The following story comes from my friend Dave Burchett. It seems that a young pitcher for the Texas Rangers had just been called up from the minors. He got his big chance because he had shown a fearless ability to throw strikes no matter who was at the plate. Finally the night came when he was going to pitch in the major leagues for the first time. Like many players getting their first start, the young hurler was nervous and it showed on the mound. Thinking he needed to make a good impression, he tried this pitch and that pitch. Slider, fastball, curve, forkball, you name it, he tried it. He pitched high, low, inside, outside, in the dirt, he was all over the place. He walked batters left and right, and the ones he didn’t walk hit the ball hard. At length, having seen enough, the manager decided to talk to the young man. When he got to the mound, the manager put his hand on the pitcher’s shoulder and said, “Son, Babe Ruth is dead. Throw strikes.”
That’s good advice for budding pitchers. Babe Ruth is dead so don’t try to be cute. Just throw strikes. Put the ball over the plate. If they hit it, they hit it, but don’t try to throw some kind of fancy pitch you haven’t mastered yet. Throw strikes. That’s the heart of good pitching.
What works for budding pitchers works for young preachers also. Spurgeon is dead so don’t try to be like him. This is surely a major temptation for preachers everywhere. We find a man we like and we pattern our preaching after his, but the result never satisfies because we aren’t Spurgeon and we’re not living in London in the late 1800s. Sometimes people wonder how Spurgeon would get along in the 21st-century, but all such speculation is idle and useless. He did just fine in London 130 years ago. I have no idea how he would do in San Diego or Charlotte or Boston in 2007, and it doesn’t matter. Like David of old, he served his own generation according to the will of God and then he died (Acts 13:36). That’s all any of us can do–serve our own generation according to the will of God. Spurgeon had a huge impact in his own day, which is why we still read his sermons and why many people consider him the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul.
But Spurgeon is dead. Woe to the man who fancies himself the Spurgeon of today. Do not mistake what I am saying for the well-known preacher who said that he hoped to get through his entire career without once quoting Spurgeon. I couldn’t disagree more. I read Spurgeon, love him, and have all his sermons on my computer hard drive. No one was better at taking a text and making a beeline for the cross. Oh, the man could preach, and we are all the poorer if we don’t sit at his feet. But we are misguided if we attempt to woodenly mimic his style.
Nothing is harder than to be yourself, mostly because it takes years to figure out who you are. And you won’t get there without making lots of mistakes. We’ve all heard about the young man who, upon entering the banking business, asked his mentor what it would take to rise to the top of his profession. “Good decisions,” came the reply. But how do I learn to make good decisions? “Experience,” said the older man. Where will I get the experience I need to make good decisions? The answer came quickly. “Bad decisions.”
I once heard a famous preacher say that his goal was to raise his “batting average” of good sermons. When he started, he said that he could preach a good sermon maybe once every seven or eight times. Through hard work over the years he had raised his average so that he reckoned that now he preached a good sermon twice a month. There are several things to criticize about that comment, the most obvious one being that the preacher is often not the best judge of his own effectiveness. Let him ask his wife if he really wants to know how he’s doing. That said, I think the general approach is right to try and raise your “batting average” of good sermons. My mentor in the ministry, Ed McCollum, told me 40 years ago that the only way to learn how to preach is to preach. Preachers aren’t made in the classroom. They are made in the pulpit, week after week after week.
Know yourself, said the ancient philosophers. But that is the work of a lifetime and it is never really finished. Learn from the master preachers, sit at their feet, study their style, their technique, the way they approach a text, their introductions and their conclusions. Learn all that you can, then put it all aside and preach the message God gives you. Be your own man in the pulpit. If that’s not enough, trying to be someone else won’t work anyway.
Babe Ruth is dead–and so is Spurgeon. Just throw strikes.