In his book, The Art and Craft of Preaching, Herbert Lockyer suggested that “During our preparation in the study . . . there should be the shadow of a listening people. To forget that,” Lockyer concludes, “is the next crime to forgetting God.”
I think he is right. Preaching is not just slinging out a mouth full of words in the hope that some of them might stick in the minds of someone in the congregation. Preaching is the proclamation of a specific message to a particular people at a distinct moment in time. Consequently, side by side with our responsibility to exegete the text is the responsibility to exegete the people.
Thomas Long has this in mind in The Witness of Preaching when he advises the pastor as he or she approaches the biblical text, “to survey the congregation in the imaginations’ eye and to ask the questions of the text they would ask” – or, he adds – “the questions they may not dare to ask.” [p. 70]
Fred Craddock highlights the same point in his text, Preaching, when he includes the exegesis of the congregation in the hermeneutical stage of sermon preparation and concludes: “Giving disciplined time and attention to the interpretation of one’s listeners is critical for preaching.” [p. 98]
In a much more exhaustive way, Lenora Tubbs Tisdale champions the need to exegete the congregation in her fascinating book – Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art.
She calls on pastors to be ethnographers who participate in the culture of their congregation, become integrally immersed in it, and then describe it and interpret it to the congregation.
Any of us who takes seriously the congregational context in which we preach should place Tubbs’ book at the top of our reading list.
To forget the shadow of a listening people as we prepare our sermon is the next crime to forgetting God.
That’s why preaching pastors must pay attention to the congregational context in which we deliver our message each week.
So what kinds of things do we need to know about our congregation?
We need to be aware of the TRENDS affecting our congregation.
In one of my preaching classes at Truett Seminary last year, I asked the students to identify some of these trends and they came up with some of the following:
the booming single adult population and
the growth of the senior adult population and
the developing technology and
the rampant materialism and
the decreasing importance of denominations and
the increasing pressure of time –
just to mention a few.
In his best-selling book, The Earth is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, Thomas Freidman identifies 10 great levelers that have put everyone on the globe on a level playing field, things like open sourcing and outsourcing and offshoring and supply-chaining – just to mention a few.
We not only need to be aware of these general social trends. We need to go further and analyze the specific ways in which these general trends influence our particular congregation.
We also need to be aware of the NEEDS of our people.
A recent Gallup Poll identified seven needs of the average American: 1) The need for shelter and food; 2) The need to believe life has a purpose; 3) The need for a sense of community; 4) The need to be appreciated and respected; 5) The need to be listened to and to be heard; 6) The need to feel one is growing in faith; and 7) The need for practical help in developing a mature faith.
Again, we need to go beyond a basic knowledge of the common human need. As ethnographers of our congregation we need to discern which of these needs are most clearly reflected in the lives of our congregation, and address them.
Further, we need to be aware of the PROBLEMS with which our people struggle.
They are dealing with depression and fear and guilt.
They have problems in the work arena and problems that are relational.
They are fighting personal habits and addictions that are destroying them.
Many are struggling with self-esteem issues.
As the people sitting in the pews listen to our sermon every week, what they hear is filtered by these problems. Being aware of these problems will therefore enable us to be more practical in our preaching.
To express it another way, we need to remember that we preach each week to real people with real problems who live in a real world.
In addition, we need to be aware of the different BELIEFS that shape the world views of our people.
Many in our congregation each week are struggling with their concept of God.
Or, in a Postmodern world, they are trying to determine their attitude to faith in general and to the church in particular.
Many of them want to move to a deeper level of spirituality, but they are not sure the church is the primary resource for that deeper spirituality.
Their concepts of life after this life might be shaped more by movies or Barbara Walters’ specials or Oprah than by the Bible.
Time honored principles of the church may seem insignificant and trivial to them.
Understanding the different belief positions of those in our congregation will enable us to be wiser in the way we lead our congregation to biblical faith. That’s why we must not only exegete our text. We must also exegete our congregation.
So how do we exegete our congregation?
Exegeting our congregation begins with intentionality. As we intentionally dig into scholarly works to properly exegete the Biblical text, we need to intentionally dig into the proper resources to accurately exegete our congregation.
What are some of these resources?
A church history will reveal the context out of which the congregation has emerged.
Church mailouts will indicate who the church’s heroes are and what the congregation considers to be important.
Chamber of Commerce guides will paint a picture of the cultural setting of the congregation.
The local newspaper will reflect the political and social contexts in which the church members live out their lives.
Exposure to a wide spectrum of books and journals that describe contemporary life will provide a clearer grasp of the forces at work in the lives of our people.
Key players in the community may share with us their special insights that will help us understand our people better.
These are just a few of the formal resources for learning about our people. We must intentionally give attention to these resources if we are to accurately exegete our congregation.
Exegeting our congregation also requires an incarnational presence in their lives.
