By DR. FRANK KIK
Camille glanced furtively at her watch. A quarter after twelve -- the roast was surely burning. She really should listen to Pastor Hendricks' latest sermon on Daniel, but all that Old Testament prophecy simply put her to sleep. What in the world did it have to do with her world of kids, carpool, and PTA? Besides, there was the afternoon to think about -- they'd have to hurry with lunch to make Jamie's two o'clock soccer game, then make a quick getaway for the birthday party Amy had been invited to. What's that? Thank goodness -- he's praying! I wonder how quickly we can get out of hereÖ
During my seventeen years of teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program, I have listened too often to the sad confessions of pastors who find themselves preaching to a congregation of Camilles. "Whatís the use of knocking my head against the wall? Nothing is happening," one says. Another laments, "I faithfully explain the infallible Word of God using the historical-grammatical interpretation of the passage, but few lives are changed."
I carefully remind my students that spiritual results often do not appear the day of their presentation. But I do believe we can, with Godís blessing, do a better job of "planting the seed" of the Gospel by sharpening our skills in understanding our congregation and community before we proceed to interpret our text. Pastors need to understand not only the world of their members, but also the world of the Bible, and the two must converge powerfully in the sermon, beginning with the everyday life of the church member, then showing the relevance of biblical material.
Karl Barth reportedly once advised a group of young preachers to "Preach with your Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other." While I am not an eminent theologian, I respectfully disagree with this renowned scholar. My advice to preachers both young and old is to preach with your Bible in one hand and your church directory in the other.
Most graduates of reformed seminaries are well equipped to interpret the Scriptures. They have received outstanding training in the original languages, English Bible, theological studies, church history, counseling, church planting, missions, evangelism, and practical theology. Very seldom do we find reformed and evangelical preachers wandering off into the fields of heresy or into the "wasteland" of theological error contrary to the Bible.
However, with few exceptions we are not observing a major impact upon our sinful, troubled, and confused society. Church attendance figures indicate that we are not even keeping up with the population growth. Experts tell us that within ten years many of our churches will be closed due to lack of attendance and financial support. The average term of pastors is just four years before they resign the ministry, totally defeated.
I believe it is because pastors are failing to meet their congregations where they live, applying Scripture to their lives. Sermons which have no relevant meaning to a person's life will not be heard. As Covenant Seminary President Bryan Chapell says, "Preachers who cannot answer a 'So what?' sermon will preach to a 'Who cares?' congregation."
Today, people no longer respond to a sermon with a proposition, three points to support it, and an application at the end. A preacher beginning his sermon with conclusions based on his study of the text receives only blank stares from his congregation. He then proceeds to spend ninety per cent of his time interpreting the text as it was understood then and there and only ten per cent dealing with the here and now of our world. Thus he ends up giving a lecture on ancient Bible history, hoping his people can see the relevance for the world in which they live.
Communication researchers say that congregations a generation ago generally decided within the first thirty seconds whether or not they would listen with any intensity. Today, with electronic television and the Worldwide Web, initial listening has dropped to the first seven seconds. I propose that a preacher spend the first --and major -- part of his message interpreting the congregation by bringing them into the message, then spotlight Godís Word as the solution by interpreting the text. This cannot be accomplished in one or two minutes.
RTS Professor of Preaching William Hogan is correct when he says, "The chasm separating the congregationís thoughts from biblical ideas may be vast. In the introduction you must enter their world (the here and now) and persuade them to go with you into biblical truth, specifically the truth that is the burden of the sermon." Jay Adams concurs: "We must start mostly with the congregation." Chapell responds by saying, "Why should the congregation waste time giving attention to something that has nothing to do with them?"
If a preacher wants to be heard, he must diligently encourage his people to think about themselves, their lives and value systems, their responsibilities and destinies, and of course, God and the big real needs of their human souls. The preacher must reach deep into the hearts of his people and the community in which God has called him to shepherd. He must become not only an expert in reformed theology and biblical solutions, but also a keen observer of the society in which he lives.
In our society, a pastor has much to observe and comment on. Edward Gibbon, in his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, stated the reasons for the downfall of mighty Rome:
If these are signs of impending collapse, we should face the fact that the termites of destruction are tearing into the timbers of our own proud American way of life.
My experience in four congregations of various sizes and currently as a church planter has convinced me that interpreting the Scripture and the congregation yields both spiritual maturity (changed lives) and numerical growth. After fifteen years in the pulpit, I painfully learned that my understanding of the congregation and community was woefully lacking. People flocked to our Christmas and Easter services, but I seldom saw them beyond these times of the year.
I constantly asked myself how to reach these lost souls. I was tired of using, "Where two or three are gathered together in His name, He is in the midst of them" as an excuse for poor attendance. While striving to preach "the whole counsel of God" and ascertain what series or books of the Bible I would present, inevitably I preached what I liked to preach. My approach was shotgun rather than rifle -- sometimes my scattered points hit the target, but too often they missed. I was preaching to pews and not to people. Oh, yes, many in the congregation took notes, but few ever looked at them again. Some truthfully confessed, "Taking notes helps pass the time" or "It sure beats counting organ pipes."
I had to discover how not only to treat my text assigned by the Holy Spirit but also how to treat my people. I must have my Bible in one hand and my church directory in the other. It was imperative that I look deeply into the hearts of my people and also those outside the church.
One keen observer of people said, "The failure of many sermons is that they have little or no relation to the congregation and are practically essays, lectures, or Bible studies. They may furnish an excellent treatment of their text -- accurate, full, and balanced -- but they might as well be privately printed and privately read."
Jesus was never concerned with a three or four point interpretation of a text. He used the medium of stories - not a logical progression of thought -- to reach his listeners with usually one point. For example, when he wanted to communicate the Fatherhood of God, He told a story, beginning, "Behold a man had two sonsÖ" (Luke 15:11-32). His sermon was simple and to-the-point. And "The common people heard Him gladly" (Mark 12:37). He preached to people on the real issues they faced in their world. His topics ran the gamut -- adultery, anger, anxiety, avarice, death, debts, doubts, eternity, faith, fasting, faultfinding, giving, greed, honesty, hypocrisy, joy, kindness, knowledge, law, legalism, life, lust, marriage, money, oaths, parenthood, prayer, pretense, respect, responsibility, reward, rulers, sex, slander, speech, stewardship, taxes, trust, unkindness, virtue, wisdom, and zeal.
He kept peopleís attention by spending most of His preaching time in the here and now. If a preacher fails to interpret the congregation adequately, then he might as well buy several commentaries for each listener and tell them what text they should read about for that service. Someone once said, "It is the ideal of a message spoken from one heart to another that gives the sermon its distinctive form, for behind it is this shadow of a listening people," not just wooden pews. We start with people where they are and then lead them to the text and the foot of the cross.
Pastor, how much time do you spend looking into the hearts of your people in the first half of your sermon? Do you consider their health and disease, motives, passions, temptations, laughter and tears? How much do you assure your congregation that you understand both their sins and their dreams?
People today are restlessly seeking rest. We live in an age sure of insecurity. Will you offer hope to a hopeless world? An age of instability may be, and generally has been, the prelude to an age of faith. How will you respond?
As a preacher, you claim to have the living way. Can you show it? If you can reveal life's eternal values, its limitless exciting possibilities when lived for Jesus, and the penetrating comfort of His love for us, you will indeed have before you a ring of expectant faces.
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