“Um, so, did someone tell you about Dave’s job?” an anxious member told me, as she shook my hand on the way out of the auditorium one Sunday morning. “Because it seemed like you were talking to us.”
I told her this was the first I had heard of their fragile employment situation. The sermon was on fear, and we were in uncertain economic times. I had offered, in passing, an example of someone who might be nervous about his or her job. But I wasn’t specifically targeting this family.
It’s difficult to know how to take this kind of comment. One the one hand, I never want people to think I am using the pulpit to preach at one specific person. On the other hand, I want to preach messages that the people in attendance can experience in a personal way. I think about this conversation and several like it often as I reflect on what we do when we preach.
When we stand in the pulpit and open the Word of God, we are doing two things. We are declaring, first of all, what God has already said. Pastors, therefore, have to get the text right. They have to know the text so well that they can get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit speak to the people of God.
But we’re also doing something else. We are preaching to a people. Our weekly declarations are contextualized to an audience in a place and time in the history of the world. Preaching, then, is also taking what God has already said and directing it toward those he has called us to faithfully serve.
In my experience as a pastor, the first part of my mission in preaching seemed to come naturally. I enjoyed studying and praying and reading. But in the second aspect I often struggled. There are dangerous temptations in crafting applications. I’d like to address a few of those temptations and offer some lessons on what I’ve learned.
Preaching to the Podcast
I love to listen to sermons from other pastors around the country who are far better at this than me. Today there are thousands of resources available, online, on our phone, at conferences. This is a gift of grace in this era of history, but if we are not careful, we can pick up the habits of our favorite expositors and preach to their congregations instead of our own.
Early in my ministry, I regularly listened to a handful of well-known pastors. I’m so grateful for the way these men shaped my preaching in those early days and gave me confidence that, like them, I too could feed my people from the Word. But I found myself, at times, preaching messages aimed beyond the men and women sitting in the pews at Gages Lake Bible Church and toward the churches served by my preaching heroes.
I once had a breakfast conversation with a longtime elder in my church. This was a man whom I deeply respected, who had a great love for the church and for Jesus. A few minutes in, he gently said, “I didn’t quite understand what you were saying on Sunday.” He identified a particular theological phrase I had used.
This came as a shock to me. All the preachers I listened to used this phrase. The journals I read and the books I studies used it as well. I assumed the people in my church knew what it meant.
But they didn’t. Not even close. I had been preaching to the podcast, so all the smart evangelical leaders I respected would download my sermon and think I was smart. I wasn’t preaching to the people I was called to serve.
First Peter 5:2 reminds us to be shepherds of our flocks that are among us. We aren’t called to pastor the podcast listeners or the folks on Twitter. We’re not called to engage the latest conversations on Facebook—though some of those conversations might inform our understanding of our people. We are called to shepherd and apply the Scripture to our actual community.
Some pastors I know do this well. One gathers an informal focus group of members to see if his application of the biblical text is connecting. Another has lunch with a regular group of members and has them read his message draft. A third pastor has stopped listening to sermon podcasts for a season to get his head out of other people’s congregations and into his own. I also know preachers who use social media—Facebook especially—to get a sense of what the people in their congregations are wrestling with. The key is to make sure we are preaching messages aimed less at the Twitterati or the podcast listener and more toward the people we serve in our faith communities.
Preaching to the Amen Chorus
Every year the calendar in January presents two opportunities for cultural reflection: Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and the observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. For most of my life growing up in church, we observed the first one. As a conservative, white, evangelical church, we lamented the sad legacy of Roe v. Wade and recommitted ourselves to speaking up for justice for the unborn. But I don’t remember ever commemorating the birthday of MLK. We never used that opportunity to challenge ourselves to think about race or helping to reconcile a divided country.
I must admit that for my first couple of years as a pastor I hesitated to talk about MLK. As a pro-life church, the sanctity of life issue was an easy message to preach. My audience largely agreed with me that abortion is a moral outrage, and they were eager to partner with our local pregnancy resource center to help counsel women who had abortions and to pray for a day when the unborn would be protected by law.
I grew deeply convicted, however, of my failure to address the issue of race, to apply the Scriptures to the vexing problem of racial unrest in the country. But the issue was risky. If thinking and preaching on race uncovered sinful attitudes in my own heart, I knew it would provoke the same wrestling in the hearts of my people. I would be stepping on toes.
So I decided to preach on both the sanctity of unborn life and on race in the same message, grounding it in a high view of human dignity based on Genesis 1:26. I was surprised by the reaction. Many of my people told me later that they were not thrilled to hear a message on race, but that my words helped them recognize that perhaps they had been blind to the hurts and pains of those in minority communities. Others said they were wary of a “political message” on abortion and came away with a freshly awakened conscience on human dignity.
The calendar provided an opportunity for this discussion, but we can do more than simply mark out one time a year to talk about difficult issues. We should contextualize our application to make sure we are not simply preaching about issues our congregations already agree on, but are hitting pathologies and attitudes with which they struggle.
For instance, in my nearly four decades of church life, I’ve heard hundreds of messages on the Great Commission text in Matthew 28, but very rarely have I heard pastors explain how the gospel brings together disparate ethnicities. For the Jewish audience, the idea that the gospel should go to “all nations” came as a shock. It meant that Jesus was not simply for the Jewish people of God, but for the world.
As I’m preaching that passage, if I do not challenge my people about their own temptation toward prejudice, I will not be delivering to them the full weight of Jesus’ words. The gospel is for all nations. When the nations come to our doorstep, into our neighborhoods, and into our workplaces, if we are not loving and listening to them, we will not be ready in that moment when God directs us to share the gospel with them.
In fact, you can hardly go through the New Testament without seeing, over and over again, the imperative that gospel work is reconciliation work, that in Christ we are “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) or that the kingdom of God is made up of every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5, 7).
This is just one issue in which, if we are only preaching to the biases of our people, we’ll miss opportunities for the Spirit to use us in revival and repentance in our congregations. We are tempted to preach against the evils “out there” in the world, to never challenge our people toward sanctification in areas where they really struggle.
Preaching to Our People
I’ve learned to contextualize my applications in several ways. First, I ask myself with every message, “In what specific ways does this text address this community and these people?”
Second, I endeavor to live in and among my people in such a way that I hear their conversations, listen to their pain, and understand their struggles. I cannot simply preach from the ivory pulpit; I must seed my preaching with the blood, sweat, and tears of those whom I serve.
Third, I try to model for them what it looks like to live out the Scriptures in my own life. It is tempting to avoid difficult issues, but it is just as tempting to shame people from the pulpit rather than provide them with on-ramps to help them understand what God is trying to do in them. Preachers must personalize the Scriptures, showing ways in which the gospel is working its way through our own hearts. We should be transparent about ways in which we have failed and sinned and sought forgiveness. We should talk about areas where God has helped us grow.
I’m not sure I’ve seen these principles embodied better than in the pastor of the church I now attend. As an associate pastor, I have the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone in the congregation, to listen and learn and hear preaching. I’ve realized the value of patient, faithful shepherding. Daryl, who leads our congregation, does this with a firm gentleness that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere, both speaking from the Scriptures prophetically and with compassion.
I’ve even found myself in the same position as the lady from my previous congregation, shaking hands at the door, saying to my pastor those words I heard said to me: “Did you know about my situation? Your sermon seemed directed at me.”
Those words, I’ve come to understand, just might be the best compliment a preacher can receive.
Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). Previously, he served as senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.