The apostle Paul knew about distractions, and he exhorted Timothy to be about the business of his calling, writing: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4). While Timothy served Jesus long before the temptations of social media, 24-hour news feeds, or ESPN, pastors today face all these distractions and more.
But preaching demands more than distracted dalliance. It demands our best efforts, our striving for mastery, and our commitment to excellence. Certainly, the surpassing power belongs to Christ alone, and apart from the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, no hard work on the part of the preacher will produce spiritual change. But work hard you must, for the ministry of preaching is the heart of the pastorate.
Robert Dabney, an old Southern Presbyterian theologian, asked, “What, then, is a call to the gospel ministry?” and he answered, “[I]t is an expression of the divine will that a man should preach the gospel.” Dabney defined a call to ministry as a call to preach. The implication is clear: Pastors should prioritize preaching and devote themselves to preaching well.
The preacher’s effort and the Spirit’s power work closely together. Consider an axe. It is only a tool, but ask any man who has wielded one, and he’ll tell you that while it is possible to fell a tree with a dull axe, it’s a sweaty bit of hard work. To the contrary, bite into a tree trunk with a razor sharp blade, and felling a tree can be a joy. You, preacher, strive to present yourself as the sharpest tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit that you are able to become. Give the Spirit an axe that is a joy for him to wield.
Young ministers often falsely believe that outstanding preaching is solely a matter of giftedness. “He’s just a great preacher,” they say. My experience, however, is that great preachers couple giftedness with good, old-fashioned hard work. Outstanding preachers have worked hard, often for decades, to hone the edge of the axe. They still trust in the Holy Spirit, prayerfully seeking his blessing, but they also labor diligently to cultivate Christ-honoring excellence in the pulpit.
But, how, in all the busyness of a modern pastorate in a modern world, can a preacher cultivate prowess in the pulpit? James Waddel Alexander, the eldest son of Princeton Seminary professor Archibald Alexander, believed that preachers need both conviction and resolve. First, you must embrace the conviction that the preaching of the gospel truly is the primary task of pastoral ministry. If it is primary, then it should receive the lion’s share of your time and efforts. Second, you must resolve, as Alexander urged, to “Lop off all irrelevant studies.” Every pastor is interested in many disciplines and fields of thought, but is each of those fields of equal value? Does each discipline contribute equally to the fulfillment of the calling you have received? Will every hobby or pet intellectual interest hone the edge of your axe? Of course not. Alexander understood this truth and he insisted: “The secret of being learned, is heroically to determine to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride.”
Preacher, have you heroically determined to be ignorant of the latest Facebook thread, political scandal, or MMA highlight video? Are you focusing your best efforts on the work to which the Lord has called you? Or are you scattering your energies and your labors in a dozen different directions, giving to the ministry of preaching only the leftovers? Outstanding preaching demands outstanding labor, but Jesus, whom we serve, is worth it.
So strive to preach heroically.
 Dabney, Robert Lewis. “What is a Call to the Ministry?” In Discussions, Volume 2: Evangelical, 26-46. Edited by C. R. Vaughan. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1982. Originally published as Discussions, Volume 2: Evangelical. Edited by C. R. Vaughan. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1891.
 Alexander, James Waddel. Thoughts on Preaching: Classic Contributions to Homiletics. Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2009, 132. Originally published as Thoughts on Preaching, being Contributions to Homiletics. New York, NY: Charles Scribner & Company, 1864.
 Alexander, Thoughts, 132.