it surprises people. Nobody back then would have said, “Pastor’s going to crack; he’s close to quitting the church.” Thanks to God’s grace, I could model how to handle stressful seasons.
Stresses can manifest themselves through people as well as through situations. I have been attacked by people, I have seen people leave the church disgruntled and angry, and I have heard people say things about me and my ministry that were hurtful and untrue. But I determined that, with God’s help, my pain would never come through in my preaching. Sometimes the most difficult people in your church will be staring you down from the front row, but you need to be sure you are not creating a message aimed at your adversaries. Even in the midst of interpersonal stress, your message must be built on the Word of God and expressed with compassionate, grace-filled love.
Preach … and They Will Listen
When you found your preaching on God’s Word, and your life demonstrates its application, your people will be inspired to follow your lead. They will see that your life and your messages merge in an overarching testimony of integrity.
Even your mistakes can become steppingstones to greater trust and effectiveness when you have this kind of relationship with your people.
Our church started Saturday night services several years ago. We started in January, we went about 9 months, and we had decent attendance. But it was not accomplishing what we thought it would accomplish. Late in the fall, I knew I needed to pull the plug on it. I had to get up in front of the church.
“As your pastor,” I said, “I told you we were starting Saturday night services. I thought it would work; it hasn’t.”
I preached an entire sermon on why we started the Saturday night schedule, why it wasn’t working, and why we would discontinue. I had made a mistake, but I admitted it and gained credibility with the church.
You might come to a place where an announced goal does not materialize. “We’re going to build this building, and we’ll be in by April.” June could find you still in your old building. Have the courage to get up and be honest with the people. Honesty gives you credibility. An honest admission of humanity will build your leadership.
Trust leads to multiplication. When we started our second campus in August 2011, that transition was a great success because of that trust. I was able to ask 500-600 people to support the second campus and be willing to watch me on video each week. It was not an easy decision for them to make; but they did so because they bought into this vision, and that campus is running over 1,000 people because of the trust that has been established.
Why would anyone want to listen to me in person, much less on a video each week? It sure isn’t because of Herbert Cooper. My credibility rests on the credibility of God’s Word, and anything attractive about my life is a fruit of the Spirit’s work within me.
I feel I’m at a place now with our church — and I say this before the Lord in a spirit of brokenness and humility and good, healthy fear and trembling — that I have earned their trust. I have the trust of this church and the trust of my board. It is such an honor to have men and women who are influencers in our community, who run their own companies, say, “Pastor, we trust you. We trust your leadership. We will follow you.”
I pray I never take their trust for granted. With every new message the Holy Spirit lays upon my heart, I want to be on my face before God again asking that most critical question, “Why should anyone listen to me?” I want to hear the Spirit’s assurance that I have truly heard from Him, I have discerned a truth from His Word for our people, and I am in a position before God to model that truth as well as proclaim it.