Imagine your congregation yesterday. A teenager in the balcony is contemplating suicide, unable to cope with the memories of sexual abuse as a young child. A couple sitting near the front made the painful decision the night before to end their 30 year marriage. A young man in the back row, a first time visitor, wonders whether this congregation might be a place where he can feel comfortable worshipping as a gay man. An elderly woman sitting alone is consumed by grief because this is her first Christmas without her beloved husband. A recent college graduate, unable to find a job, feels lost and questions where God is leading her. How do you proclaim the good news in a way that reaches people with a variety of hopes, dreams, and needs?
Who is your audience as a preacher? As you stand in front of your congregation week after week, who are your listeners? Most commonly, an audience is defined as “the group of spectators at a public event.” Therefore, it is natural to look at the congregation as the audience in preaching. As preachers, we present the word of God to our congregations by “re-presenting God.”
Preaching always begins with our relationship with God. In order to preach well, we need to be intentional about cultivating our own spirituality. We cannot offer to others what we have not experienced ourselves. Preaching becomes most effective, however, when we know our parishioners and our world as well. We do not preach in a vacuum. Lives are transformed when we make connections between the biblical text and the hopes and dreams of the body of Christ.
Preaching begins with building relationships.
- Preaching is about far more than selecting a text, reading, studying, praying, and writing. Our preparation actually begins by leaving the office and being out and about with our parishioners. We meet people where they are: in homes, hospitals, nursing homes, workplaces, sporting events, and schools. We could call it an exegesis of the congregation.
- Our congregations want to develop a coherent Christian world view, understand their own struggles in the light of their faith, and be able to share their faith with others. We cannot preach on real issues that affect real people unless we are conversant with current events in our community, nation and world.
- As you begin sermon preparation, imagine 5 people who will likely be sitting in the congregation on Sunday. What are their joys? What challenges do they face? How can you represent God to them? How can you feed the mature disciple and at the same time make the gospel simple enough for the new Christians? Once you can see the faces of those 5 people, then begin by writing down the purpose of the sermon and what response you hope to elicit.
- Use the biblical text as a springboard to speak to specific needs of your parishioners. When we never address the deep questions: unanswered prayer, forgiveness, financial stress, suffering, or ethical dilemmas, we are perceived as being out of touch. Great sermons are not generic sermons – they are preached to a specific congregation on a specific day for a specific reason.
- If you spend 15 hours each week on preaching and 15 hours on pastoral care and building relationships, you will be a far more effective preacher than if you spent 30 hours in your office just on your sermon.
Great preaching is not entertainment but seeks a transformative response.
Sometimes we forget that worship is not a “service” for which we pay. Nor is it a spectator sport where we passively watch a performer amuse or please. Because of the influence of the big business of TV evangelism, many Christians come to worship with the idea that they will be entertained. They expect the latest technology gimmicks, professional musicians, and polished preachers who can speak eloquently without notes, are comedians, and don’t have even one hair out of place.
- Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that each person in the congregation is an active participant in the experience of worship.
- Our preaching must issue a challenge for a specific response. Now that we have encountered the Word, how is God calling us to live out this Word during the coming week?
- When we know our congregations intimately, we become aware of what they will receive gladly and what will “push their buttons” and cause them to be restless and uncomfortable. Great preachers are willing to speak truth boldly.
- Publishing sermon titles and scriptures well in advance enables people to come to worship prepared to engage both the biblical text and the sermon content and be open to transformation.
So who is the audience, anyway?
Is the congregation the audience, merely listening and going home unchanged? Or are they actors in the divine drama of worship? By our preaching, can we create attentive and expectant listeners who not only hear the gospel but actively create meaning from what they have heard?
Is the preacher the audience, listening to God and the needs of the congregation? Or is the preacher a catalyst, a channel of the Holy Spirit? Is the preacher called to tell God’s story in relation to our human story, then inspire, train, and equip the congregation to be God’s people as they go out into the world to make disciples? Can the preacher give up the authority of his/her own conclusions to allow the Holy Spirit to move as it wills, empowering the congregation to think for themselves, make their own connections, and respond to God’s call?
Is God the audience, joyfully receiving the praise and prayers of both preacher and congregation as we freely offer our very selves through worship? God cheers us on but never forces the heart. Can you feel the gentle nudging? Are you aware of the quiet knocking? Can you hear the still small voice of God encouraging you through worship, “You are a great actor in my drama! Well done, good and faithful servant. I have created you to be a witness to my love. Now go.”
Read Luke 2:1-20. Who are the actors and who is the audience? God? The Emperor Augustus? Joseph and Mary? The innkeeper? The shepherds? The angels? The baby Jesus? The animals? You?
How will you preach and receive the story this Advent? May the days ahead be a time of pondering, treasuring, glorifying and praising God, and, yes, … acting.