Preach to the Non-Christian, Christian, and Church Member
To whom do preachers preach? I recently pulled several books about preaching off the shelf and discovered that this question is rarely addressed. Preachers seem far more concerned with tweaking their style.
Still, a few pastors are giving attention to the audience, and they tend to focus on two segments of the population: the unchurched and postmoderns. Gordon-Conwell president James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, said at one time that he explicitly targets unbelievers. He put it this way in a 1999 interview:
Mecklenburg is a seeker-targeted church that was started [to] . . . focus on reaching unchurched people. By seeker targeted I obviously mean that the entry points of the church are designed for unchurched people. In some way, shape, or form we can tap into when they are in search mode, or we try to help them become active seekers. Because not everyone who is unchurched is a seeker.
Since the sermon is one of these “entry points,” White has modeled himself after men like Bill Hybels, Bob Russell, and Rick Warren, who have separated themselves from other preachers in their ability to speak to the unchurched.
Another group of writers emphasize the importance of preaching to the postmodern mindset. Former pastor Brian McLaren has said that reflecting on the postmodern aversion to showmanship and detailed analysis together with its inclination to authenticity and narrative began to affect his preaching in 2001. Now, narrative and authenticity are central to his preaching.
These two examples make some of us nervous. When a preacher goes too far in adapting to his audience, the message itself becomes compromised, as has been the case in both seeker-sensitive and Emergent churches. Still, preachers preach to real people, people that are unchurched, postmodern, and everything else we might think of. The challenge is to give some thought to all the types of people sitting in the congregation. This article humbly attempts to do just that.
I suggest pastors preach with three types of people in mind.
PREACH TO THE UNCONVERTED
It’s always good to recognize non-Christians in a Sunday morning sermon, even if your church is small and non-Christians aren’t present. My church is not large, but I still assume that some of the people sitting in the pews will not know Christ. Some of them are nominal Christians who may have professed Christ and been in churches for years, but still need the new birth to bring real life. Others are professing non-Christians whom our members have invited. Still others have walked in off the street in response to a church card, a bulletin, the website, or the building itself. In other words, non-Christians will come.
Make the Gospel Clear
It is the preacher’s responsibility to make the gospel clear as he is unfolds the Word of God. Paul wrote,
if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (Rom. 10:9-10).
We are, after all, ministers of the gospel. The gospel does not have to sound the same in every sermon. But however it’s explained, the pastor should ask of the passage, “How does it point to the gospel?” Even unbelievers can recognize the difference between a gospel-centered sermon and a sermon with the gospel tacked on at the end.
My church is near a seminary, and we have a lot of men training to be pastors who often ask the question, “Does the gospel need to be in every sermon?” The answer is “yes” for at least two reasons. First, because the gospel makes sense of every text of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Second, because the unconverted need to know what it means to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” (Christians need to hear it over and over, too, in order to grow in the faith!) Even if the unbeliever has heard the gospel dozens of times, God brought him or her before me as the preacher—today. So I want the gospel to challenge once again his or her understanding of the world, sin, and salvation.
Making the gospel clear is one of the most important things I can do as a pastor.
Pastors who are sensitive to the presence of non-Christians will serve them best by preaching expositionally. Non-Christians want to know why we believe what we believe. Since our doctrine and life is founded on the Word of God, we serve the unchurched best by directing them honestly, faithfully, and clearly to Scripture, just as we do with Christians.
A movement of writers and church leaders today says that the postmodern mind—churched and unchurched—responds best to “narrative preaching.” They argue that people want stories. Fine, I like stories. Preaching expositionally should provide the unchurched with the storyline of the Bible, which in turn provides a storyline for God’s work with humanity, which in turn provides a storyline for their own lives. Pastors should not only work through all of Scripture when they preach expositionally, they should do so with the mindset of giving their listeners “God’s big picture.” This is seeker-friendly preaching!
