Preaching to Different Kinds of Hearers
The preacher’s task is to hold up reality as the Bible presents it, and to ask how it compares to what his hearers have been calling reality. He asks if all the promises that sin has been making to them have turned out to be true. He shows them that the Bible is, in fact, a better interpreter of their experience. And then he points them to the warnings and promises that it personally makes to them.
Doing this well, of course, means the preacher must understand what his hearers believe—the warp and woof of their false worlds. His goal is to confront those beliefs precisely. Here are three categories that influence every person and which the preacher must confront:
First, worldviews. Often a person’s response to Scripture is dictated by worldview presuppositions that he or she is not even aware of. Philippians tells us to look to the interests of others (2:3–5), but to what extent does our materialism limit how sacrificially we’re willing to do this? Hebrews 13:17 tells us to submit to our leaders, but does our individualism and radical egalitarianism hinder our ability to heed such a command? Jesus tells us to take up our crosses (Luke 9:23–25), but are we too loaded down with entitlements to hear Him? A preacher does not need to use words like “consumerism,” “relativism,” “naturalism,” and “emotivism.” But he should know how to expose and disarm them.
Second, spiritual state. I assume that every listener, at some level, struggles with idolatry, self-justification, and the love of the world. A preacher should always do battle with these enemies. At the same time, preachers must preach to people in different spiritual states. Paul identifies the idle, the timid, and the weak, each of whom require slightly different challenges (1 Thess. 5:12–14).
When I’m planning my sermons or Bible study lessons, I also try to think through three sets of pairs. I want to address both Christians and non-Christians. I want to address both the complacent and needy. And I want to address both the legalistic and hedonistic. Each of these categories requires a different kind of challenge. The complacent need to hear God’s warnings, while the needy need to hear his promises. The legalistic need to hear about grace, while the licentious may need to be challenged by imperatives. The difficulty, of course, is to challenge one side of the pair while not causing the other side to stumble.
I might have erred too far in one direction in a recent devotion that I gave. I offered a challenge which was intended (in my mind) for the complacent crowd. But after the sermon one helpful brother observed that my challenge might have caused undue grief among those who are especially guilt-prone. If I ever give that particular devotion again, I may offer the same challenge, but I’ll qualify it more carefully.
Third, social state. In preparing a sermon, a preacher should consider how to aim the burden of the text at different kinds of people: What does the text mean for men or for women? For children and adults? For people moving toward retirement? For people who make a lot of money? For people who struggle to pay the bills? For employers and employees? For singles, marrieds, and widowed? For members of a minority ethnicity and the majority ethnicity? For foreigners? For parents? People encounter the Word differently depending on their station or season of life. A good teacher wants to help them wherever they are.
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Editor’s note: This has been adapted from Jonathan’s book Word-Centered Church. Reprinted with permission.