GETTING TO KNOW YOU, GETTING TO KNOW ALL ABOUT YOU
BY KRISTI RECTOR
One of the rules for effective public speaking is to know your audience. So how well do you really know the people in your congregation? You’re probably aware that the Green family is struggling with putting Grandpa in a nursing home, that the Smiths just had a baby boy, and that Bob and Alice are having marital problems. But what happens in the day-to-day lives of the people–the husband who works in a pressure-cooker, secular-valued business office? the mother who home schools four small children? the single person who volunteers in the community but comes home to an empty house? the retired couple who’s living life to the fullest?
Knowing the answer isn’t just a luxury–it’s a necessity for preaching effectively to the people in the pews. If you don’t know what their lives are like, you can’t expect to preach sermons that will connect their lives with the Word of God.
One of the biggest challenges of being a pastor is preaching sermons that connect with peoples” lives, says Dave Bianchin, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Downers Grove, Illinois. Meeting people at the intersection between Scripture and the daily circumstances of life is what differentiates an effective preaching ministry from wasting people’s time, he says.
Glenn Wagner, author and senior pastor of Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, agrees. “I think the main thing is that pastors have to view themselves as a part of the community and therefore are to minister to that community rather than viewing their churches as organizations or corporations where they can just simply give out great pearls of wisdom and everything will be fine.” So how can you do that?
GO TO THE PEOPLE
Wagner says: “Pastors have got to get out of the office and into the lives of people. They need to put a governor on that so they have time for study and prayer and reflection, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be doing it. The shepherd knows his sheep and 5 the sheep hear and know the voice of the shepherd (John 10) and that model still holds true today You can’t lead and shepherd those you don’t know. I pastor a large church. I don’t know every person’s; name and their children, but I’m always seeking to be with people.” 3 Of course, the focus of sermon preparation should be on digging into Scripture so you can be a messenger of God’s Word. But Bianchin says pastors tend to spend so much time on exegetical work that they forget to focus on the people they’re preaching to.
He says it’s important to do exegetical work ahead of time to know where you’re going in your preaching. But then go out in public to connect with people, find illustrations for your sermon, and see how to bring the sermon home to the listeners.
BE NOT AFRAID
One thing that has altered the lives of people in recent years is the massive influx of media and technology into daily life. This offers special challenges to pastors who seek to preach to people with sound-bite-sized attention spans. The media also gives your listeners warped ideas about how they should five their lives as Christians. “TV creates new and artificial needs in us by altering our attitudes and beliefs in key areas of Christian concern: the need for moral resolve, the structure of the family, the definition of manhood, the use of possessions and wealth, and even the nature of God himself,” says Timothy Turner in Preaching to Programmed People Yet these very attitudes are perfect topics for sermons that will hit home for your congregation and bring them closer to Christ.
While all the technology can be intimidating, it doesn’t have to have a negative impact on your ministry. “There are still regular testimonies that are very clear and concise where preaching and proclamation of the Word of God has an effect. People will listen and respond because it is powered by the Word of God,” Wagner says. “So I believe that rather than being intimidated by all that’s happening and all the technology, pastors just need to more fully submit their preaching to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and trust God to work. Not everybody can go out and purchase the equipment to illustrate their sermons on PowerPoint, and, in fact some research is showing that people in churches don’t even want that because they’re getting bombarded with that all week.”
Yet you can use the media to your advantage. “Francis Schaeffer was one of the early theologians to encourage pastors to view what’s happening in secular society and then to gain ideas on how to apply the gospel to it,” Wagner says. “And I think it’s no different today to read movie reviews and things that are happening in the arts to gain a better understanding to apply the Scriptures. We don’t have to be afraid of it.” You can also use movies and technology for illustrations that listeners will immediately grab ahold of and identify with.
ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE
Maybe you’re thinking that you’re too busy to spend time getting to know the people of your church. Remember, there are other people in your church to help you shoulder all of your responsibilities. “There’s always this fear of my life being consumed by other people and their problems and their needs,” Wagner says, “and part of that is the reason for pastors equipping others in the congregation to minister to people so that the pastor is not the primary purveyor of wisdom, counseling, encouragement, and so forth.”
By involving elders, deacons, and other church leaders, the pastor can have some discretionary time because he or she can refer people in the congregation to others for ongoing discipleship or counseling. Then the pastor can spend more time with a broader base of people.
SHOW THEM THE WAY
No matter what needs you ultimately find in your congregation, the greatest need is for spiritual teaching. “There are people that come with perceived needs–they have problems with their families, they’re struggling emotionally, they’re having problems at work–and so they come with those perceived needs. But the reality is that there is a deeper need for an intimate relationship with God. We need to bring them not just to that surface need but all the way to the real needs in their life.”
Bianchin said he met a pastor in Scotland who taught him to take the felt needs of the people and lift them up to God. Through preaching, pastors can also help people see that they can take their needs to God.
“It’s really the application of truth,” says Wagner. “The more someone gets to see God in all of his fullness and understand him and worship him, the more those other felt needs come into perspective. It doesn’t mean that they are all cleaned up and fixed, but it means that the more I come to know Christ, the more that helps me gain perspective on the other stresses in my life.”
And ultimately, showing God to the people in your church is the best way to meet their every need.
Kristi Rector is assistant editor of Vital Ministry Magazine.
GET PLUGGED IN
With just a little effort, you can get to know the people in your congregation as more than just faces in the crowd.
After spending much time doing exegetical work, Pastor Dave Bianchin often takes his notes to Starbucks and observes the people there while he puts the finishing touches on his sermon. He says that bringing his sermon out in public helps remind him that it’s for people just like the ones dunking coffee and talking around him. Here are some other ways you can connect with the people in your congregation.
Go where people congregate. Spend time in coffee shops, parks, malls, and other public places where you can discreetly listen to and observe people.
Visit church members at their places of employment. This gives you a taste of what their daily life is like and allows you to talk with them about more personal topics. Bianchin says that surprisingly, many people open up about emotional and personal issues when he visits them at work.
Participate in hobbies with churchgoers. Pastor Glenn Wagner suggests that if you play golf, fish, or participate in other such activities, don’t always go with the same people. Invite individuals you don’t know very well, and use the time to build a relationship with them.
Get involved in the community. Attending community gatherings or parent groups through your kids’ schools will help you keep current with local concerns.
Surf the Net. Log on to Christian chat rooms as a silent listener or participate in the discussions.
Meet with a focus group of church members. Get together once a month just to touch base with what’s going on in the lives of those you minister to.
Enlist a research group. Have a group of church members scour magazines, newspapers, journals, and books–both Christian and secular–to clip articles of interest for you. “There may be illustrations and stories in there, or they’ll say ‘This spoke to me . . . this ministered to me in this particular area… I always wondered about this.’ Out of those the pastor gains an idea of what things resonate in people’s lives and where some of the needs are,” Wagner says.
Visit small groups from your church. While you’re there, ask the group for topics they’d like to hear sermons on or what issues they’re struggling with.
Make random phone calls. Set aside some time one day a week to either call or personally visit a few people in your church. Use the time to build relationships and gather ideas for sermons.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY VITAL MINISTRY, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1999, PAGES 39-42. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.