“There ought to be a church for a guy like me,” Rick said. The words left me speechless and has changed the trajectory of my sermon development and delivery ever since. We were sitting at a Furr’s Cafeteria in East Dallas having lunch. I had met Rick just three days before on the Sunday after the worship service that I helped plan. In one conversation Rick changed my preaching forever.
Rick didn’t go to church until that last Sunday. Having moved back in with his parents, who lived behind the church where I interned as a seminary student, Rick was in debt after another failed marriage. He hoped for a church that would help him make sense of his broken dreams and navigate a better future path. He assumed this church might help. This church assumed more than Rick had hoped. He told me as much as we shared lunch that day, now almost 25 years ago. Below are three things Rick taught me to “Assume Less” about when preaching …
Assume Less About Listener Interest
Too many preachers fail to ask themselves what every successful fisherman asks. They fail to ask what bait will hook their listeners. Preachers may think that because their seminary training only needed an open Bible and syllabus notes to learn effectively that the same should be true for their learners, as well.
This line of thinking assumes that what was good enough for the preacher’s training in discipleship should be sufficient for everyone else. “My Bible teachers didn’t cater to me, and I learned the material presented just fine,” the preacher may think. This thinking assumes more motivation than is typically true for many who are listening to a sermon.
The learner is more motivated to engage the sermon’s subject when it addresses life crises the learner is experiencing. These crises may be obvious, such as an impending divorce or the death of a friend. Other life crises are less dramatic to the outside observer but equally intense for the person experiencing them. Examples include relational conflict with an employee, worry about a child’s schooling or the security of the world post-September 11. The learner is highly motivated to engage the proposition proposed when the preacher speaks to the concerns that are on the hearts of the hearers and does so from a theological perspective. These same preachers actively look for opportunities to address problems as they surface in the text.
When preachers speak to the crises that hold learners hostage, the learners are motivated to engage the sermon’s content. Identifying common themes that constitute inner crises will help the preacher identify issues the sermons should address. The internal conflict of people in the pew may include an unsatisfied longing, unresolved rationality, moral dilemmas, relational alienation and an impending fear of human mortality.
“Less assumptive” preaching won’t assume the listener is interested. After a busy week and a relational conflict at home, the listener needs the preacher to create the “crisis” that demands the listener’s attention.
Assume Less about Listener Literacy
Every preacher should force him or herself to ask, “Do I care more about being helpful than about sounding smart?” Too often the preacher assumes more about the biblical and theological literacy of the congregation than is justified. Just because many know who killed Goliath doesn’t mean everyone does. “Turn in your Bible to…” without qualification is another reminder that “this isn’t the church for a guy like me.”
Instead, assume that a listener may be opening the Bible for the first time. Assume the listener doesn’t know who killed Goliath. Assume those gathered can’t believe this biblical account more than one of Dr. Seuss’ tales.
“Less assumptive” preaching won’t assume the listener is theologically and biblically literate. They put divine revelation on the bottom shelf so everyone can reach it.
Assume Less About Listener ‘Buy-In’
Recently I was preaching on the eighth commandment: No Lying. I was encouraging people to tell the truth, to let their yes be “yes” and their no be “no.” I suggested that lying hurts trust. Trust is essential for relational intimacy, and we all desire relational connection.
Makes sense so far, doesn’t it? I’m preaching reasonable truth. The problem is that the hearers are hearing a subconscious voice saying, “Good advice, even biblical, but you don’t live with my spouse. I can’t tell her the truth; she’d blow a gasket. You don’t know how angry she gets, and I can’t live with that.”
“Honor your parents.” Again, a true and biblical proposition—but what does it look like when my parents are elderly, were jerks in the past and are demanding in the present? I can’t help but hear the person wounded by a parent say, “What does this mean? I can’t obey this. My situation is certainly an exception.”
If that happens, no matter how true my preaching is, I have failed to address the part of the hearer that carries the greater weight as to whether Christian formation will happen. The less assumptive communicator will assume less and persuade more, while engaging the listener’s rationale and emotional barriers. Doing so, we continue the instructions of our Lord Jesus when he appointed Paul “to open their eyes, turn them from darkness, so they may receive … a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (
“Less assumptive” preaching works hard to engage the hearer’s hurdles that keep her or her from “buying” the sermon’s content and making its application to life beyond the weekend. “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (
Last week, I observed a friend who brought a 24-year-old young man named Justin home to answer his spiritual questions. She and her husband stayed up late cooperating with God and hoping to persuade him to say “yes” to the implications of the gospel. Then, they invited him to attend their local community church the following Sunday.
I bet they were hoping this Sunday their pastor was preparing a “less assumptive” sermon. I bet Justin hopes their church is “A Church for a Guy Like Me.”
Rod Casey is senior associate pastor at Woodcrest Chapel (Woodcrest.org) in Jefferson City, Mo., and an adjunct professor for A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary.