Preaching to Those Not Used to Preaching
It’s clear to all of us that we need to know whom we are preaching to. It would not be appropriate, or even loving, to preach to a bunch of 7-year-olds in the exact same way that you would preach to a crowd of seminary students. In my context in Ireland, whilst we have seasoned hungry Christians who would happily listen to a sermon for 45 minutes or more, on other occasions I could end up preaching to people who are not used to preaching and have never listened to anything more than a 5-minute homily. How do we preach in such circumstances?
Whilst all the important aspects of preaching are necessary to help hold attention, such as an engaging introduction, a clear structure and good use of illustrations, there may also be a temptation to do something quite different in order to perhaps be more ‘entertaining.’ If we were to give in to that temptation, it would be disastrous on many levels, never mind the fact that the listener would most definitely be able to find better entertainment elsewhere. You cannot compete with the latest hit series on Netflix. When thinking about preaching to those who are not used to preaching, I want to encourage a few aspects to engage the listener:
(1) PREACH EXPOSITIONALLY
Why is this so important? The truth is, we are still called to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4v1-2). The aim of preaching is the worship and adoration of Christ, which produces a response of repentance and faith which is the goal for whoever is listening. God’s voice is heard through the Word of God faithfully expounded and preached and, God willing, the work of God is accomplished (1 Thess 2:13, 1 Peter 1:23-25).
Also, in a skeptical culture, it is essential that people realize the sermon is not the preacher’s thoughts alone, but that it is coming from Scripture. If they disagree, it must be clear that they are disagreeing with God’s Word, not just a preacher. Therefore, the listener needs to know and see that this is coming from the Bible and should be encouraged to follow along and see where the message is coming from.
In fact, after being exposed to expository preaching for the first time, people often experience a hunger and desire for more. Their hunger for the Word can even make a 5-minute homily on some topical subject begin to feel longer than a 30-minute exposition and can lead to disappointment.
(2) PREACH WISELY
Secondly, we are still to be wise about what the people we preach to are capable of hearing. The message needs to be understandable and easy to grasp. We need to work hard at declaring the truth in a culturally accessible manner. It is certainly worth thinking through and editing your notes, asking yourself this question: Will someone who is not used to preaching understand this?
Furthermore, the gifting of the preacher does matter on determining how long the sermon should be. At the same time, enough time needs to be given for the text to be faithfully explained. So how long is too long? That depends, but the ideal length of time is when afterwards people say, ‘I could have listened for longer.’
(3) PREACH SINCERELY
Thirdly, sincerity in preaching stands out and is a novelty to people who are not used to sermons. The famous story of David Hume, the 18th century British philosopher who rejected historic Christianity, once met a friend hurrying along a London street and asked where he was going. The friend said he was off to hear George Whitefield preach. “But surely you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?” “No, I don’t, but he does.”
Genuine sincerity is always necessary for faithful preaching and it stands out as something quite different from what people are used to. Sincerity does not necessarily mean shouting; it must correspond to who you are, to your personality. So be yourself, but be sincere, as that is certainly compelling.
For those who were not used to preaching and have come to faith and grown spiritually in Church, by God’s grace it has been the faithful expository preaching of the Word that has attracted them. Some of the encouraging responses to the preached Word have been: “No one has ever explained it to me like that before…I never realized the Bible is so relevant…Why has no one ever taught me this before?”
There may be negative attitudes towards preaching today and it may be more and more common for people not to be familiar with preaching or listening to sermons. Yet it’s a wonderful thing that the living God speaks to us today through his Word. In fact, the faithful preaching of the Old and New Testaments, where Christ is proclaimed from all of Scripture, is the means God uses to bring life and that is the case for those who are used to listening to sermons as well as to those who are not. So, dear pastor, keep preaching the Word—even if your people are not used to preaching!