On any given Sunday, you’ll likely hear immigration, poverty, race, or injustice mentioned in the sermon at our church—not because of the latest headlines but because of our commitment to connect Scripture with our congregants’ lives. As a church in a low-income and disadvantaged community in Austin, Texas, over 50 percent of our congregation is Latino, most are bilingual, and many are immigrants. These topics reflect their daily struggles.
When we preach from the Book of Ruth, for example, we specifically address Ruth’s immigration journey, her border crossings, her vulnerable status in a new land, and the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics of the story. When we preach from Genesis 16, we tell our people—some of whom have fled human trafficking—that, as with Hagar, God sees them, understands their pain, and cares for them, even when they feel utterly alone. And when we preach the story of David and Bathsheba, we do so with a sensitivity to the women in our church who’ve been abused or sexually assaulted, emphasizing that David’s misuse of power was a form of rape and that God will bring a reckoning for this kind of evil.
We do all of this because we are committed to local expositional preaching. As John Stott writes in Between Two Worlds, “Preaching is not exposition only but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it.” It’s the preacher’s job to personalize and contextualize God’s Word to the listeners—to bring the people’s needs, cares, and questions to the text and consider how God’s Word is directly speaking to them.
Know Your Sheep
Rather than producing a generic sermon that anyone could listen to, local preaching means crafting sermons as a shepherd who deeply and intimately knows one’s sheep. This is Jesus’ commission to Peter in John 21:15–17. “Feed my sheep” is a metaphorical challenge to spiritually nourish God’s people with God’s Word. The shepherd’s task, as Peter describes it, is to care for the “flock that is under your care” (1 Pet. 5:2, emphasis added). This call is more local than global in focus, as our attention is on knowing our sheep and on laboring to feed and protect them. No two flocks are the same. So, preachers must prepare their sermons knowing whom they are feeding.
A preacher is “an ethnographer of the congregation,” writes theology professor Ruth Conrad. This means asking ourselves, What is our congregation’s cultural makeup? What is the specific socioeconomic and educational background of each person who calls this church home? Who is having marriage difficulties, faith struggles, and parenting challenges? What sicknesses, diseases, and pains are in our midst? Who has been bullied or shamed? Who is struggling with mental health? We must know the specific answers to these questions and lovingly respond to real lives through our preaching.
Be Ready to Pivot
This requires a willingness to keep sermon planning flexible. Our preaching calendars must be malleable enough that they can be interrupted—that we can stop mid-series and turn to a completely different passage to tend to a need in our congregation. For example, during a sermon series on Genesis at our church, it became apparent by chapter 2 that we needed to address the subject of human sexuality more directly. Conversations with church members revealed that some were wrestling with society’s view of sexuality, others were struggling with their own sexual desires, and others were trying to parse out the meaning of maleness and femaleness. These issues felt pressing, so we adjusted our plans and devoted another entire sermon to human sexuality to help our congregation process their questions from the prior week. Several church members expressed appreciation that we made space to linger on this topic.
If Needed, Preach on Repeat
Local preaching also means being willing to address certain issues on repeat or in several sermons back to back. If our congregants are struggling with something, we shouldn’t be afraid to come back to it pastorally time and again. Ongoing needs require continual care and discipleship—and preaching can be part of that care. Even though our church has at times been criticized for emphasizing certain issues too often, our response is simple: We know our congregants, and this is what they need to hear.
Directly Address Specific Struggles
Preparation for a sermon is often done around people’s dining room tables just as much as at one’s desk, huddled over a Scripture text. As preachers, breaking bread with congregants protects us from reading the Bible in a vacuum. When I (Aaron) sit down to prepare a sermon, I still begin by translating a text from its original language. I study the text’s historical, literary, and theological elements. But as I do, I also seek to see how the passage at hand directly speaks into the realities of my congregants.
Put plain and simple, if a pastor knows someone is struggling with substance abuse and the text includes a word for that, the pastor should directly address this issue in the sermon. If a pastor just had a conversation with a single mom struggling with loneliness and the text has a word for that, the pastor should directly address this issue too.
Intentionally Make Eye Contact
We can make an intentional choice about where we direct our faces and how we make eye contact when preaching. There is power in looking people in the eye and speaking directly to them. When you give an exhortation to fight against the sin of pornography, for example, you can discreetly make eye contact with the person you spoke to last week about this issue—not to bring shame but to let the person know you see their struggle and you care for them.
While preaching on the inherent goodness of femaleness during the human sexuality sermon, I (Aaron) tried to make eye contact with every woman in our congregation to personally communicate the good news of how God sees them as females. And when I, as a second-generation Mexican American, spoke on how Latino culture oftentimes conveys that females are less important and valuable than males, I directly looked at each of my Latina sisters, affirming them as women.
A Worthy Calling
In my early years of ministry, I (Aaron) tended to preach theologically dense sermons with generic application. I often struggled to make the sermon text personal, in part because I didn’t know the congregation well. I’ll never forget the Sunday when a man came up to me after church and said, “Pastor, I like what you be saying, but sometimes I don’t know what you be saying.” God used his words to show me that, while my sermons may have been theologically accurate, they were not as accessible as I thought, and they were not personal.
Today, in my current congregation, I know my sheep. Whenever I prepare a sermon, I can hear their questions while studying; I can feel their pains and joys while writing. As I type my sermon, their names flash before my eyes. The effect is that I’ve learned (and am still learning) how to preach biblical and theological truths in an accessible way that touches their minds and hearts.
Local preaching is a worthy calling and one that every pastor should take confidence in. In an age of celebrity pastors, the tendency toward comparison will never escape us. However, the more securely we can embrace our unique ministry call—to preach to our congregation and to minister to our community—the better we can withstand the struggles of insecurity that often beset pastors. Success is not measured by counting the likes a sermon receives online but by connecting the Word of God to our congregants and seeing fruit in their individual lives.
Aaron and Michelle Reyes lead Hope Community Church, a multicultural church in Austin, Texas, where Aaron is lead pastor. Michelle is vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative; her forthcoming book is Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures (Zondervan, April 2021).