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Preacher as Advocate

What it means to identify with your hearers

Whenever you step into the pulpit, you are the advocate of the people who listen to you. You are a mediator of the text for them. You stand between the text and the people, and your role is to help them understand God's Word.

Unfortunately, in our preaching we may adopt an adversarial relationship with our hearers. It's not intentional, and it may come from a desire to preach prophetically, but some of us are more comfortable pronouncing seven woes than five blessings.

I realized this after I left pastoring and went into teaching. I took my place in the pew on Sundays and listened to sermons and realized how often I left the meeting feeling as though someone had beaten up on me. When I looked at some of my older sermons, I realized I too sometimes had an edge.

You stand between the text and the people.

One of the older preachers who models preaching as an advocate is Helmut Thielicke, who has this wonderful series of sermons based on the Lord's Prayer in a book called The Prayer That Spans the World. Thielicke preached in Stuttgart during the Allied bombing of WWII. He tells about meeting one of the women in his congregation by this bombed-out building as he's walking through the city, and she points down into the crater and says, "My husband died there." So here's this pastor in a context of sheer terror, and his sermons are filled with compassion. He voices all the fears and questions his congregation has about God, but he does it with such sympathy. You can tell when he's preaching that he's on their side. He's looking at the problem through their eyes. He's not looking down on them, not scolding, not preaching from Sinai. He's like Christ, who comes and dwells among us and takes our burdens on himself.

What disturbs me when I read some of my old sermons is I get the impression I don't like the people I'm preaching to, that I'm angry with them, that they don't quite measure up to my expectations.

At times you have to speak prophetically. You can't just say what people want to hear, but it's not the image of the prophet that makes that kind of preaching effective. Where we get hung up is in our vision of what it means to be a prophet: it's standing on the mountain and thundering at God's people. Instead, the secret to biblical, prophetic preaching is the metaphor of parent. As a parent at times I have to say hard things to my children. At times I have to say things I would rather not say and things they don't want to hear, but I am compelled by love to say them. I don't want to denounce my children.

Sometimes we fail to identify with our audience. When Thielicke preached to his people, he voiced their fear that God had abandoned them or that this wreckage was proof that he doesn't exist. Thielicke gives the sense that it's understandable they would feel that way. Then he brings the audience and the text together, showing how those fears are unfounded where Christ is concerned.

We need the ability to identify with the audience in such a way that we can speak on their behalf, and then be so grounded in the text that we also can speak for God. In a real sense, the preacher is a mediator, not in the salvific way—we know Jesus is the only one who can do that—but the preacher stands between the audience and the text. When you analyze the text, you speak to the text on behalf of your audience. You think about your people, trying to look at the text through the lens of their experience, particularly the lens of their needs. You ask of the text the questions they would ask if they saw the text as you do. Then you speak to the audience on behalf of the text, or in other words, on behalf of God. You answer their questions based on the text, and you're doing that as their friend.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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