We have seen from previous articles in this series that the preacher needs to consider his own spiritual disciplines as he prepares to preach the word. It is also clear from the example of our Lord Jesus Christ and the writers of the New Testament, that the preacher likewise needs to take into consideration his listeners.
Preaching of the word should be relevant.
The word of God is relevant. But, we need to show it’s relevancy to our listeners where they are in their spiritual walk. For example, preaching a message about commitment and sacrifice for the Lord may completely miss people who are struggling with discouragement. We need to know our audience well, like Paul did on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-23) or like Peter did with the persecuted believers scattered around the eastern Mediterranean (1 Peter 1:1).
Preaching of the word should be balanced.
In the life of the local church, there needs to be a constant flow of the “bread and butter” ministry of the word. Over time, the major truths of scripture should be covered, not just an endless succession of exposition on the finer points of doctrine. In every congregation there is a mixture of newer and more mature believers. If you target the mature believer all the time, you will lose the newer believer. Also, it is easy to assume the people know more than they really do. The preacher needs to take them from what they know, to what they do not yet know, so that there is a well rounded understanding of God and His truth. Again, you need to know your audience.
Preaching of the word should be interesting.
Granted, the Holy Spirit is the one who stirs up the hearts, but the preacher should keep in step with the Spirit. Howard Hendricks used to say, “Nothing is worse than to bore people with God’s word.” This is not a matter of being witty or eloquent. You must understand the real need of the people when you are preaching the word of God to them. Resist the temptation to just throw the word out without being concerned for how the people respond. It is your job as preacher to get the people to listen. How can you do that?
A well known principle for making communication interesting is to anticipate the questions people will have in their minds concerning your subject. They have three main questions, from which should flow the major thrust of your message. Here they are:
What does it mean?We usually assume our listeners are asking this question and therefore many sermons are shaped as explanations of a passage or topic. The best way to explain something is to begin with where the listeners are in their understanding of spiritual truths. It may involve interpreting words, phrases and ideas, using words, phrases and ideas they are already familiar with.
Take, for example, the phrase “to appropriate God’s grace.” If you are speaking to mature Christians who have had a good deal of teaching, this brief phrase packs a large concept. Newer believers may have no clue what that means. Remember, during most preaching services, the listener can’t stop and ask, “What do you mean by that?”
“If a trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle. So it is with you. Unless
you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?” (1 Cor 14:8-9). To speak unintelligibly is kind of like non-charismatic speaking in “tongues.” We may be using English, but many don’t understand us!
Another example, on the conceptual level, is: what does it mean that God does not change (Malachi 3:6) and does no wrong, but the scripture says “God repented…” (Amos 7:6)? Especially, when Numbers 23:19 makes it clear that God does not repent. This needs some explaining! You can be sure that your listener’s are wondering the same thing.
In preparing to speak, when you initially read your scripture passage, imagine your audience hearing it for the first time. What questions of meaning surface? Will they know what a Pharisee is? Is Hades the same as hell? Why the different words?
Is it true?Often the meaning of the passage or the topic is quite clear to everyone. Your listeners may be dealing with a very different question: “Is it true?” You may say, of course believers know that Bible is true. They may even accept the biblicalness of your message but not believe it is true in their everyday life. They may be wondering if the message is credible and truly relevant to them.
For example, all things work to the good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). True, in fact. Factually, that is what the inspired word of God says, so it must be true. Most Christians know about this truth. But, is your audience struggling to really believe this in their situation? What about the man who just lost his job, he has heard this all his life. How, as the preacher, can you help him see the truth of this in his situation, other than just repeating the words of scripture which he can read for himself? True the word of God stands on it’s own, but the preacher’s role is to help the listener understand the truth of it.
A message that deals with this kind of question might draw on biblical examples, in this instance, from the captivity of Joseph in the OT (Genesis 37-50) or the imprisonment of Paul in the NT (Phil 1:12-20). You mightalso draw on anecdotal material of those who have struggled and found this truthto be true.
How does it work?This can be the most easily neglected aspect of communicating God’s word. Some call this the “So what?” question. “What difference does this truth make in my life and how do I implement it.” To end a message with “May these thoughts bless your heart” comes up short.
Jesus gave clear examples of this kind of communication: “Turn the other cheek” in the Sermon on the Mount is an example where Jesus uses “examples” to communicate the need for application. So also are the many parables that illustrate how God’s truth is to be applied—for instance, the good Samaritan. Jesus frequently finished a parable with a call to action: “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).
If, for example, you are preaching on the passage, “If we ask anything according to his will, he will hears us” (1 John 5:14), a big question people will have is “How do we do that?” You might use Jesus’ interaction with His father in Gethsemane as an example of “how to.” Often we preachers exhort people to share their faith—they have been told that endless times. The real question of interest may be not whetherto do it, but howto do it. Study, for example, Jesus’ interchange with the woman at the well (John 4). What principles can we draw from this story which will help the listener know how to witness better?
These three question are like mental crow bars that help focus a message to meet the audience where they are at. Not all three questions will necessarily be pertinent in every message or with every passage. I have them written out and sitting in front of me when studying to preach the word of God.
Next time you go to prepare a message for God’s people, consider how you can make it relevant, balanced and interesting.