There is one comment preachers long to hear after they preach a sermon: “I felt like God was speaking to me directly through you.” When this happens, the preacher knows he or she has been to be able to articulate the particular situation of the parishioner and respond with the appropriate word from God. There are several things a preacher can do to help achieve this.
Ways to Connect with the Audience
One way is spending time with your church members and getting to know them personally. This is not an easy task. It is time consuming because it requires listening to their problems, gaining insight into their perspectives and ascertaining their needs. Even though the term shepherd has become less popular as a metaphor for ministry it still expresses the care necessary to know the congregant’s internal world and his or her personal circumstances and concerns.
Second, the preacher spends time understanding the religious and secular culture of his or her congregation. Both cultures are diverse and complex. Religious culture includes denominational affiliation, theological perspective (e.g. conservative, liberal), alignment with the Spirit (e.g. charismatic vs. non-charismatic), worship style (e.g. liturgical, non-liturgical, without music, hymns only) and particularly opinions on specific issues (e.g. ordination of women, abortion, baptism, homosexuality, Arminianism vs. Calvinism, biblical inspiration).
Secular culture is no less complex. As believers in the world, who are called to confront the world, it is imperative that we understand its issues and what drives it. Our society is a mosaic woven together with different strands that influence us individually and corporately. The list is almost limitless though a few examples include media (e.g. television, Internet), communication (e.g. telephones, e-mail), education, politics, health/healthcare, food, work (i.e. where you work, what you do, when you do it), transportation, ecology, etc. We are immersed in culture, so it is often difficult to see its effects. Robinson notes the importance of understanding our culture in preaching:
Men or women who speak effectively for God must first struggle with the questions of their age and speak to those questions from the eternal truth of God.
Third, preachers need to familiarize themselves with the language of the culture. Not everyone speaks the same language, though they may all use the same language. A medical doctor, who was taking my course in Biblical Greek, became angry because he was having difficulty understanding the terms used to describe Greek syntax and grammar. He thought because he could converse fluently in the language of medicine that he would be able to do the same in Koine Greek. It was a humbling moment for him when we realized he had to do the hard work of learning how to communicate using a different vocabulary. Similarly, the language used to reach the teenager with the gospel will differ significantly from the Wall Street businessman or the homeless person.
Not only does the language differ between groups but also the means used to convey the message has changed. Culture has become more visual. The youth of today are accustomed to YouTube and are constantly exposed to seeing short and long videos on demand or pop-up screens with a brief visual message. Those of my generation are far more comfortable with an oral presentation and are able to sit through an extended monologue whether it is in the form of a lecture or a sermon.
The fact is that people perceive differently. Old and young differ. The challenge for the preacher is to be able to communicate in a manner in which the different groups can hear the gospel. The visual learners may need a video clip or drama. The oral learner may need a clear logical verbal presentation. The contemplative may need questions with reflective space.
I do not think all the different mediums can be expressed in every sermon or worship service, but greater variety may be needed in order for people to be able to receive the gospel in a medium with which they are most comfortable.
Challenges for Preachers
Spending time with church members and non-church members, understanding the religious and secular culture and becoming familiar with the language of the different people groups all are important in order to be an effective preacher. I believe there are two potential problems, though.
First, these activities can be time consuming. It is difficult to carve out time each week to do these things, but I do not believe this is an excuse not to do them. Caring for the people God has entrusted to us as pastors and preachers is an important and non-negotiable aspect of this calling as J.M. Reu rightly noted, “Preaching is fundamentally a part of the care of souls, and the care of souls involves a thorough understanding of the congregation.”
Second, these activities are difficult. For example, understanding culture could be a full-time job. No preacher has enough time to plumb the depths of this topic or become familiar with the elements of communication for different groups. All of us are dependent on the work of others in these fields. We need to be aware of the main issues but all will be lacking in some aspect.
Collaborative Preaching and Its Benefits
Because of these challenges and limitations for preachers, I occasionally have tried to practice what I call “collaborative preaching.” When I studied homiletics, I was told to imagine different people around me when I was preparing my sermon. The purpose of this was to ensure that my message would be relevant.
So I would imagine the cynic at the table would ensure that my material had substance, that it was genuine and real rather than a smattering of pious idealistic platitudes. The teenager would be present to help me avoid overstating my message, thereby leaving him or her bored and asking when I would finish. I would try to write, keeping the old believer in mind so my message would be challenging and move him or her beyond the comfort zone in order to provoke growth.
I would consider special people—the divorcee, widow, single parent and chronically ill—as I wrote to ensure I preached a word of comfort and solace. The unbeliever helped me produce a persuasive message that led toward change and conversion. I found doing this was effective and beneficial.
This process forced me to look outside myself to the plethora of needs within and outside of my congregation. In spite of these benefits, I felt there was still something lacking. The needs I was addressing were the needs of the people as I saw them. The exposition of the text was my interpretation but without any of their insights. The application was based on what I thought they were thinking or needed. The language was primarily in my words, not theirs.
In essence, I had excluded their voice. There was no dialogue and my congregants were not personally represented. This experience led me to try something different.
I decided instead of imagining these different groups of people that I would actually bring them to the table and get their perspective. I set a date (usually earlier in the week, around Tuesday) when I met with them corporately. I wanted this process to be dialogical. I sent out an e-mail with the sermon text. I asked them to come to the meeting prepared (and they did) to discuss the following questions:
• What do you think this text means? How would you interpret it?
• How would you apply this text to your life and people in your situation?
• Do you have any stories or quotations that might illustrate this text?
One week around the table, I had a wife/homemaker, an unemployed male, a computer programmer, a working mother who was a chaplain, a doctor and a college student. I tried to get people around me who represented the constituency of the church.
The members of the group changed so not everyone could make it every week. Another week, the group included a teenager, an ex-addict and a single mother as our church’s mission was to reach out to the marginalized. The goal was to be inclusive as much as possible.
I would take the insights and illustrations of the various members and compare their insights with those I tentatively had made coming into the meeting. I still had the authority over what was included in the Sunday sermon, but often I found the insights of the different members into issues of the text, their application and illustrations were gems to be incorporated. After the sermon was preached on Sunday, they submitted their feedback, sharing what they thought worked or did not work.
Was this method effective? Was it beneficial? I believe it was on several accounts. First, it enabled me to get firsthand insight on a text before a sermon was preached, which could be shared with others for their benefit. Receiving insights or a particular perspective on a topic after the sermon is preached does little good for others in the same situation.
Second, I was not left to guess or intuit how a certain group of people might experience a text. I had their perspective, and it increased the likelihood of me reaching people of the same group with God’s message. The process left me more confident that I had a message that would reach others.
Third, it provided a good sounding board for my own ideas. Preaching can be a lonely endeavor, but having others to share the process made it more exciting, dynamic and creative.
Fourth, it provided an opportunity for others to share their gifts. I discovered through this experience that people had a lot of insight though they might not be preachers (and probably shouldn’t preach).
Fifth, I was not left at a loss for good illustrations. Frequently I was provided with stories and anecdotes with which people could relate. They were tried and tested.
Sixth, by having the people in front of me I was able to hear the language of their respective constituencies and write my sermon reflecting their voice and language.
I don’t engage in collaborative preaching every week and wouldn’t recommend it. During a sermon, the congregation wants to know how God speaks and what He is saying to them through me; yet collaborative preaching does have many benefits. At a minimum, it can provide an option to help a pastor break out of a preaching rut. Who knows—you might find more people say after such a sermon, “I felt like God was speaking to me directly through you.” What could be better than that?
Craig A. Smith is Professor of Biblical Studies and Chair of the Theology and Ministry Department at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas.