Who in the world am I preaching to?

I preach over 100 sermons annually. That amounts to more hours of preparation than I can hope to quantify, and around 250,000 words of written material produced for the pulpit each year. This is one of the main activities that I have been trained, commissioned, and employed for by the local church. This is what I believe the Lord has called me to do vocationally, created me to do temperamentally, and shaped me to do experientially. I am a preacher.

Fulfilling this responsibility entails asking and answering key questions every single week: Where am I preaching from? How will I structure this sermon? How will I phrase this section? How do I apply this doctrine or narrative? Are there illustrations I can use which could make this message clearer? It is impossible to preach effectively without asking the right questions.

One question that is easy to overlook, however, is who in the world am I preaching to? The clarity of my speech will matter, the integrity of my exegesis will count for a lot, the fervency of my prayers is crucial, but self-consciously thinking through who I am addressing can easily slip from the list of priorities. In this post I want to suggest that this is a key mistake, and one which can act as barrier to effective communication from the pulpit. In order to explore ‘who in the world I preach to’ I will list a series of negations accompanied by an affirmation, hopefully clarifying for myself and for other preachers what exactly it is that we do when we open God’s word in a local church.

Not to an audience, but to a gathering

The global pandemic from which we are hopefully beginning to emerge has affected some significant changes in how we think about communicating in our preaching. The earliest days of 2020 saw many pastors and preachers being forced to resort to recording messages to stream later, or preaching live into a camera or smartphone. As the pandemic has dragged its feet in leaving our communities many of our churches have installed permanent technology to make broadcasting possible. This has been a positive thing for many local churches, providing vital ministry and connection to those who remain isolated, or are suffering from long term conditions which preclude their attending church in person. It has also served to open the door to honest enquirers about the gospel, who can ‘sample’ what church is like before taking the step of crossing any physical threshold.

With all of these benefits, there are certain factors which could threaten the identity of local church preaching. Many of us have become so accustomed to camera technology that we have forgotten about its presence in our buildings. This is an entirely good thing, but we must be careful that vestiges of the period of our ministry when we were speaking to an invisible world don’t subtly affect how we minister. Preaching takes place, primarily, in the gathering of God’s people. It is a corporate activity rather than a solitary performance. Preaching is not a sanctified TED talk, or a weekly presentation, but is a particular group of Christians meeting with one another in the presence of the living Christ to hear what he has said, and to mutually worship him in that activity. Preaching, when it is properly undertaken, is participative and responsive; it is an exercise in mutual edification and mutual submission to God himself.

This means that my preaching must be among the congregation of God’s people as well as before them. I am a member of the church that I preach in. I am seeking to live in submission to the Lord of the church, and to the godly care of those whom he has called to lead the church. I am a sinner among sinners, a learner among learners, a new creation in union with Christ and his people joining our hearts to exalt him and own him as our Lord. This is entirely different that merely imparting information: it is sharing in the common currency of Christian worship and discipleship among a group of people known to me, and by whom I am known.

Not to the nation, but to my neighbour

Audience and gathering have an influence on how I perceive my voice in the pulpit. Social media has raised a megaphone to the lips of every person signed up for it, allowing our opinions and passions to have a ready platform to the world. Much of what we say during the week has the capacity to reach thousands of people, either via our own social media life, or through others reflecting publicly on our relationship to them. This is a strange and unsettling reality that I am not entirely sure we were made for, nor that we manage well.

That amplified environment can fool us into thinking that preaching in the local church is louder in volume or wider in reach than it really is. We read biblical biographies such as that of John the Baptist, or historical biographies of John Knox, George Whitefield and others, and imagine that the pulpit can affect the nation directly. The perception of nascent persecution in the Western world has fed this feeling, with the idea of one’s messages being surveilled or ultimately suppressed feeling possible. This is largely a trick of the light.

