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The Listener's Agenda (Part 1)

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

PreachingToday.com: As any pastor knows, listeners have an agenda for our sermons. They have issues they'd like us to address. They have felt needs and questions they want us to talk about. How did Jesus and the apostle Paul treat the listener's agenda? And how is that relevant to what we should do?

Bryan Chapell: They recognized two things. One, listeners had an agenda that might or might not be in accord with God's agenda. Second, Jesus and Paul acted accordingly in that they certainly put God's agenda first, but they recognized God's agenda as seeking the hearts of men and women for Christ.

Therefore, while they had in mind the glory of God, they also had in mind the edification of his people. Keeping those two things together is the goal of good preaching. If preaching is only directed at God's glory, it becomes abstraction and arrogance. If it's only directed at people's edification, it becomes entertainment and in some ways just currying favor. What really serves God's people is when you are considering, How can I glorify God and edify his people at the same time?

Jesus speaks to the necessities and the capacities of the individuals he is addressing.

In the Bible, the ruler comes to Christ and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds. Is preaching similar to what Jesus does when he answers this man's specific question?

Yes, although we don't always have Jesus' insight. In the ruler's case, our ready response would be, "Acknowledge that you are in need of a Savior and confess that Christ is Lord, and you will be saved." But Jesus sees a man who comes with all the accoutrements of riches and self-aggrandizement. The ruler's question indicates what's really in his heart—"What must I do to be saved?"

Jesus penetrates that by answering in a way that shocks us; he says, "Keep the commandments." It sounds like works-salvation to our ears, but you have to hear the question. The man had said, "What must I do to be saved." Jesus penetrates the bubble the man has built by saying: If the question is what you do to be saved, then do everything.

The rich young ruler's response is, "All these commands I've kept from my youth." Jesus had just said that only God is good, and now three seconds later the young man says, me too. In doing so, he gives himself the status of God. What must Jesus do in that situation? He must make the man perceive his inability to be God. So he tells him impossible things to do, and finally the man turns away. What was Jesus doing? To let the man come on the basis of being good enough for God would actually be to damage him.

What Jesus does is speak to the necessities and the capacities of the individuals he is addressing. The necessity: The man must recognize his own insufficiency. His capacity: If Jesus just gives him a simple plan of salvation, he will not be able to understand what he is lacking. So Jesus must address the man at the level of his capacity to understand. Over and over again that is the balance of Scripture. It is not merely dealing with felt need. It's willing to do that at times, but in order that people who have low capacity may hear what is necessary for them to know.

Remember how Paul said to the Ephesian elders, "I have not hesitated to say anything needful to you for salvation." What does that "needful" mean? Paul says it's not just your felt needs. Sometimes I must address that. But I see beyond that to your godly needs, your biblical needs. And what ultimately is needed for your edification and for God's glory, that's what I will address. But that means I must deal with your capacity to hear me, as well as what you need to hear.

We are correct to hear our listeners even as we look at the Word. To say my job is simply to proclaim the Word, while turning a deaf ear to what my listeners are asking, is actually to damage them. What I'm doing is saying the Word does not really apply to their lives. I speak just into abstraction.

The best preachers are always doing two things at the same time. They are exegeting the text and exegeting their hearers. Not only do I consider what my hearers need to hear from this text, but I also consider what they are capable of hearing from this text. Have I put the fruit of the gospel within reach of those that God has given me to minister to? He has not only given me the Word to proclaim to these people, he has given me these people to minister to. I must consider who they are, what they can hear, and what their needs are.

The old preacher's line says we need to remember we are preaching to sheep, not giraffes. If we preach to giraffes, we'll put things at a level we're comfortable with, or that our preaching peers are comfortable with, instead of listening to our hearers and saying, What are you capable of hearing?

If that sounds like compromise, remember that Jesus said to his own disciples: I have more to tell you, but you are not ready to receive it yet. He recognized that even though he had more truth to say, his disciples were not always at a level to receive it. So he had to speak at the level they could receive in order for them to grow in such a way that they could receive what they needed later.

Preachers debate about how to select their preaching texts. Should I preach consecutively through a book? Regardless what people are experiencing they're supposed to receive what they should from this text. Or, Should I identify what the people are struggling with and find a text that deals with that? My answer is both-and. It's not either-or.

Ralph Lewis described it years ago as the web and flow of preaching. Sometimes we flow. We move consecutively through a book or series of verses, knowing we will address issues that might not have come to our minds through our own experience. In this way, we preach the whole counsel of God.

At the same time, if there is the death of an elder in the church, an economic crisis in the community, a natural disaster, for us to say, "I don't care about that. My obligation is to preach the next verse in this passage," is to say the Word of God doesn't really apply to life.

Instead, our preaching should at times have a web effect: when something significant has happened, I need to find the verse that captures it so I can deal directly with what my people are experiencing.

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

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