This article originally appeared at 9Marks. For more read Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (Crossway).
The preacher paced the stage, staring earnestly out into the congregation. It was time for his weekly invitation. He asked for respondents to raise their hands. Not a single hand was raised. But he had no way of knowing this because he was on a video screen.
I was at the nearest campus of this multisite church on assignment from the pastor himself, a man who’d recently hired me to do some freelance research work for him. Visiting one of his many remote services was supposed to help me get a “feel” for his ministry. It certainly did. But I couldn’t help but be struck with the feeling that this way of doing ministry couldn’t really help the preacher get a “feel” for his congregation.
I don’t know what you think about video venues or the multisite model of church growth in general, but this experience and others has only affirmed some of my concerns about the disconnect between preacher and flock, a growing dilemma in all kinds of churches, big and small.
Indeed, this dilemma isn’t merely limited to multisite, “video venue” churches. Pastors of growing churches of all sizes will continually struggle with staying familiar with their congregations. And the temptation to become more and more isolated becomes greater as more complexity is added to an increasing church.
Of course, it’s impossible for a preacher of even a small church to be best friends with everybody in his church, and it’s impossible for preachers of larger churches to know everybody well. But the preacher whose ministry is becoming more and more about preaching and less and less about shepherding, and the preacher who’s becoming less and less involved with his congregation, is actually undermining the task to which he’s trying to devote more of his time! Good preaching requires up-close shepherding.
The ministry of preaching cannot be divorced from the ministry of soul care; in fact, preaching is an extension of soul care. There are a host of reasons why it’s important for pastors who want to preach meaningfully to know their flocks as well as they can, but here are three of the most important:
1. Meaningful preaching has people’s idols in mind.
As I travel to preach in church services and conferences, one of the first questions I often ask the pastor who invited me is, “What are your people’s idols?” I don’t want to just drop in and “do my thing”—I want to serve this pastor and his congregation by speaking to any hopes and dreams not devotionally attached to Christ as their greatest satisfaction. Sadly, some pastors don’t know how to answer the question.
When Paul walked into Athens, he saw the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). He didn’t regard this as a mere philosophical problem but as a spiritual problem that grieved him personally. And when he addressed it, he did so specifically, referencing their devotion to “the unknown god” (17:23). And whenever Paul addressed specific churches in his letters, the kinds of sins and falsehoods he addressed were specific. He didn’t speak in generalizations. He knew what was going on in these churches.
This doesn’t mean, of course, you begin embarrassing or exposing people from the pulpit. But it does mean you’re in the thick of congregational life enough to speak in familiar terms.
Until a pastor has spent quality time with people in his congregation, the idols his preaching must combat with the gospel will be merely theoretical. All human beings have a few universal idols in common. But communities where churches are located, churches as subcultures themselves, and even specific cliques and demographics within congregations all tend to traffic in more specific idols and patterns of sin.
Knowing firsthand your flock’s misguided financial, career, and familial hopes will help you know how to preach. It’ll help you pick the right texts and the right emphases in explicating those texts. This is what makes preaching a ministry and not simply an exercise.
2. Meaningful preaching has people’s suffering in heart.
My preaching changed after I’d begun holding people’s hands as they died and hearing people’s hearts as they cried. Until you’ve heard enough people share their sins and fears and worries and wounds, your preaching can be excellent and passionate, but it won’t be all it can be—resonant.
Many preachers carry the burden of God’s Word into the pulpit, and this is a good thing. Receiving the heavy mantle of preaching hot with Christ’s glory—being burdened to proclaim the Lord’s favor in the gospel—is a noble, worthy, wonderful task. But the preacher must also feel the weight of his people in that pulpit. He must ascend to preach having been in the valley with them. His manuscript should be smudged with the tears of his people.
Knowing what sufferings afflict his people on a regular basis will keep a preacher from becoming tone-deaf to his congregation. He won’t be lighthearted in the wrong places. It’ll affect the illustrations he uses, the stories he tells, and—most importantly—the dispositions with which he handles the Word. I’ve seen preachers make jokes about things people in his congregation were actually struggling with. And I’ve been that preacher. We come to lift burdens, but we often end up adding to them with our careless words.
Preacher, do you have a genuine heart for your people? I don’t mean, “Are you a people person?” I mean, do you know what’s going on in the lives of your congregation, and does it move you, grieve you? Have you wept with those who weep? If not, your preaching over time will show it.
Think of Moses’s grief over his people sins (Exod. 32:32). Or of Paul’s abundant tears (Acts 20:3; 2 Cor. 2:4; Phil. 3:18; 2 Tim. 1:4). Think also of Christ’s compassion, seeing into the hearts of the people (Matt. 9:36). You may believe you can work these feelings up without really knowing your congregation, but it isn’t the same, especially not for them. It isn’t the same for them in the same way that hearing a stirring word from a role model isn’t the same as hearing a stirring word from your dad. Don’t take to your text without carrying the real burdens of your people in your heart.
3. Meaningful preaching has people’s names in prayer.
Every faithful preacher prays over his sermon. He prays God’s Word wouldn’t return void (Isa. 55:11). He prays people will be receptive. He prays souls will be saved and lives will be changed. These are good prayers. Better still is the sermon prepped and composed with prayers of John Smith and Julie Thompson and the Cunningham family on the lips of the preacher. Better still is the sermon prayed over in pleadings for Tom Johnson’s salvation and Bill Lewis’s repentance and Mary Alice’s healing.
Paul repeatedly tells the people under his care he’s remembering them in his prayers (e.g., Eph. 1:6; 2 Tim. 1:3, Philem. 1:4). And since he’s frequently naming names, we know he doesn’t just mean generally. And while he didn’t have one congregation to shepherd up close but rather served largely as a missionary church planter, Paul still worked hard to know the people he ministered to from a distance and sought to visit them as often as he could. How much more should the local church pastor develop relationships with his people! He should know their names and he should carry their names to heaven in prayer.
It’s important to know whom you’re preaching to. It’s important to know Sister So-and-So doesn’t like your preaching. It’s important to know Brother Puff-You-Up likes it too much. It’s important to know the man in the back with his arms folded and brow furrowed isn’t actually mad at you—that’s just how he listens. It’s important to know the smiling, nodding lady near the front has a tendency not to remember anything you’ve said. When you know these things, you can pray for your people in deeper, more personal, more pastoral ways. And your preaching will get better. It’ll be more real. It’ll come not just from your mind and mouth, but from your heart, your soul, your guts.
This all assumes, of course, that you’re interested in this kind of preaching. If you see preaching as simply providing a “spiritual resource” for interested minds or pep talk for the religiously inclined and not as bearing prophetic witness from the revealed Word of God to the hearts of people, you can safely ignore all the points above.