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.
We don't use the Bible to preach our messages, we want the Bible to use us to preach its messages.
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.
Don't consider your audience too early in your prep
I find it extremely helpful to work through my sermon preparation in three distinct stages. First, I study the preaching portion of Scripture for the teaching "as a scholar." Then I plan the sermon "as a pastor." Lastly, I prepare the sermon contents "as a preacher." (I have written briefly about these stages here and here.) I cannot emphasize enough how important it is not to approach the study of the text with our audience in mind. When we do, we are prone to engage in eisegesis instead of exegesis. We want to draw God's intended meaning out of the text, never read our desired meaning into a text. If we initially go to our Bibles with our listeners in mind we may very well become false teachers, imagining and preaching all kinds of things that God never sought to communicate in the passage we claim to teach. As I like to put it, we don't use the Bible to preach our messages, we want the Bible to use us to preach its messages. So keep your mind objectively on the author's intent, and your "feet" in the sandals of the original recipients. Once the prayerful hard work of biblical exegesis is accomplished to the best of your ability, and all your word study books and exegetical commentaries have been consulted, then you are ready to bring your listeners to the forefront of your mind. This is the stage I call "planning like a pastor."
As a shepherd you must know your sheep to effectively feed them. You can't set the meal too high for them to reach, or of a density they cannot digest. You must prayerfully discover something of who they are, how they think, what they value, and insightfully imagine how the truths in your sermon will be perceived in this time and in their culture. This is not in order to jettison truths you don't think they'll like, but so that you will know how to best deliver the truths—and that with God's gracious help they will receive them.
Consider the variety of people to whom you preach
Even if you preach to the exact same group of people every week, give substantial time to looking at the truths from your preaching text l through the vast array of life situations and spiritual conditions of your hearers. This will be tremendously helpful in knowing which aspects of the passage will need what sort of explanations, proofs, examples, and illustrations. It will give you a sense of how deep you can or should go in exploring the doctrinal themes raised in your passage. It may remind you that certain truths, which need no defense to a seminary graduate, may need a considerable apologetic to the bulk of the congregation. And it can prompt you to sketch out a helpful way to put a principle into action that has long since become second nature to you.
While you cannot plan each part of your sermon to perfectly communicate to every person in your congregation, you should think in several life-stage categories, which can reveal that a majority here, or a significant number there, will need something specific from the way you construct your sermon. This, by the way, is why your sermon can always be tailored much more efficiently when the whole group of listeners shares a common set of characteristics. A men's conference sermon can always be more tailored than a Sunday sermon to the whole church. A message to the small group leaders of a college ministry can be much more customized in regard to how the text is unpacked and applied, than when that message is taught to the entire college group. So if your calling is to preach to the entire church, you will often have to pick and choose sections of your explanation and application that will drive deeply into one of a variety of life-stage categories.
To help you develop the skill of analyzing your listeners I have come up with a suggested list of congregational categories, which may jumpstart your own list and thus impact the illustrations, proofs, and examples you enlist as you craft your sermons. I have done this by creating an acrostic that spells "congregants." It may be corny, but perhaps it will be memorable as you broaden your perspective in this middle segment of your sermon preparation. I suggest you try to identify a real-life representative for each of the categories, this will help your mind fill in the way a particular group of people will likely interact with the truths that the sermon will present. I also suggest that you put their names on a "sticky note" and put it on the bezel of your computer screen or on the perimeter of your desk.
The Cynics - Consider those in your congregation who are skeptical. They have been burned by the church or by Christians. They are in some way disappointed or disillusioned with God and frustrated at some level with the church. These will likely be sitting before you with their arms crossed, if not literally at least in their hearts. They are distrusting of preachers and need to be won over.
The Overwhelmed - Every congregation these days has a growing group of people who are, or who believe they are, overwhelmed. Even if their grandparents would roll their eyes at the relatively easy lives they lead, they feel taxed, anxious, tired, and scared. Perhaps they have health concerns, or they are in some kind of demanding transition. They may be in the throes of a serious trial and they need something in the sermon to bolster, encourage, and hearten them in their walk with God.