As we conduct funerals and perform weddings, as we hold the hand of a congregant in the hospital, as we council with our church members, as we celebrate the team victories under the Friday Night Lights, as we collaborate with church members in community events – that is, as we immerse ourselves completely in the lives of our people – we will be able to understand where and how the gospel connects with their lives.
Why is this important? Because preaching becomes effective only when the Biblical text intersects with the lives of our people. Only then can we help our listeners interpret their world from the perspective of a Biblical world view.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it like this:
“A word can only be authoritatively and convincingly spoken to me when it springs from the deepest knowledge of my humanity and strikes me here and now in the total reality of my human existence.”
To paraphrase a famous statement from the past: “A text that does not connect with the context of life today is a pretext.”
However, let me add this caveat. As we shape our sermons out of the descriptions and interpretations of our congregation, we need to recognize the possible dangers of “hearer oriented” preaching.
One danger of building the sermon on the exegesis of the people is that we may place too much emphasis on the individual.
When Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited America back in the 19th century and then reflected on his impressions, he invented a new term to describe the quality that seemed to be at the heart of the American culture – individualism.
Not much has changed over the nearly two hundred years that have passed since then. Individualism is still the lens through which most of us evaluate everything around us.
However, the gospel is true, whether or not the individual believes it.
Do you remember the bumper sticker: “God said it, and I believe it, and that settles the matter”? Something about that motto bothered me, but I could not put my finger on it until I saw another bumper sticker that said: “God said it, and that settles the matter, whether I believe it or not.”
Ultimately, we do not judge the gospel – the gospel judges us.
Another danger of building the sermon on the exegesis of the people is that we may give too much importance to relevance.
Church growth consultant Win Arn conducted a survey in which he interviewed the members of nearly one thousand churches in regard to what they perceived to be the mission of the church. Eighty-nine percent said the church exists “to take care of my family’s and my needs.” [C,W,15,30]
However, the fullness of the gospel cannot be reduced to those aspects that are relevant to the Christian in the immediate moment. The task of preaching is not just to address the present but also to evoke memories of the past and to generate hope in the future, as Thomas Long puts it.
William Willimon’s warning in Peculiar Speech is one we need to hear. Instead of expending all of our energy on making the gospel relevant to contemporary culture, Willimon warns, perhaps our homiletic effort might be better spent helping contemporary culture to become relevant to the gospel. [p. 53]
Yet another danger of building the sermon on the exegesis of the people is that it places too much emphasis on the human.
Such an over-emphasis blurs the fact that the gospel is not about us first of all but it is about God. Theology must precede anthropology and praxis.
Thomas Long summarizes all of these concerns in a succinct statement: “The gospel is true even when we are unable or unwilling to believe it, trust it, and live it out in our experience, and the adequacy of preaching cannot be fully measured by how much immediate change it affects in the hearers.” [P,L,3,35]
And yet, despite these dangers, the question that has been asked about a tree falling in the forest – if no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound – can also be asked about our sermons – “If no one hears it, is it really a sermon?” And the answer to the question is, “No.”
The written word delivered through the spoken word must become the living word in the hearts of the congregation before we can consider our effort to be effective Biblical preaching. All else falls short of our responsibility to preach the word.
So how can we connect with our congregational?
The answer, which can be simply stated, is far from simple. It is a complex and challenging call to engage the people we serve. The answer is EMPATHY, which means the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position and to intuit what that person is feeling. The word literally means “to feel in” or “to feel with” another person.
In the left-brained high-tech world we have been living in, this quality of empathy was often rejected and even scorned. But in his book, A Whole New Mind, in which he describes the transition of our world from the information age to the conceptual age, Daniel H. Pink identifies empathy as one of the six essential R-Directed aptitudes for effective living. He concludes:
“In a world of ubiquitous information and advanced analytic tools, logic alone won’t do. What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.” [M,P,13,66]
That is also the pattern for preachers today – to engage the people we serve, to climb into their minds and experience the world from their perspectives.
Now this is a delicate undertaking for as we bring the shadow of a listening people into our study, with all their issues and problems and prejudices, we can permit the needs of the people to become the filter through which we evaluate the gospel instead of allowing the gospel to be the lens through which we understand the people.
And yet there is no way to communicate effectively to our congregation without being engaged with them.
The playwright Arthur Miller, discussing what makes a drama memorable, said that in any successful play there must be something that prompts the audience to say within themselves, “My God – that’s me.” [PD,MJ, 76,39]
The same thing can be said – will be said – about effective preaching.
Our congregation needs to believe about us what was once said about Phillips Brooks: “He preached about things in which everybody was interested in a language everybody understood.” [207-5]
Perhaps the best advice I can offer is the pattern of Ezekiel when, called by God to take an unpleasant message to an unresponsive people, the prophet recognized the necessity of gathering around himself the shadow of a listening people. So this is what Ezekiel did. Listen and learn.
“I came to the exiles who lived at Tel Abib near the Kebar River,” Ezekiel says. “And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days – overwhelmed” (Eze 3:15).