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The Listener's Agenda (Part 2)

What regard should those committed to the exposition of scripture have for the felt needs of their hearers?

This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

PreachingToday.com: We looked at an example from Jesus; let's focus now on Paul. In Corinthians, Paul the apostle says, "Now, about the things you wrote about." So, he's dealing with questions that they have presented to him. They've said, Paul, what do we do about this? And here he writes a book of the Bible responding to the listener's agenda. Again, how does that relate to our task as preachers?

Bryan Chapell: In2 Timothy 4, Paul says, "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season. Correct, rebuke, and encourage." Those are all the straightforward, Just preach it, man. Just do it . But then he goes on to say, but do this "with great patience and careful instruction." There's the wonderful human touch. He says you have to do it with great patience. Be aware of the persons to whom you're talking. Some of them must take the truth out of eyedroppers, and some of them need to take it from fire hydrants. With great patience discern whom you're talking to. And then, with great care, give them instruction.

Now, he quickly follows that human touch by saying: But be careful because there will come a time when people will only want to gather around themselves teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.

Paul has done two things. He has said God sets the agenda—preach the Word. People don't set the agenda, since they are only able to determine what their own ears want to hear. But even as God sets the agenda, his agenda has in mind the care of his people. So, pastoral care is considering what people need to hear, yes, but it's also considering how can they hear it. How careful, how patient, how gentle, or, conversely, how strong and bold do you need to be in order for this truth to penetrate? It's the people's good as well as God's glory that sets the agenda, not simply the people's desires.

The main goal of preaching is not information; it is transformation.

One definition of expository preaching is that it is letting the Scripture text control the sermon. What should the preacher who is committed to that sort of exposition think about the listener's agenda? How much or in what ways should the listener's agenda control the preacher's agenda?

I love that expository rubric, and I would not do anything but endorse it, because where the Bible speaks God speaks. So, what I'm attempting to do is simply reflect the truth of God as I preach in an expository way from the text. So the text does have to control the truth that we speak. At the same time, as that truth's meaning is given, its significance will vary given the people to whom I am speaking.

For example, if I'm speaking the truth from God's Word that God knows tomorrow, the significance of that truth may vary greatly for the hearers that I'm addressing. If I'm addressing high schoolers that are concerned about where they will go to college next year and whether God will still take care of them, or if he knows tomorrow, I'm saying, even though you don't know where you will be next year, God knows. And that's why you can trust him. But what if I'm speaking to folks in a nursing home, and they don't know if they will draw the next breath tomorrow or next year?

I'm speaking in two very different contexts, so that the significance of God's knowledge of tomorrow is different for the two crowds, but the truth is controlled by the text. So the meaning doesn't vary, but its significance may vary greatly according to the nature of my hearer.

How does this affect the way we structure a sermon?

We typically talk about the difference between the exegetical outline and the homiletical outline. Though there will be some differences in exegetical outlines, they shouldn't vary much from preacher to preacher. But the homiletical outline may vary greatly. Each preacher must ask, Which aspect of the text do I need to mention first to this particular congregation? What illustrations may I use? Of the minor or major points of the text, which needs the most emphasis for this group?

Maybe this group has never heard this before, or maybe this group has heard all of this before. My obligation is to exegete the text, but to be faithful to God's purpose I have to exegete the people as well and say, What do they need to hear? What can they hear? What do they most desire to hear? What do they not want to hear but must hear?

And if that sounds like compromising the text, we should remember what the father of expository preaching, John Broadus, said: the main thing to be done in preaching is application. Now, he wasn't shortchanging exposition, but he was recognizing that the main goal of preaching is not information; it is transformation.

We have truth to say, but there is an end goal, and the end goal is changing the will and behavior of God's people for their edification.

As I heard someone say once, our purpose is not just to get people into the Word; it's to get the Word into the people. So someone can be so ideologically driven toward exposition that they can forget about their hearers and thereby do them a disservice. On the other hand, someone can be almost exclusively driven by the hearer. What do people on that end of the spectrum risk losing by being so listener driven?

What you may lose if you are exclusively listener driven is, ultimately, the Word of God for God's people. The Word of God is meant to bring people the joy that is their strength. But at times people are taking their joy from the idols of the world. If we are not able to challenge, correct, even rebuke, then we will be driven by an agenda that is actually leading people into harm.

So the pastor has to have the objective distance of the Scriptures setting the agenda. I have to say what the Scripture says because it, more than I, knows what is good for God's people. By being faithful to the truth of the text I challenge the idols of the times and the idols in people's hearts, and say at times what their itching ears do not want to hear. If I only follow their agenda, I may be led to issues too shallow. I may be led to issues actually secular and wrong. I may be led to say things in such a way that people, while they are pleased with what I am saying, are not displeased enough with their sin that they will turn from it.

There are certain rights that people have in the pew. One is that the pastor will address what is going on in their lives. But I must do so in a way that is true to the Scriptures more than simply true to their desires.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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