The same movement says that the postmodern mind values authenticity. Fine, I also like authenticity. It’s a perfect excuse to preach expositionally. Let’s focus less on the packaging and more on the message: What did Jesus say? What did Isaiah prophesy? What did Paul write? And what do the answers to these questions have to do with us today? That’s what the unconverted who show up in our churches want—unvarnished biblical truth. Whether they finally agree with that truth is between them and God; but what we preach is not up for grabs.
Reach Out to the Unconverted
There are a number of things we can do to make our sermons evangelistic. Identifying the big and little numbers as chapter and verse divisions is helpful for the unchurched. So is telling them to make use of the Bible’s table of contents. What a comforting word for the unconverted visitor when everyone around him seems to quickly find Obadiah!
Provocative sermon introductions also help build a bridge for the unbeliever by explaining the relevance of the text that is about to be exposed. For example, last Easter Sunday I preached on Luke 5:33-39, where the Pharisees are struck that Jesus’ disciples are not fasting. Jesus responds by observing that the wedding guests do not fast when the bridegroom is present, and then he tells the parable about pouring new wine into old wineskins. I’ve entitled the sermon, “Are Christians Happier?” This introduction was an opportunity to explain that true, lasting, life-changing joy is being in the presence of the risen bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Were Christians helped by the introduction? I hope so, but I saw those two or three minutes as a special opportunity to reach out to the unconverted who may need some extra guidance figuring out why we are gathered around God’s Word.
All these “little” practices have a cumulative effect on the congregation as well. When believers recognize that the pulpit is friendly to the unconverted, they are more likely to bring their non-Christian friends. It’s a misnomer to think that being gospel-centered means one cannot be seeker-sensitive.
PREACH TO THE CONVERTED
As important as preaching to the unconverted is, the preacher’s primary task on the Lord’s Day is to target Christians. He is to build up the local church; and the church is to listen, ready and willing to submit to Christ as the head of the church. This is our primary “audience.” Thus, in my own sermon preparation, I primarily have the converted in mind.
How then should the preacher address the Christian?
Reprove and Correct Christians
We know from John that sin persists in the life of the believer: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). There is a bit of a sting in this verse, as if John knew that believers are tempted to minimize their sin, elevate their sanctification, and deny the Lord. Furthermore, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Thus, when a shepherd is preaching to Christians, the truth of God’s Word will necessarily both reprove and correct.
No pastor wants to be known for cutting Christians down. Yet faithfulness to Scripture does require a man to give reproof in its season. This is one reason why the call to preach should not be accepted lightly. To be faithful to this task requires us to ask of each text that we preach, “How does this passage reprove or challenge the Christian?” Is it challenging prayerlessness, gossip, idolatry? The answer may be drawn from a pastor’s local congregation or from what’s applicable to all Christians. Either way, preaching without reproof and correction cannot be fully biblical preaching.
Sustain and Encourage Christians
Thankfully, preaching to the converted means more than reproof and correction. It means working to sustain and encourage believers with the Word of God. The believer is utterly dependent upon the Word. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4; Deut 8:3). This means that when the Christian comes to the sermon he is coming to be nourished by words of life.
Of course the believer can be fed by the Word of God during other times of the week, but preaching plays a central role in his sustenance. Consider Titus 1:1-3 where Paul describes how eternal life is manifest in God’s Word through preaching. Christians are nourished and sustained by sermons. A question to ask every text is, “How does this sustain, uphold, or encourage the Christian?”
Few things encourage me more in my own preaching ministry than this: the church is gathered because they need the life given by the preached word, not because they need me! This is simply the task that they have charged me to deliver, the spiritual meal they have commissioned me to prepare. What a privilege to be used by God to sustain, nourish, build up, and edify his people with his Word!