I am not, in reality, preaching to the nation – nor should I wish to. Most of our ministries are local and parochial, our influence limited to a very small subset of the very small communities in which we live. Our ‘reach’ in terms of how many people hear us is, mercifully, limited. People in the corridors of power don’t know my name nor the nature of my work, individuals in positions of civic influence have no awareness of me, and the policies which govern the shape of our lives will not be influenced directly by anything I say or do in the local church.

This should affect how we preach. I cannot leverage the nation in my preaching, but I ought to love my neighbour. Preaching is ministerial in nature, it is designed by God to work in the hearts of those with whom we are intimately acquainted, whose eccentricities and proclivities are not hidden from us. We are called to preach into the micro-culture of where we have been placed, allowing contextual issues to shape and shield our words and our way of ministering. We are called to be conduit through whom the ascended Jesus will equip this group of people for these works of ministry in this precise location. Our preaching is colloquial and provincial, it should use the language and imagery, the common currency, of the community in which it is exercised.

The goal of such preaching is measured, but it is not modest. I preach to my neighbour in the hope that they might in turn have a formative effect on their neighbours, in leading them to the Saviour or closer to their Lord. I do so in the prayer that my neighbours neighbour might likewise minister to and shape their neighbour. In that way alone might the nation be reached through my preaching, not through direct influence but by the wonderful aggregate of disciples discipling others.

This is hugely important. It means that my application to national issues will be concerned with local living. Addressing the ‘big issues’ which light up social media around sexuality, class, race, cultural identity, postmodernism etc are not brought to the pulpit as a kind of bulletin board, but are addressed expositionally from the passage before me, and pastorally to the people before me. I am not righting the wrongs of the world, or fighting on the front of the culture war when I preach – I am loving and teaching my neighbours from Scripture with an earnest desire that Spirit-born understanding might revolutionise their lives, and the spheres within which they move.

Not to the faculty, but to the fellowship

Finally, it is important that we don’t allow the input to our preparation to directly become the output of our preaching. The preacher lives in a strange twilight between academic treatments of what God’s word and Christian doctrine mean, and the real lives of those we are called to minister to. Most preaching will entail some form of academic study, ranging across commentaries and theological texts which can shape and sharpen our understanding of the passage or theme we are preaching on. This is vital graft.

The difficulty, however, is that such a cerebral environment is not reflective of the local church, and the local lives it touches. Welsh preacher Geoff Thomas once said to me in conversation that his job was to understand the details of the Scripture text and the complexities that the commentaries can make us aware of, and then to translate those elements into a message which is accessible and spiritually beneficial to the local church he pastored. This might sound elementary, but it is all too easily lost.

You might need to know the case of a noun, the nature of a preposition, the internal workings of a doctrine, but only so that you might preach more clearly and lucidly. Our sermons are not addressed to the faculty but to the fellowship. Quoting Greek words, employing theological jargon, introducing weighty conceptual terms, is nothing of the business of the preacher. Such things might gain marks in an essay, but they lose ground in the hearts of individuals.

This means that my language must be transparent, and my understanding so keen that I can make complex things simple without reducing or diluting them. I have the privilege of teaching in an academic environment as a lecturer and preaching in a non-academic context as a pastor. The latter is infinitely more challenging than the former. In an academic setting the familiar shorthand of theological discourse can abbreviate conversation, and can also mask insecurities and unfamiliarity with the inner working of doctrines I am handling. The pulpit is much less forgiving. If I haven’t thought clearly I won’t speak clearly, and lapsing into doctrinal jargon is normally the measure of an individual who is insecure about their basic understanding of what they are seeking to impart.

Conclusion

Answering the ‘who in the world am I preaching to?’ question is of central importance to the task of ministering God’s word. It delivers us from formalism, foolishness pride, and pretended expertise. It levels us back into the life of the local church, into the experiences of those in common covenant with gathering of God’s people in our area, and challenges us to preach in such a way that we love our neighbour and speak with the goal of gaining hearts through the gateway of the mind.

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