Preaching in Context
Ever had one of those moments when someone thanks you for saying something in a sermon, but which you can’t recall saying, or which you never intended to be t...
What lies at the heart of preaching for the whole of life?
It’s a determination that those of us who have the responsibility for opening up Scripture with a local church community will do so in a way that those listening will recognise not only that God loves them, but that he has swept them up into his grand purposes for the sake of the world. This approach to regular preaching from the Bible will help members of a ‘gathered’ congregation discover how they can be used by and for God when they are ‘scattered’ in their everyday contexts.
There are a few ways that this can be kept at the front of our minds as we prepare and deliver sermons week by week.
If you’re employed by a church in a full-time capacity you have the privilege of listening to the hopes and fears of people in the church congregation, and often in the wider community. You can use some of your time to listen to people’s frontline opportunities and challenges. It takes determination to make space in the diary, but it can be done.
But those who preach occasionally whilst holding down other jobs and responsibilities already have a ready-made context in which you can ‘test out’ your sermon. If it doesn’t make sense for you in your situation, you can be fairly sure that it won’t help others. In addition, you probably spend more time with non-Christians than a full-time church leader does, and may have better opportunities to understand how to relate your faith to friends and colleagues. If your sermon would help you to live well in your everyday context, there is every chance it will help others in similar situations. Preach from your own understanding and experience. It is valuable and much needed.
The more we believe that those who are listening to our sermons are living as the missional people of God, the more our preparation and delivery will be affected by that basic stance.
So, be curious about those you are ministering to. Ask good questions about their frontlines, the everyday arenas in which they live and work. Seek to understand them.
Good biblical commentators enable us to get to grips with the text and know it well, but it is preachers who have deep roots in a local worshipping community who know the congregation well. As preachers, we’re not seeking to say everything about the text in front of us. We’re making decisions about how the text will be of most help and encouragement to our listeners at this time given the situations they are facing.
It’s important, then, to take the time and effort to understand the situations of the people in our congregation. If we only get involved with people when they’re facing problems, or when they’re struggling to keep going, our ministry risks only ever being reactive. We need to be more proactive as we prepare to preach.
Immediately someone will want to say, ‘but you can’t do that for everyone’. And, of course, they’re right. The teenager’s context self-evidently differs from that of the retired widower. However, there are some things we can do to ensure that we have more of a chance of connecting with those to whom we preach.
Here is the practice of one minister in a church that takes preaching seriously: at the beginning of a week he will meet one or two members of his congregation for a conversation about the passage to be preached on the following Sunday. He invites different people each time – different ages, ethnicities, and social backgrounds – and asks them to share their responses to the passage. At that point he is primarily listening. Then, on Thursday, he will meet with someone else and let them know what he is preaching and how he feels the passage connects with everyday life. He tests his reflections, but also listens for other connections the person makes.
It would be easy to feel this is an impossible schedule. Yet this church leader simply sees it as a fundamental part of his preparation. For him, it is no stranger – and no less important – than trawling through commentaries or spending hours on YouTube looking for a brilliant video that would illustrate all he wanted to say!
What is clear is that this process has a significant effect on how the sermon is prepared and preached. Contrast that with what happens to the vast majority of church leaders. Alongside the private work of reading, praying and reflecting on the passage to be preached in the next sermon, there are visits to be made to sick people, or those who are spiritually drifting; there are church leadership meetings where the present situation of the church is reviewed and a different future is perhaps planned for. Those of us who preach regularly recognise the influence such conversations have on our preaching, albeit subconsciously.
Put simply, if we spend all our time with those who are in need, or those who share the responsibility for overseeing the church, the connections we will instinctively make in preaching will either be ones that emphasise God’s care for us, or the future God has for us as a church community. Both are important, but there is more. There are those for whom life is fairly ‘normal’. They have the common frustrations, challenges and disappointments, but primarily they are listening for something that connects the world of the Bible with their everyday world.
When members of the congregation know we are listening to them and taking their situations seriously, they’re more likely to listen more closely themselves, and more likely to become confident of the ways that God can work through them in their everyday lives.
1. Use a simple survey amongst the congregation every few years. Include questions about their frontlines and the pressures they face and the opportunities they have to serve God there.
2. Bring together a number of people who would represent the demography of your congregation and share the ideas you have for a series of sermons, encouraging them to reflect on the way the biblical book or passages would shape their frontline experiences and expectations.
3. In your ongoing weekly pastoral work, use appropriate occasions to talk about your preaching and upcoming sermons. Listen to how people react to what is being taught so that you can see how your sermons can connect more directly with the daily lives of your congregation.
4. Hopefully there will be people in the congregation who are still to come to faith in Jesus. You need to know how they are making sense of the sermons. You might have a team of people who could be primed to ask them those questions directly, or in smaller churches you could do it yourself.
5. Invite your leadership team to reflect with you about the things they find helpful in the sermons, and listen to what they feel would help more. Try hard not to be defensive.
6. In deciding what to preach, have conversations with those people who are most involved in the lives of people in the congregation. They might carry official titles linked to pastoral care, or may just be people who are kind and have the time to be involved with others. You could offer them the various ideas you have, explaining your thinking, and see what they feel would be of most help at this time.
7. Visit people in their frontline contexts and ask them about how the recent sermons have connected their experience of gathered church with their scattered life. Somehow, being in a frontline context, wherever it may be, offers the chance of a more focused conversation.
8. Learn more about what people are watching and reading so that you become more aware of what is shaping their imaginations. Engage with the questions that are being raised.
9. From time to time, distribute cards and ask people to write down one topic about which they would really like to hear a sermon on.
10. Ask house group leaders to spend time in one of their sessions discussing what issues people are facing day by day that would benefit from being thought through from a biblical perspective.