When I’m on-site for a church consultation, I conduct interviews with a sampling of the members. I am often not at the church for a worship service and am frequently asked, “How can you consult our church and give recommendations for health and growth without hearing the preaching in a worship service?”
The answer is that I don’t listen to the preaching, but about the preaching. I hear the preaching, but it comes through the ears, hearts, and lives of those I interview. These include the members, the youth, and the newcomers to the church. After all, it doesn’t matter what I think about the preaching, because I’m not a candidate for membership at that church.
But what I hear is fascinating! It makes me wonder why more preachers don’t take inventory, anonymously, more often. As an outside observer who has promised complete anonymity, it is interesting what people will tell me about life in the church!
Preaching in the Mix
I do hear a lot about preaching and worship services, in general, while interviewing during a church consultation. I recognize that there is more to quality and quantity church growth than just worship and preaching. Indeed, there are frequently many complex issues besides preaching. Yet preaching is an important part of the mix. It is important because it is often the most visible point in the church’s life.
As I think about the relationship of preaching in those churches that I consider to be healthy in growth, a number of common characteristics come to mind.
Preach the purpose. Sometimes we take it for granted that people automatically understand the primary purpose of a church. But many do not! Lack of focus, vision, direction, and purpose seems to be rampant among American Christians. Frequently, when the clear purpose of making disciples is missing from the agenda of the members, it is also missing from the content of the preaching. It does not mean that every sermon has to deal with the Great Commission. It does mean, however, that Jesus’ passion for the lost needs to be communicated on a fairly regular basis. It also needs to be translated to God’s people so that they see their part in the Great Commission mission.
Maximize your gifts. I notice that pastors of growing churches tend to be fairly clear about the spiritual gifts they have and those gifts they are lacking. They tend to concentrate their ministry in areas where they are gifted. For your preaching, develop a style that utilizes your gifts best.
For example, if you have the gift of teaching, make your sermon more of a teaching/preaching type message. That might encourage you to preach in an expository style. It may lead you to provide an outline for people to follow or it may encourage you to use an overhead projector. If your gift is that of an encourager, make sure that whatever the message you’re preaching, you include a focus on the encouragement aspects of that particular message. If your gifts are in the area of pastoral care and you are a relational-oriented preacher, it might encourage you to get away from the pulpit and get closer to people, allowing your relational gifts to shine through your preaching. Whatever your spiritual gifts, consider how organizing your preaching style and methods would capitalize best on the gifts you have.
Know your audience. It is just as important to know your audience as it is to know your text. When I am asked to preach at a congregation as a guest, I ask for a demographic breakdown of the audience. It’s amazing to me how, in many churches, it is a struggle for the church office to think through the demographics of the people who are there every Sunday. In other words, they haven’t done that before.
I not only want to know the ages that are represented, I want to know if there are many singles. I want to know what kind of jobs the people have, a little bit about what kind of lifestyles they live, what is the ratio of members to “seekers.” And, I want to know a little bit about the hurts and the problems that people face in that congregation.
If you preach to a congregation every week, part of your sermon preparation includes getting to know your audience. The best way to learn about your audience is to listen and observe, not to talk to them. I estimate that if you have a congregation of approximately 200 in worship, on the average, you need to spend about 10 hours per week learning your audience. Some of that comes naturally as you are counseling, interacting, and sharing with a group. Some of it might require a breakfast meeting or a cup of coffee with some who you feel represent the pulse of the congregation. If you preach to a congregation that averages 800 in worship, that task will take 40 hours a week. And if you preach to 2,000, it will take 100 hours a week.
You might wonder how any preacher could possibly understand an audience of 800 to 2,000 or more. Who could spend 40 to 100 hours just understanding the audience? In larger churches, it is the staff who collectively gather this information. Of course, this means that there has to be an intentional mechanism by which the staff feeds information to the senior pastor so that the messages are on target to the audience.
Know the culture. Sometimes when I’m interviewing members during a church consultation, I notice that some in the church think the preaching is terrible while others think it is wonderful. As I interview more people, I sometimes realize that as the people get older, the preaching gets better! In other words, the preacher is preaching well to the older people, but missing the younger ones.
