By Ray Hollenbach on Jul 10, 2015
When we ask something more of our congregation we will quickly discover whether we are preaching for spiritual entertainment or spiritual formation.
When I finish preaching, the sermon is just beginning: I try to include “homework” in every sermon I preach. I think you should, too, and here are three reasons why.
1. I don’t want my listeners to be deceived. James 1:22 couldn’t be any more clear: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” If my preaching allows people to walk away without offering a clear plan of action I’m part of the problem, not part of the answer. A steady diet of preaching without a call to action sets our people up for spiritual deception. Rather than command people, “Love your neighbor” why not give them practical ideas about how to do it?
This is a big deal: our churches are full of people who are accustomed to hearing a message, judging the messenger, and going about the rest of their week as if Sunday morning never happened. And we preachers are often to blame. We’ve trained our listeners to be, well, listeners. It’s a preacher’s responsibility not only to provide application as part of the sermon, but also to give bold, practical steps for people to take during the week. Our congregations will never become accountable if we fail to ask for accountability.
2. I want to give my listeners practical ways to live out God’s word. Lots of preachers know how to suggest applications for their preaching, but how many of us give assignments? Providing application for a sermon is good step, but applications are generalized, like suggestions. What would happen to the life of your church if you asked your people to do something specific? Here’s an example: Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.” You preach on the topic, bringing out God’s heart for the lost and our responsibility to demonstrate that love. But how can you love your neighbor apart from knowing him? So, at the end of your sermon you say, “Here’s our assignment this week: let’s invite our neighbor over for ice cream—just to get to know him.” Then, as you prepare next week’s message, you listen for stories from your congregation about what happened when they actually did what you taught. You will end up with fresh illustrations, and these illustrations will be uniquely relevant to your church. You can use testimonies, videos, or even Twitter or Instagram share these real-life illustrations. And you will also reinforce the idea that you, the pastor, expect God’s people to do God’s word.
Do you remember what Jesus said to his disciples the night of the Last Supper? He said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17) As preachers, we would be wise to follow the Lord’s example in teaching. Years after that fateful night, one of Jesus’ disciples wrote, “If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:5-6)
3. Finally, homework provides a better opportunity for feedback. It’s always nice to hear a compliment or two as people leave the sanctuary: “Good word, Preacher.” But short phrases and a handshake won’t make me a better preacher, nor will it make my congregation better Christians.
When we ask something more of our congregation (something like actually doing the word of God) we will quickly discover whether we are preaching for spiritual entertainment or spiritual formation. We will also discover whether our preaching has the ability to move people from ideas to action. Giving your congregation “homework” is a high-risk strategy for the preacher because you will learn who is listening and who is not.
In this respect, the pastor of a smaller-to-medium size church has a real advantage: if your church is small enough to know people by name, you are in a position to truly influence their lives, and share in their growth. It is a unique advantage to preach to people you know personally. Giving people an assignment for the week provides an opportunity to participate in their lives in a pastoral way—if we are willing to take the risk.
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