Preaching to Everyone in Particular
Preaching to Everyone in Particular
How to scratch where people niche
While Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, was without a pastor for over a year, I preached there often. The church is remarkably diverse, having Harvard professors and high school dropouts, doctors and lawyers and house cleaners, political activists and those who don't even read the newspaper, people with multimillion-dollar investment portfolios and minimum-wage workers. In addition, members are of many races and colors.
I stood before such diversity each week amazed at the responsibility I had to reach them all. As I prepared my sermons, I stewed over how my sermon could reach the entire cross section.
As men and women who preach, our task can be expressed simply: to become all things to all people. To actually do it is a formidable task.
Sacrificing what comes naturally
When we fail to speak to the entire cross section in our churches, we resemble the doctor who knows only how to set a broken arm: if a patient complains of a bellyache, the doctor breaks his arm so she can set it.
Reaching broader audiences demands that we sacrifice what comes naturally to us. When Paul said, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22), he wasn't talking about just evangelism. He was talking also about helping converts grow. "To the weak"— believers who had weak consciences—he became weak; he restricted his freedom for their sake.
Speaking to a broader audience requires a sacrifice from us. We give up our freedom to use certain kinds of humor, to call minority groups by names that make sense to us, to illustrate only from books and movies we find interesting, to speak only to people with our education and level of Christian commitment. Sometimes such sacrifice feels constricting to us.
A pastor who objects strongly to the women's movement, for example, might take a passing shot at its leaders and activities. By doing so, though, he risks needlessly alienating women in the congregation.
Sacrificing what comes most naturally to us, though, is what gives us a platform to speak. Just as a legalistic Jew wouldn't regard Paul as credible if Paul ignored the law, so many women, for example, won't regard a preacher as credible if he shows zero sensitivity to their issues.
Why go to all this trouble? Because it is right and because it is wise.
The people we are most likely to offend are those on the edge, those cautiously considering the gospel or deeper commitment but who are skittish, easily chased away by one offensive move from pastors. Those already secure in the fold will probably stick by us in spite of our blunders. The new people we're trying to reach are as easily spooked as wild turkeys.
A young couple moved into a Chicago suburb and attended one church for several months. The church helped them through the husband's unemployment. Several times the pastor met with the man, who had advanced degrees in ecology and was interested in deeper involvement in the church.
Then he and his wife abruptly stopped coming. The pastor repeatedly tried to contact them, and finally after several months, he was able to take the man out for lunch. He asked him why they had not come to church in such a long time. "In several of your sermons," the man replied, "you made comments that belittled science. If that is the way you feel, I don't think we're on the same wavelength."
The pastor remembered the remarks, which were either passing comments or rhetorical flourishes contrasting the power of Christ and the weakness of human thought. But the consequence was not passing: a man who showed promise of moving into deeper discipleship had been diverted.
How can we gain appreciation for lives unlike our own, for people as different as security guards and investment bankers? The same way novelists do: listening and observing. Listen to the people you counsel and the conversations around you in restaurants and stores. Observe characters in movies and common people interviewed on the news. Note how these people state their concerns—their specific phrasing, their feelings, their issues. Get an ear for dialogue.
I know one pastor who holds a focus group each Thursday before he preaches. He eats lunch with several people from diverse backgrounds, tells them the ideas in his sermon, and asks them how they hear these ideas. They often raise issues that had never occurred to him.
After one service a woman told me how she and several other African-Americans had taken out an ad in the New York Times to explain their resentment of homosexual activists who draw on the black experience to describe their own. "They identified themselves as a minority," she told me. "We're both minorities, but that's the only thing we have in common. They don't know what we've gone through. They don't know the pain of being black. She helped me understand what a disadvantaged minority feels, and someday I'm sure I'll include in a sermon how God can help those who feel the pain of being black in America.
Targeting particular audiences
In the Gospels we see that Christ never dealt with two people the same way. He told the curious Pharisee that he needed to be born again, the woman at the well that she needed living water. He brought good news to each individual, but at the person's point of contact.
The New Testament epistles differ from each other because they brought the same basic theology to bear on diverse problems. In 1 Corinthians, Paul defended the doctrine of the Resurrection against those who doubted it; in 1 Thessalonians, Paul brought that same truth to believers who were worried about those who had already died in Christ. From the Bible's beginning to its end, we see God adjusting the message to the audience without sacrificing the truth. Truth is never more powerfully experienced than when it speaks to someone's personal situation.
Knowing that, some preachers try not to exclude listeners and fall into preaching in generalities. For example, if I say, "Irritation bothers us all," I'm speaking to no one in particular. A sermon full of generalities hits no one in particular.
We do better to focus specifically on two or three types of people in a message (changing who those two or three groups are each week). The surprising thing is that the more directed and personal a message, the more universal it becomes.
