A few weeks ago, I listened to one of the first sermons I preached. I’m not sure what inspired me to make this decision. But unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I do not recommend you to do the same.
I can honestly say that younger me faithfully exegeted the text, but the sermon still fell flat. I can point to a dozen reasons why that was the case, but this was one of the biggest: I wasn’t preaching to the people in the room.
In other words, I had a certain person in mind — perhaps a seminary professor or my own pastor at the time — and I chose my language, illustrations, and overall feel of the sermon to impress them. So while I was technically preaching to a room full of believers in rural Georgia, I was actually preaching to people who weren’t in the room at all.
I doubt this temptation is exclusive to new preachers. We all craft our sermons with someone in mind, but we’re all tempted to make that someone a professor, a peer, or a certain group of people on social media.
How to Preach to the People in the Room
As pastors, though, we must resist this urge and labor to preach to the people in the room. How can you do so, and what does that look like practically?
1. Know their interests.
What are your church members interested in? Do they enjoy watching certain sports, engaging in certain hobbies, or listening to a specific kind of music? Knowing your church members’ interests is the most superficial level of this conversation, but this knowledge can still aid your preaching.
Knowing my church members’ interests informs the kinds of illustrations I employ. For example, I know my people would look puzzled if I trotted out an illustration about a sci-fi television show, but they’d instantly connect to a basketball story. They may scratch their heads if I cite a noted philosopher, but they would light up if I quoted a lyric from a country song.
Knowing our church members’ interests allows us to build common ground with them in the sermon, and it helps us connect biblical truths to them more effectively.
2. Know their concerns.
What burdens and sufferings do your people face right now? What station of life are they in, and what concerns do they have? Are they dealing with a particular hardship or form of suffering?
Asking these questions will reveal a series of concerns your church members are facing, and this knowledge can help you apply the balm of scripture directly to where they’re hurting most.
3. Know their sin struggles.
What patterns of sin do your church members deal with? Where are they most tempted? What “works of the flesh” are they most likely to exhibit (Galatians 5:19-21), and what “fruit of the Spirit” do they need to grow in (Galatians 5:22-23)?
Admittedly, we can’t know everyone’s sin struggles. But as you grow to know people, observe their lives, and study their social media feeds, you may notice trends in their lives where the Spirit needs to continue his work of sanctification.
We can use this knowledge not to berate our people, but to lovingly apply the truths of Scripture to their sin struggles. We can help them to see how God’s word really does point us to a more beautiful and satisfying life in Christ.
4. Know their idols.
When preaching to your congregation, what topics make the room grow tense? What issues, when addressed, lead believers to tilt their heads ever so slightly? What biblical truths turn smiles into grimaces? If you’ve ever had such an experience, you may have uncovered an idol.
When we know people’s idols — whether race, politics, music styles, sexual ethics, or something else — we are tempted to avoid those topics. Why go to the trouble of addressing them if we know they will ruffle so many feathers? But if we’re committed to expository preaching, we will necessarily address those topics. When God’s word speaks clearly, so must we.
Knowing our church’s idols doesn’t mean we avoid those topics, then, but that we address them with precision, intentionality, and care. We want to speak to these topics with appropriate mixtures of grace and truth, leaving no word or sentence spoken carelessly. If we know addressing this idol will be akin to stepping on a mine, we want to make our words count.
5. Know their strengths.
What strengths does your church model? In what ways do you see the Spirit clearly at work? How have others affirmed your church? Knowing the answers to these questions can give you specific opportunities to encourage them.
For example, our church has excelled in its generosity and love for one another. When we arrive at Bible passages on these topics, I use this opportunity to speak a word of encouragement to them. As a shepherd, I want to help our people see not just how God’s Word critiques the bad, but how it also affirms the good.
Pastor, don’t preach to your seminary professor, your favorite preacher, or a random avatar on Twitter. Preach to the people in the room. Know their interests, concerns, sins, idols, and strengths, and apply God’s word accordingly.
Practically, then, preaching to the people in the room requires us to do the hard work of getting to know our people. This process can only happen with time and intentionality — by seizing moments for small talk before and after the service, by sitting with people in their grief, or by otherwise spending time with people.
To become better preachers, we must first become better pastors. Our love for our people can empower us to lovingly, faithfully apply the text to their lives.
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