By Mike Miller on Jan 18, 2023
Good preachers must develop the extra skill of "congregational exegesis."
Some time ago, I was attending a pastor's conference and heard something I did not expect.
One of the plenary speakers preached a very angry evangelistic sermon. Did I mention I was at a pastor’s conference? I suppose we were all wondering why we pastors were being encouraged (browbeaten?) to come to Jesus, but then the preacher told us. “Why am I preaching an evangelistic sermon at a pastor’s conference?” he asked. “Because I think pastors ought to get saved!”
Now, I agree that pastors should be saved. However, I have to wonder if that was the right sermon for that crowd. Was an evangelistic sermon really in order in that venue? We’ll leave it to the Lord to determine that answer, but the larger question goes to whether we as preachers do a good job of connecting with our audiences. (Forgive that “worldly” expression, but not all crowds we preach to will be “congregations” in the traditional sense.)
Do we really understand the person sitting before us? Do we really know who’s listening?
I’d like to consider what I call “congregational exegesis.”—in other words, getting to know the primary makeup of the crowds we will most consistently address as pastors and preachers.
Though not exhaustive, I’ll give four brief suggestions.
First, don’t assume.
Don’t make assumptions based on geographical or denominational setting.
Rural does not necessarily mean uneducated, and urban does not necessarily mean postmodern.
I was talking to a pastor recently who pastors a church in the country, but his church is over the river and through the woods a short distance from a state university. He preaches every week to some of the brightest among us.
We also cannot assume that people believe or are even aware of everything in our doctrinal confessions.
I am a Baptist pastor, but I am aware that—as hard as we try—not everyone in our church is thoroughly Baptist. For one thing, many of them watch and podcast their favorite preachers (Wait! That’s not me?) and have been shaped by them, whether positively or negatively. They are also watching shows on cable that present impressive arguments to bolster claims that undermine the validity of the Bible. This is the kind of thing with which I compete every Sunday.
Second, ask questions.
If you are a guest preacher somewhere, ask your host pastor or event director for insight into your audience. If you are a pastor, ask questions of the search committee and then of various church members.
What kinds of questions should you ask? All kinds. Begin with empirical information, such as age, education, and socio-economic levels. Ask what kinds of things they have been studying together (denominational materials, popular books, etc.). What has shaped them? Ask if they have any particular doctrinal biases that you can think of.
For example, before accepting a pastorate at one church, I learned that one of my predecessors was forced out after he began speaking in tongues. This was a very traditional Baptist church, and I learned that I had to be careful of every mention of the Holy Spirit (you know, a member of the Trinity).
In my current church, a particular eschatological position was so cherished by some of the older members that one of them accused me of not being a Christian because I hold to a different position. This let me know that I needed to go slowly and be particularly clear when talking about anything concerning the return of Jesus. I haven’t hidden or changed my convictions, but my communication is nuanced by this awareness.
Third, spend time with them.
Pastors, we must spend time with our members.
As a seminary professor, I often hear students describe their calling as to be a “teaching pastor.” They explain that they don’t really want to visit hospitals, preach funerals or provide counseling. They just want to preach.
Personally, I don’t know how I could effectively preach consistently to people I don’t know.
Eat with them. Watch football with them. Have them in your home and go to theirs (when invited, of course).
And listen. Listen. Listen.
My relationships with my church members affect my preaching as much as anything. For example, I recently preached a series through the Psalms because I had a number of church members talking (over the lunch table, at the golf course, etc.) about struggling in their spiritual lives—worship, prayer, devotion and such. I preached about dozens of Psalms that exemplified the heart cries of God’s people during spiritual highs as well as in dark and dry places.
I was surprised at the numerous thanks I received on a weekly basis.
Fourth (and this might be a surprise), observe social media.
While I suppose I should offer an obligatory word of caution about the dangers of all things Internet, I cannot overstate the value of pastors being on Facebook and Twitter.
Not only do I learn what movies my people are seeing, what music they are listening to and what places they are frequenting (all things which shape their worldviews), but since their keyboards give them a strange kind of boldness, I learn a lot about their struggles. I have learned of illnesses, bad marriages, depression and a host of other things that needed my attention—just from checking out my newsfeed.
This is a big piece of the puzzle that helps me to put together a picture of the people who sit under my preaching week to week.
Now, you might think that your Bible and the Holy Spirit are all you need to know what and how to preach. And I will agree that the Bible is your sourcebook, and the Holy Spirit is your wisdom and your guide. However, when the Lord calls us to preach His Word to His people, the least we can do is put the effort into understanding who these people of God truly are.
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