Recently I was at a church that was losing young people rapidly. The old-timers thought the preaching was wonderful. But the younger people I interviewed, some of whom had already left the church, said that it was boring. The preacher had grown old with the older members, but lost track of the changing culture and did not communicate well with the younger people.
Sometimes when I’m interviewing the youth, I find a preacher that not only pleases the older people but hits a home run with the younger people as well. I always ask the youth to rate the preaching at the church on a scale of 1 to 10. Every once in a while, I find a 10! When I do, guess what the younger people say? They say that the preacher “speaks our language, knows our challenges, understands our needs.” That is not always a preacher who is young. Sometimes they are preachers near retirement age, but who have done their homework!
You need to know what the culture is thinking. How do you do that? Read the headlines. Also read the TV Guide. Sample what is on television. Read what the people are reading. Listen to what they are talking about. These are keys to help understand the conversation of the culture.
Understand the unchurched. In American society today, unchurched people frequently have their first contact with the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the invitation of a friend to a worship service. Therefore, it’s important for preachers to know what unchurched people are like. Yet, many preachers hardly ever converse with unchurched people.
I teach church growth in several graduate schools at Bible colleges and seminaries. One of the assignments I frequently give to the pastors is to interview 10 unchurched people and write a written report that I collect and read. I ask these pastors to interview unchurched people and ask them: (1) What is the hope of society in your perception? (2) What do people need most? (3) What can churches do to help people in this community? It’s surprising what an eye-opener this is for preachers. It is important to understand the unchurched.
Assume nothing. We live in a secular society. Many church analysts describe the time in which we live as a post-Christian era. It is very different out there than it was in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, and even the 1980’s.
Stay away from church language. People are not impressed, but oppressed, by theological concepts. Share those theological gems in language they understand. When Jesus met the woman at the well, He talked about living water. When He talked to fishermen, He talked about fishing. He never used words like “trinity,” “reconciliation,” or “teleological ramifications.” Instead, He talked about the Father and the Helper. He spoke about a wayward son that finally came home and was accepted by his father. He said the Son of Man would return like a thief in the night.
Preach with joy. When I am in a church that has been declining for some time, I frequently hear people say that they come away from church depressed. They say that the preaching is negative. I believe there are basically two issues when preaching becomes bad news. One is when the preacher preaches about the problems 90% of the time and the solution 10% of the time. It seems to me that on balance, the solution, which is the good news about Jesus Christ, ought to get the majority of attention.
A second source of bad news is preaching style. Sometimes it’s so negative that even the good news seems like bad news. When that happens, it can be a reflection of a burned-out pastor or, even worse, a preacher with spiritual decline. When I hear people say there is too much negativism, I always look to diagnose the pastor to see if help is needed.
The point is that people do not have to come to church to hear bad news. In fact, most people do not need more bad news in their life. Most people already know that much of life is a mess. At the other extreme, you could deal straight on with the reality of sin — which is bad news — with a smile on your face. It was that great prophetess, Mary Poppins, who said “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
Consider segmenting your audiences. In my perception, even many small churches need to have multiple worship services. Not because the sanctuary is full and the church is out of room, but as an outreach mechanism to touch the various people groups in the community. At the very least, most churches need to have a believers service and a seekers service. This didn’t used to be the case, but the United States has become a mission field. If you want to reach the unchurched, you will preach elementary Christianity toward the hurts and the needs of people. But if you want to grow disciples, you need to go from the milk to the meat of the Word. You can’t do both very easily, all the time and at the same time.
One of the most powerful outreach strategies for growing churches is to plant another church. The most strategic way to plant another church is to plant a church within a church. That is, provide another worship service at a different time, maybe even on a different day, perhaps even in a different style, and possibly in a different place. Target those people groups in your community who are unreached. Provide a style and a time that particularly speaks to their needs.
For example, I know a church in Phoenix, Arizona that started a Saturday evening Country and Western worship service. I know a church in the upper Midwest that started a Sunday morning informal worship service. The members actually dressed “down” to attract the blue collar, informal people of that community. And it works!
Preaching to the Mission Field
There are many challenges when you live on the mission field. Preaching is one of those challenges. But there are also many opportunities. It is an exciting time to preach the Good News about Jesus Christ.
The key is to be flexible and open, yet solid on the Word. Preaching is the privilege and the honor of being an ambassador for Jesus Christ — and it can be a key element of reaching people and growing churches!

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