The New Christian - Some new Christians are likely to be among your listeners. We love preaching to them. But remember that everything is new to them. They don't always know our terms. The may know little or next to nothing about the Bible stories, the flow of biblical history, or the cherished doctrines of the faith. Make sure every sermon has something which is carefully explained for them.
The Grieving - As it has been said, if you preach to the hurting you'll always have an audience. And surely there are some grieving people sitting before you in your next sermon. While every point of every sermon cannot be directed to ease their pain, you should always be on the lookout for something that may. Remember, grief is more than mourning the loss of a loved one. Consider the lost jobs, lost homes, lost loves, lost relationships, and lost hopes.
The Retired - What a great potential this group has within a congregation. If you only think of the forty-hour-a-week employee, you may miss some great opportunities to apply God's Word to those who are in this new season of life—with expanded occasions for ministry and available time to be a living expression of the passage you are preaching.
The Eager - Some to whom you will preach have the zeal of a new Christian coupled with the knowledge of a seasoned saint. These enthusiastic listeners are ready to serve, quick to share their faith, and excited to take the next hill for Christ. While they are a huge blessing to any church, they can take poorly worded sections of your sermon and use them as a club to beat up on other segments of the congregation. Anticipating how they will likely understand, apply, and relay the various parts of your sermon will help you tighten up every facet of it.
The Gullible - Every church has some who are quick to follow fads, and are liable to be pushed around by every wind of false doctrine. They chase after any promise of hope cloaked in the words God and Jesus. There is no telling what they may have heard last week on Christian television, or read in the latest best-selling Christian book. We must remember as we preach that their slippery feet need to be firmly affixed to the stable ground of sound doctrine.
The Apathetic - For every zealot there seem to be five or six apathetic church attenders. When we open the Word with anticipation, their minds are quick to wander. They are tired and easily bored. They feel like they've "been there and done that," and what could the pastor teach them this week that they haven't already heard a hundred times. These hard-to-motivate Christians are always a challenge. But in our weekly study we must consider how God might use the text to awaken and motivate them.
The Non-Christians - We are sure to have non-Christians in attendance at every church service. Some realize they are not Christians, but many do not. They are spiritually dead the Bible tells us, and we must remember that without the Spirit's regenerative intervention all the words of life are unintelligible to them. They don't grasp the gospel, but cling instead to an assortment of idolatrous priorities. We must remember they are among us, and consider how at some juncture this week's text can call them to repentance.
The Transgressors - With trepidation it is helpful to consider that there are likely some seated before you, who are running from God. They are Christians on their boats to Tarshish—fleeing from God's will. They are caught up in unrepentant sin and in need of confession. They look fine on the outside, but they are carrying the weight of guilt from their hidden transgressions. Keep them in view as you prayerfully plan—your sermon might be the "whale" of truth that God uses to redirect their lives.
The Singles - In many churches unmarried Christians can legitimately feel overlooked. Make sure your sermon prep doesn't. These singles are uniquely available to serve Christ's kingdom in ways their married counterparts cannot. They are a terrific resource for God in any church. Remember too that many are aching for marriage and frustrated with their singleness. Be thoughtful of their situation in life, and see if there are aspects of the sermon that might speak to their opportunities and concerns.
Perhaps this little acrostic will help deepen your praying and broaden your planning as you prepare for the next sermon you must preach. If the above categories don't apply to your preaching audience, then create your own appropriate list. And in the second segment of your sermon prep, work as a caring shepherd with a view to the variety of lives to whom you are seeking to relay God's truth. A shepherd who is mindful of his congregants will become skillful in bringing God's Word to bear in the lives of their flock.
Mike Fabarez is the founding pastor of Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, California. Pastor Mike is heard on hundreds of stations on the Focal Point radio program and has authored several books, including Preaching That Changes Lives, Lifelines for Tough Times, and Praying for Sunday.