I might illustrate a sermon on conflict by saying, "You live with your roommate, and your roommate has some irritating habits, like not cleaning the dishes right after the meal. Or you're married, and your husband comes home and plops himself in front of the TV without any regard for what your day has been like." Although these two scenarios don't fit all listeners, all can identify with these specific experiences and the feelings they elicit.
To help me speak to what different members of an audience may be going through, I use a suggestion given by a good friend, Don Sunukjian. I prepare my sermons using a life-situation grid.
Across the top of the grid, I label columns for men, women, singles, married, divorced, those living together. On the side of the grid, 1 have rows for different age groups (youth, young adult, middle-age, elderly), professional groups (the unemployed, the self-employed, workers, and management), levels of faith (committed Christians, doubters, cynics, and atheists), the sick and the healthy, to name a few. I develop my grid based on the congregation and community I am preaching to.
After I've researched my biblical text and developed my ideas, I wander around the grid, looking for two to four intersections where the message will be especially relevant.
For instance, in one sermon on money, based on the Parable of the Shrewd Branch Manager in Luke 16, I went through my grid and thought of a widow in the congregation whose late husband, the president of a major corporation, had left her a large amount of money. She once had said to me, "What a curse it is to have a lot of money and take God seriously." Since I knew others in the congregation had significant incomes, I thought specifically about how someone with money would hear and feel about this passage.
A second intersection on the grid I explored was the working poor. For their sake, in the sermon I mentioned that Christ focuses on the attitude of our hearts, not on the amount we give.
A third group of special concern were visitors who might say afterward, "All pastors do is preach about money." Seeing them on the grid caused me to include some humor and speak directly to the objection.
(On occasion, I can even preach an entire sermon to one particular group in the church—say, young men or women in business, or teenagers. I might introduce it by saying, "This morning I want to talk only to the teenagers. Some of you adults enjoy a short winter's nap on Sunday morning anyway, but this morning I give you permission to do so. Today I want to talk to young people in junior and senior high. You are an important part of this church, and I'd appreciate it if you would listen." All the application in that sermon would be for young people, but only a rare adult would tune out. In fact, information overheard can be more influential than information received directly.)
Though we preach each week to diverse congregations and need to target particular subgroups, all listeners have these desires:
They want to meet God or run away from him.
They want to learn something.
They want to laugh.
They want to feel significant.
They want to be motivated, in a positive way, to do better.
They want a pastor to understand their pain and the difficulty they have doing what's right, without letting them off the hook.
One of the most important tools for addressing these universal concerns is through illustrations. People identify with people more than ideas. They gossip about people, not principles. Good stories transcend individual experiences so that people from a variety of situations can gain something from them. When hearing a story, listeners tell the story to themselves, inserting their own experiences and images.
An older woman once said to me, "Sometimes the Christian life is like washing sheets." She described how she washed sheets by hand in a large washing bucket, and when she would push one part of the sheet under water, air bubbles would move to another part of the sheet and float that section above water.
"I push it down here, it comes up there," she said. "I can never keep the whole sheet under water."
As she described the scene, her story became my story. My mind jumped back a half century to my boyhood. I recalled my mother's washing clothes in a tub and having the same problem.
To help listeners make emotional connections to my preaching, I try to illustrate broadly. I am tempted to draw many of my illustrations from sports, which may or may not appeal to the majority of women (more than half of most congregations). I intentionally try to include illustrations that more women may identify with, stories-focused on relationships, drawn from the worlds of home and family or what they experience in the workplace.
As I watch TV, I look for illustrations. My own tendency is to draw from what I read, but most people in a congregation do not read the materials I read. They live in a different sphere from mine, and I try to honor that in my sermons.
The essential thing about the stories I choose to tell is that all listeners be able to put themselves into the scene, becoming participants in the story.
I heard Gordon MacDonald do this masterfully while preaching about John the Baptist. Gordon presented an imaginative updating of John's ministry in a story that every listener could enter. It went something like this: [Editor's note: For an audio example of this principle see track ___ on the supplemental CD]
Several management types were at the River Jordan as the crowds came to John, and they decided they needed to get things organized. So they set up tables and begin to give tags to those coming for repentance. On the tag is written the person's name and chief sin.
Bob walks up to the table. The organizers write his name on the tag and then ask, "What's your most awful sin, Bob?"
"I stole some money from my boss.
The person at the table takes a marker and writes in bold letters EMBEZZLER and slaps it on Bob's chest.
The next person comes forward. "Name?"
"Mary, what's your most awful sin?"
"I gossiped about some people. It wasn't very much, but I didn't like those people."
The organizers write, MARY—SLANDERER, and slap it on her. A man walks up to the table.
"George, what's your most awful sin?"
"I've thought about how nice it would be to have my neighbor's Corvette."
Another man approaches the table. "What's your name?" he is asked.
"What's your sin?"
"I've had an affair."
