Walking through a bookstore the other day, I was surprised by the selection of For Dummies Series of books. Starting with DOS for Dummies, this extensive series of instructional-reference books is intended to present a non-intimidating series of guides for readers who want to better understand a large variety of topics. Each of the more than 1,600 topics sports a distinctive yellow and black cover and a blackboard style logo.
Whatever one's interest or problem, it seems quite likely that someone figured that there would be at least one dummy who would need a book on that subject. There is a book called The Bible for Dummies and another called Prayer for Dummies. There's also one called Biblical Hebrew for Dummies!
I could not, however, find a For Dummies book on preaching. I thought such a book might offer some insight about what the people we preach to each Sunday say makes for a good sermon. More importantly, and to paraphrase Micah's great question, what does the Lord require of those of us who are charged with delivering His message to the people each time we enter the pulpit?
It seems we not only need to exegete our preaching text, but also exegete our congregation. Remember, the word exegete finds its roots in the 18th century Greek word exegeisthai, meaning "to interpret." To properly understand and relate to our congregation, we need to ask ourselves, "What are the interests of my flock?"
What is my congregation's probable level of knowledge about my sermon topic? What are the people's fixed beliefs and values? How can I best connect with them when I preach? What do I want my congregation to think as a result of what I will tell them? What do I want to change about them? What do I want them to do after hearing me that they are not doing now? These are just some of the questions we need to ask ourselves if we really are to preach.
I recall from my early days as a young preacher that I spent long hours gathering information about my text, ferreting out fine details, salivating over subtle differences or shades of meaning in my Greek text. All that work fascinated me, and I looked forward with glee to impressing the good people of my rural Mississippi congregation with how smart I was. Then one Sunday evening, Bob Easley stunned me at the door with this simple statement, "I didn't know we had a bunch of Greeks in our congregation. What you said went way over my head!"
Bob was a greatly beloved and hard-working farmer who, like many members of our church family, had perhaps a sixth-grade education. He loved the Lord, and when he offered grace before a meal you knew somehow that heaven really paid attention to the sincere words of Bob's heart. Bob and his wife, Lois, were founding members of our church. As long as she was alive, Lois had a reputation for "keeping Bob straight." After Lois died, we got used to Bob's unvarnished straight talk.
Truth be told, Bob's plain words spoke for a lot of people in our little congregation. What Bob was telling me in his own way that Sunday evening was that now that I had a college education, my sermons were shooting over the people's heads. His was "a word fitly spoken" (Prov. 25:11). If we do not know the people to whom we preach, we likely will shoot wide of our intended targets many times.
Here are five home-grown truths I learned as I later reflected on Bob's words:
First, the KISS rule still works, so Keep It Simple Sir (or Senorita)!
Second, keep it focused! Avoid the temptation to stray off the track. That story you really want to tell always must fit the moment of your message. If it doesn't, save it for another time.
Third, make it live! Tell a good story to help make the Bible come alive for the people.
Fourth, make it portable! Be sure your congregants have something they can carry out to where they live out their lives.
Fifth, make it gripping! Information that does not include "Here's why this is important, and this is what you must do with it" is soon forgotten and bears no lasting fruit.
Bob Easley may not have gone beyond sixth grade, but he taught this quasi-educated preacher that there's a lot more to be learned about preaching than I ever got inside a book.