Preacher, Study the Text—But Also Study Your People
I’m sitting in my office working on my sermon for Sunday. The text is Malachi 1:2–5, and it’s about God’s love. A softball, right? Not really. This text deals with the “love” of choosing, the “hate” of rejection, and the Lord being angry with a people forever (Mal 1:4). That’s going to require a little more elbow grease during sermon prep. D. A. Carson understandably calls this one of the more difficult aspects of God’s love.
But this article isn’t about election. It’s about the people in my local congregation. While preparing this week’s sermon, I’m thinking about a hundred different things as I study the text. I want to consider the historical context. I want to consider what Richard Lints would call the text’s epochal and canonical horizons. I want to consider how this text relates to Jesus and his atoning work on the cross. I want to consider all the things necessary to faithfully communicate the point of the text. But here’s the thing: I also have to consider the actual people I’m preaching to.
WHAT YOUR SERMON MAY BE MISSING
It’s one thing to exegete the text; it’s another thing to exegete the people. A preacher who studies the text but not his people is missing out on clearer application and more nuanced communication.
For example, Malachi 1:2–5 deals with the difficult doctrine of election. It requires a lot of careful biblical work in order to carry out faithful and useful exposition. But as I pray, study, consult commentaries, create an outline, and consider my application, I must not forget to consider my people.
I’m thinking about Samantha, a brand new believer who will (Lord willing) be baptized in the coming month. Samantha doesn’t know who Abraham is. How am I going to tell her about God loving Jacob and hating Esau when she doesn’t even know about father Abraham?
As I’m putting pen to paper and jotting down notes about the text, I think about another member of our church who is really, really on edge about all of this reformed theology stuff. I love this dear member very much, and although I want to faithfully preach the point of this text, I don’t want to preach it in such a way that I accidentally bulldoze this member.
I’m also thinking about another church member who has only recently accepted the truth of God’s electing love as taught in Scripture, but isn’t sure what to do with it now. How can I help this member see and savor Jesus Christ? How can I preach Malachi 1:2–5 in such a way as to lead him to rejoice in election, not merely to accept it?
A TWOFOLD PLEA
Simply put, pastors, consider your people as you preach. Now, this might be easier for me because the church I serve isn’t very large. But even if our church had 500 members, I hope that I’d be active enough in my personal shepherding that I’d be able to consider individuals’ circumstances and spiritual health as I prepare my sermons.
If what I’m saying is true, then consider the limitations of multi-site, video-preaching models. How can a pastor consider the lives of people that he doesn’t even know? Here’s the simple answer: he can’t. This flaw is built into the very design of the preaching. Large churches with many members certainly have some limitations, but multi-site churches that employ video preaching build insurmountable limitations into the very fabric of their church.
Of course, the Holy Spirit applies God’s Word to God’s people through streaming sermons at satellite campuses. But something is still missing. The application that comes from a man preaching to a room full of people he knows by name is very different than the application that comes from a man who really only knows the demographics.
So, whether you pastor a small church, a large church, or a multi-site church, I’d like to encourage you to consider how you can maximize your familiarity with your people in your preaching. A sermon isn’t a TED Talk; it’s a family talk. And if your church is set up in such a way as to limit—intentionally or otherwise—how well you know the people you’re preaching to, then I encourage you to find a better way.