Sanctify and Strengthen Christians
The Son prayed that the Father’s children would be sanctified and be made more like Christ. Jesus knew that his followers would endure all sorts of suffering and scorn because they received his word (John 17:14), but he didn’t pray that they would be removed from the world. Rather, he prayed that they would be sanctified. How would Christians be made more holy? Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). God’s message would sanctify God’s children. Christians are made holy by apprehending and applying the Good News and all Scripture to their lives (cf. 2 Tim 3:17). A holy word makes for a holy people.
Of course, sanctification is mainly God’s work. He is the one who works in the life of the believer (Phil 2:13; Heb 13:20-21) and who ensures that Christians have all they need to bring him glory and honor. This is exactly what occurs as he draws the saints to gather and to hear the truths of his Word. Not surprisingly, they are stirred up “to love and good works” (Heb 10:24).
Preachers have the glorious opportunities to be used in the lives of sinners to strengthen them for the task of actually walking the Christian life. In Psalm 1, the blessed man who delights in God’s law is likened to a tree planted by streams of water, a tree that is fruitful and strong. The analogy is not hard to understand. The Christian is fruitful and strong when fed and delighting in the law of the Lord. Sermons have a role to play in leading the Christian to meditate on God’s law. Even though the preacher cannot make blessed men (thankfully it is up to God and His Spirit to do that!), he is given the great privilege of feeding the Word of God to God’s people. The preacher can be like those streams of water, faithfully delivering the Word of God and strengthening that tree week after week, month after month, year after year.
Unlike the accountant who sees the books’ balance at the end of the month, or the CEO who watches as the company turns around, who knows if the preacher will ever see the fruit that’s born, the lives that are changed, the hearts that are touched! The pastor’s best work cannot be measured this side of heaven. Such fruit cannot be collected into baskets. Nonetheless, the fruit is there. The preached Word of God, by his grace, sanctifies and strengthens the sinner and prepares him for his own works of grace.
Challenge and Grow Christians
Disciples need to grow in their understanding and interpretation of Scripture. They tend to be far too careless in their ingestion of sermons, far too unlike those Bereans of Acts 17 who examined what they heard to see if it was true. Solid expositional preaching will challenge the disciple by giving him something to think about and examine. Criticizing shallow preaching, James W. Alexander once said,
In these sermons we find many valuable scriptural truths, many original and touching illustrations, much sound argument, pungent exhortation, and great unction. In themselves considered, and viewed as pulpit orations, they seem open to scarcely a single objection; yet as expositions of the Scripture, they are literally nothing. They clear up no difficulties in the argument of the inspired writers; they give no wide prospects of the field in which their matter lies; they might be repeated for a lifetime without tending to the slightest degree to educate a congregation in habits of sound interpretation.
Sermons that challenge and grow Christians do not have to be heady or hard to understand (such preaching would be unfaithful and pointless anyway!). Still, the sermons that challenge and grow Christians are sermons preached by men who have poured over the text. A pastor who gives his time to sermon preparation almost does not have to ask of the text, “How does this passage challenge or grow the Christian?”—so geared is God’s Word to accomplishing God’s purpose for it (Is 54:10-11). His effort will bear fruit as the congregation reaps the reward of his diligence.
At my church we strive to be faithful to Scripture whether we are preaching a few verses or an entire book in a few sermons, as I recently did with the book of Job. For the first time in years, college students are joining the church because the preaching challenges them to grow. An older couple recently told me that they liked coming because they were able to have spiritual discussions about the sermon at lunch. I don’t think anybody would say that we do a terrific job of communicating with the world, and nobody would say my preaching is exciting. There is much room for growth. But by God’s grace we are opening up God’s Word–and that is exciting and life changing!
Christians are looking for preaching that is faithful to Scripture, which means preaching that includes reproof and correction, sustenance and encouragement, sanctification and strength, challenge and growth.
Now that we have covered preaching to non-Christians and Christians, this might seem like a natural place to stop. But preachers need to be sensitive to one more category: church members.