The organizer writes GORDON—ADULTERER and slaps the sticker on his chest.
Soon Christ comes to be baptized. He walks down the line of those waiting to be baptized and asks them for their sin tags. One by one, he takes those tags off the people and sticks them on his own body. He goes to John, and as he is baptized, the river washes away the ink from each name tag he bears.
As Gordon told that story, everyone in the congregation mentally wrote his own sin and slapped it on his own chest. The illustration was specific but touched on universal feelings.
To come up with images and stories that nearly everyone can own, I sometimes write "idea networks" on a sheet of paper. If I'm talking about home, for example, I'll write the word home in the center of a sheet of paper, circle the word, and then surround it with any associations that come to my mind: "home sweet home," "welcome home," "it's good to have you home again," "home on the range," "going home for Christmas," "stole home."
These associations will inspire other associations and memories, some personal, some cultural. What I'm doing is digging into the phrases and images our culture associates with home. Somewhere from that page I'll come up with one or more images or stories with larger appeal.
Taking listeners' side
I do everything I can to show people I respect them and I'm on their side. It's another way I try to be all things to all people. For instance, in my preaching I cultivate a conversational tone. Many people in our culture resent an authoritarian, lecturing manner. That style is what moderns mean when they use preaching in a pejorative sense ("Don't preach at me!"). They consider it patronizing and narrow-minded.
I also try to show empathy. When I quote from Malachi, "God hates divorce," I know there are divorced people sitting in the congregation who may begin to feel that God and Haddon Robinson hate them. So I'll follow up that verse with, "Those of you who are divorced know that better than anyone. You understand why God hates divorce. Not because he hates divorced people but because of what divorce does to people. You have the scars. Your children have the scars. You can testify to what it does. God hates divorce because he loves you."
I've found if listeners know you love and identify with them, they will let you say strong things. Most people are just asking that you be aware of them and not write them off.
Another way I tell listeners I'm on their side is by being careful with terms. Even though you're sure you don't have a bias, a listener may think you do if your phrasing offends them.
I try to use gender-inclusive language. If I'm telling a story about a doctor, I might say, "A surgeon stands in the operating room. As she takes the scalpel in her hand. . . ." I intentionally use she over he in strategic spots.
I also employ terms like spokesperson instead of spokesman. I say "he or she" instead of always saying "he"; or I use "he" sometimes and "she" other times. Even a few female pronouns in a sermon make a difference. (Here's a radical experiment: try using she all through a sermon except when you must use the masculine pronoun. You will get a sense of how much of preaching has a male flavor.)
I call minority groups what they want to be called. This is simple courtesy: If someone's name is Charles, and he doesn't like being called Charlie or Chuck, I'm obligated to call him Charles. I used to say Negroes, then Blacks. I used the term Afro-American in a recent sermon, and afterward a woman kindly corrected me, "It's African American."
Not compromising the truth
Of course, no matter how hard we try, we're still going to offend people. Sometimes we need to apologize from the pulpit. "In last week's sermon, my humor was in bad taste. I described overweight people with a term that was hurtful. I'm sorry. I sometimes say things I don't mean, and you're gracious enough to tell me about it. Bear with me."
While preaching at Grace Chapel, I received at least a letter a week reacting to my sermons. When someone writes me, I always write back. Some people send thoughtful letters, and I owe them a thoughtful response. Sometimes they're dead right; they catch me in a prejudice. I have to admit that.
Sometimes you get letters in which people are vitriolic through no fault of yours. The best you can do is say, "Thank you for writing. I'm sorry I offended you. I wanted to communicate a great truth of Scripture and failed to get that across to you. I'm sorry."
But if we focus too hard on not offending, or if we read too many letters from the offended, we can become paralyzed. We start qualifying every sentence. We end up with weasel sermons that are defensive, cautious, and spineless.
Yes, at Christmas we need to acknowledge that for some people it's the most depressing time of the year, but we can't let that rob the season's joy from the congregation. Yes, on Mother's Day childless women feel extra pain, and we can acknowledge that, but everyone has a mother to honor, and we shouldn't squelch the church's honoring of them.
Although I'm aware of the land mines, I try not to get uptight, defensive, or hostile in the pulpit, for that only provokes people to be more easily offended. Saying, "You shouldn't be so sensitive," or "I get so sick of all this politically correct language," does no one—you or your people—any good.
And there are times when a pastor must preach truth at the expense of some sensitivities, yet we must do so with a burden in our hearts, not chips on our shoulders. There is no greater courage required of pastors than to preach what may cost them their pulpits.
There will always be a healthy discomfort as we try to be all things to all people. It's biblical, but it demands we walk a fine line. We want to be as appealing as possible but not at the cost of compromising the message. When we walk that line well, though, we experience something unequaled: a variety of people with a variety of concerns from a variety of settings all attentively listening to the good news.