There isn’t a straight line between prayer and sermon efficacy

I have been troubled for some time now about the noises frequently made around the relationship of prayer and sermon efficacy. It has become common to hear folk insist that without prayer your sermon preparation will have been as naught. I worry about this emphasis for several reasons.

Before I dig into those, I want to be clear what I am not saying. This is not any sort of encouragement to forsake prayer. The Lord Jesus commands us to pray, the apostles tells us to pray continually and James insists that ‘you do not have because you do not ask.’ It is a simple matter of obedience for us to pray.

What is more, James is clear enough that there are some things that we would have, but that we don’t have, because we haven’t asked God for them. If we want our sermons to be effective, it is possible that there are times they are not as effective as they might be because we didn’t bother to ask the Lord to help us in our preparation or to prepare the listeners.

It is also a sign of our spiritual state if we aren’t bothered about praying. We are manifesting a belief that we do not need the Lord’s help. If we aren’t praying, we are holding the Lord in contempt and insisting that we don’t need him in whatever area. It is certainly true that we cannot necessarily expect the Lord to work if we continually dishonour him this way and treat him with such disdain.

So, just to be clear, I am vociferously not suggesting that you don’t need to bother praying about your sermons. Prayerlessness is absolutely not to be applauded. There is nothing good about failing to pray and it speaks to a heart that does not rely on the Lord as one ought.

But I am concerned by the straight line that many want to draw between our prayers and the efficacy of our sermons. Is it true that our sermons will be total duds if we fail to pray? Will the Lord refuse to work if we haven’t put the effort into our prayer time? I think this inference is theologically problematic and debases the Lord almost as much as the total lack of prayerlessness this view is trying to avoid also does.

At heart, this view ends up turning our prayer into a work through which the Lord must work. It renders prayer as little more than an incantation that compels the Lord to work. It makes the Lord barely different to the demands of false gods who insist you must do your ablutions and proffer your sacrifices before they may deign to work for your good. But since when did Yahweh demand that you keep your part of the bargain so that he might keep his? We are not in a quid pro quo arrangement with the Lord.

Throughout the Old Testament the Lord put up with the most appalling of behaviour from his people. Even when they profaned his name and trampled over his covenant, still the Lord worked. As Isaiah 48:11 puts it, ‘For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.’ If the Lord is concerned about his own glory, in what world will our lack of prayers lead to his not working for his own name’s sake? If the Lord can bear with Israel during the time of the judges and continue to work to serve his own glory, which is in the interests of Israel themselves, is he really not going to build his people because the minister didn’t pray through his sermon?

Indeed, the Lord himself says to Isaiah:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)

In case we fear that this is somehow uniquely tied to the Old Covenant in some way, consider Paul’s reaction when he hears complaints that some are preaching from bad motives:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 1What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:15-18

It doesn’t sound like a lot of prayer is going on here. Certainly, if there is any, it isn’t sincerely offered. Yet Paul doesn’t seem to have any concern about it as far as the Lord’s ability to work through it is concerned.

And why should he? The God who could speak through a talking donkey, who could use the unbelieving Cyrus the Great to accomplish his purposes, who can work through all manner of flawed individuals and nations – some of whom profess faith and some of whom don’t – surely will not be thwarted by a preacher who failed to pray adequately about his sermon this week. The Lord’s word will not return to him void – whether we pray about it or not – but will achieve what he wants it to achieve.

This view that our prayers and our sermon efficacy necessarily correlate falls into a prosperity-lite trap. We assume that if we just prayed more, the Lord would work more. It is little different to the calls to send in your ‘seed money’ so that the Lord might increase your blessings. We may not be asking the Lord to bless our bank accounts and stores of health, but we are still asking him to bless us and expect him to do so if we put in the hours in prayer. It is, at best, a legalism that renders our prayers a part of the contract that must be fulfilled if we are to get the blessing on our sermons that we are evidently after. Not only will God refuse to be held over a barrel that way by his creatures, it falls under the even worse presumption that we might somehow impede God’s sovereign desire to bless his people because of some failure on our part. You will struggle to find any Biblical support for that idea and Evangelicals are quick to rubbish it as a view in almost every area save this one.

The view is interestingly man-centric. It makes me the arbiter of whether God will work or not, as if Almighty God is impeded by me. But it goes beyond mere man-centrism and becomes entirely self-centred. Imagine you get into the pulpit on Sunday in the full knowledge that you have failed to pray even once, or cursorily, about your sermon. But what if three-quarters of your congregation have been praying? Does the preacher’s lack of prayer render the thing a dud or does the congregations prayer override his prayerlessness? The view becomes exceptionally self-centred as though my prayer somehow counts for more than anyone else’s. And all this before we reckon the whole argument a nonsense in that God frequently blesses his people despite multiple, frequent, manifest failings. His glory, and the efficacy of his word, will not be dulled or impeded by our sin.

Do I think you should pray about your sermon? Of course you should! The Lord tells you that you should. That’s reason enough. And it is evidently true we cannot expect God to work when we hold him in contempt. If I treat my wife badly, I can’t expect her to treat me any better. But, at the same time, when I do treat my wife badly, it doesn’t necessarily mean she will return tit-for-tat. My wife is a gracious woman after all. How much more then will Amighty God – whose highest priority is his own glory and whose protection and blessing of his people is intimately tied up with that priority – not bless us despite our not always doing as we ought? If he can bless Israel in the midst of the grossest sin for his own name’s sake, can he not bless your congregation in the face of your prayerlessness?

We should rightly prioritise prayer. But can we draw a straight line between input of prayer and efficacy of our sermons? No chance. The Lord will bless his people, the Lord will serve his own glory, and you and I aren’t getting in the way of that. Should we pray? Absolutely. But I am wary of the emphasis that so often makes the value of our sermons dependent on the existence, or efficacy, of our prayers. It just isn’t so.