Exegeting Your Congregants
A shepherd who is mindful of his congregants will become skillful in bringing God's Word to bear in the lives of their flock.
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I was recently preaching in Central America to one of our church's new church plants. As you can imagine, it would be ineffective for me to preach to them in the exact same way I do each week to the congregation in Orange County, California. I would like to tell you that I spoke to my Guatemalan brothers and sisters in the language they understood, but my high school Spanish failed me—or I failed it, I can't remember which. So I preached to them, as I always have in those settings, with a translator. And because I needed a translator, my sermon was crafted and abbreviated with a sentence by sentence Spanish interpolation in view. More than that, I had to modify a number of my illustrations, explanations, and applications for the Guatemalan Christians living in a very different culture than my fellow Southern California congregants.
It is important to note that I am completely onboard with those who lament the cultural accommodation of God's truth that has plagued the modern church. "Contextualization" is a damnable error when it describes modification of the standards, directives, and principles of God's Word to satisfy the appetites and demands of sinful human beings. When the Apostle Paul wrote that he intended to "become all things to all people" so that by all means he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), he carefully qualified that intention in the previous verses. He was, as we should be, resolved to always be "under the law of Christ" (v.21), which of course meant that he would never compromise the truth, even if he was under angelic pressure (Galatians 1:8). In that sense, he had no interest in pleasing people because he saw himself as a "servant of Christ" (v.10). And so we are. We serve Christ as his ambassadors. As such, we can never compromise the message or the directives of our King, but as expatriates in this world, we had better learn which sorts of illustrations, explanations, and applications most effectively relay the kingdom's agenda to our assembled hearers.
This evaluation should be a continual concern for preachers of God's Word. We ought to be giving time and effort not only to exegeting the text of Scripture, but also the congregants who will be sitting before us when we preach. If you haven't given this much thought during your weekly preaching preparation, I assume it hits you in the face when you are asked by the youth pastor to preach to the junior high group, or (even more frightening for me) when the Children's Ministry Director asks you to teach the Bible lesson at the Summer VBS. At that moment, we should all realize that even if the assigned text is the one we just preached in the main service the previous Sunday, there is no way we are walking up on the youth room platform to preach without some serious retailoring of the notes. This is the kind of strategic evaluation our weekly preaching needs—whether it is to kids, teenagers, or adults.