PREACH TO CHURCH MEMBERS AS A CORPORATE BODY
For most churches, the largest segment of the congregation includes the men and women who have committed themselves to that place, that ministry, and one another. Should that matter as you preach? I think so.
Paul described the congregation of saints in Colossae as “holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Col 2:19). These were not simply disciples, they were disciples rooted in the Colossian church and growing with a growth that is from God. In Colossians 3:15-16, Paul continued, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Notice that Paul addressed this local church as one body and reminded them that they would be united by the Word of Christ. This would take place as they gathered together to sing Scripture and hear Scripture preached.
Paul does not here address Christians as individual Christias but as members of a particular church. Their gathering brought unity not because they were geographically closer, but because the Word of Christ came to dwell in them as they shared the same teaching and the same admonishment. They came under the same authority because they recognized Christ as their head.
The same is true in a local church today, and one of the means unity is brought to members is through the preaching of the Word of God. John Calvin made this point when describing the office of the preacher. The preacher is one who brings unity to the body. Commenting on the church’s one hope, Lord, faith, and baptism in Ephesians 4, Calvin wrote,
In these words Paul shows that the ministry of the men which God uses in ordering the Church is a vital bond to unite believers in one body . . . The way he [God] works is this: he distributes his gifts to the Church through his ministers and so shows himself to be present there, by exerting the energy of his Spirit, and that he prevents it from becoming pointless and fruitless. In this way the saints are renewed and the body of Christ is edified. In this way we grow up in all things to him who is the Head and join with one another. In this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, and so long as prophecy flourishes we welcome his servants and do not despise his doctrine. Whoever tries to get rid of this pattern of Church order or scorns it as of little importance, is plotting to ruin the Church.
Why make so much of church members as a corporate body when so many churches are growing by making much of non-members? Because the Bible makes much of those individuals who are part of the local church, as we can see from the New Testament epistles. Christianity was lived out in the context of people from different backgrounds sharing the gospel—that was the church. This had radical implications. As Paul would write, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1Cor 12:26). This is roll-up-your-sleeves, get-into-one-another’s-lives community.
Biblical preaching should regularly address Christians not only as individuals, but as individual who have committed to one another as a particular local body. Ask of each text: “How does this passage apply to our life as a community of faith?” It may seem odd to address only the members of the church, but what a compelling vision of the church for both the unchurched and for those Christians who choose to flirt with the church instead of actually committing to it! The pastor shows his appreciation for those Christians who have joined the church and, more importantly, his love for the Word of God that united members of his church when he addresses them directly corporately in the preaching.
As I meditate on the question, “To whom does the preacher preach,” I resonate with the words of Peter Adam, vicar of St. Jude’s, Carlton in Australia, who wrote, “If we are servants of God and of Christ, and servants of his Word, then the call of the preacher is also to be a servant of God’s people.” Yes, I think the preacher should be sensitive to the unchurched. But if we target the unchurched alone, the message may be lost or so diluted that God’s people become malnourished. This is not a pretty sight. It is important to preach to the unchurched, but it is more important to focus primarily on Christians and to remember the value of speaking regularly to those believers who have committed to the local church.
1. “Preaching to the Unchurched: An Interview with James Emery White” in Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators, ed. Michael Duduit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 227.
2. Ibid., 230.
3. “Preaching to Postmoderns: An Interview with Brian McLaren” in Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators, ed. Michael Duduit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 126-27.
4. To help exposit this storyline, expositional preachers will find these little books helpful: The Symphony of Scripture: Making Sense of the Bible’s Many Themes (1990) by Mark Strom; God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (2002) by Vaughan Roberts; and gospel and Kingdom now available in The Goldsworthy Trilogy (2000). These primers on biblical theology can help one communicate the unity of Scripture when preaching through the Bible.
5. See Mark Dever’s chapter on expositional preaching in Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2004).
6. J.W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, Date), 239.
7. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Toney Lane and Hilary Osborne (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986), 245.
8. Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Expository Preaching (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 130.