Why Knowing Your Flock Is Critical to Meaningful Preaching
The preacher paced the stage, staring earnestly out into the congregation. It was time for his weekly invitation. He asked for respondents to raise their hands. Not a single hand was raised. But he had no way of knowing this because he was on a video screen.
I found myself at the nearest campus of this multisite church on assignment from the pastor himself, a man who had recently hired me to do some freelance research work for him. Visiting one of his many remote services was supposed to help me get a “feel” for his ministry. It certainly did. But I couldn’t help but be struck with the feeling that this way of doing ministry couldn’t really help the preacher get a “feel” for his congregation.
I don’t know what you think about video venues or the multi-site model of church growth in general, but this experience and others has only affirmed some of the concerns I have about the disconnect between preacher and flock, a growing dilemma in all kinds of churches, big and small.
Indeed, this dilemma isn’t merely limited to multi-site, “video venue” churches. Pastors of growing churches of all sizes will continually struggle with staying familiar with their congregations. And the temptation to become more and more isolated becomes greater as more complexity is added to an increasing church.
And of course, it’s impossible for a preacher of even a small church to be best friends with everybody in his church, and it’s impossible for preachers of larger churches to know everybody well. But the preacher whose ministry is becoming more and more about preaching and less and less about shepherding, the preacher who is becoming less and less involved with his congregation, is actually undermining the task to which he is trying to devote more of his time! Good preaching requires up-close shepherding.
The ministry of preaching cannot be divorced from the ministry of soul care; in fact, preaching is actually an extension of soul care. There are a host of reasons why it is important for pastors who want to preach meaningfully to know their flocks as well as they can, but here are three of the most important.
1. Meaningful preaching has people’s idols in mind.
As I travel to preach in church services and conferences, one of the first questions I usually ask the pastor who invited me is “What are your people’s idols?” I want to be able not to just drop in and “do my thing,” but to serve this pastor and his congregation by speaking as well as I can to any of the hopes and dreams he can identify within his church that are not devotionally attached to Christ as their greatest satisfaction. Sadly, some pastors don’t know how to answer the question.
When Paul walked into Athens, he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). That said, he didn’t simply regard this as a philosophical problem but as a spiritual problem that grieved him personally. And when he addressed it, he did so specifically, referencing their devotion to “the unknown god” (17:23). And whenever Paul addressed specific churches in his letters, you will see that the kinds of sins and falsehoods he addressed were very specific. He didn’t speak in generalizations. He knew what was going on in these churches.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you begin embarrassing or exposing people from the pulpit. But it does mean that you are in the thick of congregational life enough to speak in familiar terms.
Until a pastor has spent quality time with people in his congregation, the idols his preaching must combat with the gospel will be merely theoretical. All human beings have a few universal idols in common. But communities where churches are located, congregations as a subculture themselves, and even specific cliques and demographics within congregations tend to traffic in more specific idols and patterns of sin.
Knowing firsthand your flock’s misguided financial, career, and familial hopes will help you know how to preach. It will help you pick the right texts and the right emphases in explicating those texts. This is what makes preaching a ministry, and not simply an exercise.
2. Meaningful preaching has people’s suffering in heart.
I can tell you firsthand that my preaching changed after I’d begun holding people’s hands while they died and hearing people’s hearts while they cried. Until you’ve heard enough people share their sins and fears and worries and wounds, your preaching can be excellent and passionate, but it will not be all that it can be—resonant.
Many preachers carry the burden of God’s Word into the pulpit, and this is a good thing. Receiving the heavy mantle of preaching hot with Christ’s glory, being burdened to proclaim the Lord’s favor in the gospel is a noble, worthy, wonderful task. But the preacher must also feel the weight of his people in that pulpit. He must ascend to preach having been in the valley with them. His manuscript should be smudged with the tears of his people.
Knowing what sufferings afflict his people on a regular basis will keep a preacher from becoming tone-deaf to his congregation. He won’t be lighthearted in the wrong places. It will affect the kinds of illustrations he uses, the types of stories he tells, and—most importantly—the dispositions with which he handles the Word. I have seen preachers make jokes about things people in his congregation were actually struggling with. And I’ve been that preacher. We come to lift burdens, but with our careless words we end up adding to them.
Preacher, do you have a genuine heart for your people? I don’t mean “Are you a people person?” I mean, do you know what is going on in the lives of your congregation, and does it move you, grieve you? Have you wept with those who weep? If not, your preaching over time will show it.
Think of Moses’ grief over his people sins (Exodus 32:32). Or of Paul’s abundant tears (Acts 20:31, 2 Corinthians 2:4, Philippians 3:18, 2 Timothy 1:4). Think, also, of Christ’s compassion, seeing into the hearts of the people (Matthew 9:36). You may believe you can work these feelings up without really knowing your congregation, but it isn’t the same, especially not for them. It’s not the same for them in the same way that hearing a stirring word from a role model is not the same as hearing a stirring word from your dad. Preacher, don’t take to your text without carrying the real burdens of your people in your heart.
3. Meaningful preaching has people’s names in prayer.
Every faithful preacher prays over their sermon. They pray that God’s Word will not return void (Isaiah 55:11). They pray that people will be receptive. They pray that souls will be saved and lives will be changed. These are good prayers. Better still is the sermon prepped and composed with prayers of John Smith and Julie Thompson and the Cunningham family on the lips of the preacher. Better still is the sermon prayed over in pleadings for Tom Johnson’s salvation and Bill Lewis’s repentance and Mary Alice’s healing.
Paul repeatedly tells the people under his care that he is remembering them in his prayers (Ephesians 1:6, 2 Timothy 1:3, Philemon 1:4). And since he is frequently naming names, we know he doesn’t just mean generally. And while Paul did not have one congregation to shepherd up close but rather served largely as a missionary church planter, he nevertheless worked hard to know the people he ministered to from a distance and sought to visit them as often as he could. How much more should the local church pastor develop relationships with his people! He should know their names and he should carry their names to heaven in prayer.
It is important to know who you’re preaching to. It’s important to know that Sister So-and-So doesn’t like your preaching. It’s important to know that Brother Puff-You-Up likes it too much. It’s important to know that the man in the back with his arms folded and his brow furrowed isn’t actually mad at you—that’s just how he listens. It’s important to know that the smiling, nodding lady near the front has a tendency not to remember anything you’ve said. When you know these things, you can pray for your people in deeper, more personal, more pastoral ways. And your preaching will get better. It will be more real. It will come not just from your mind and mouth, but from your heart, your soul, your guts.
This all assumes, of course, that you are interested in this kind of preaching. If you see preaching as simply providing a “spiritual resource” for interested minds or a pep talk for the religiously inclined and not as bearing prophetic witness from the revealed Word of God to the hearts of people, then you can safely ignore all the points above.