Some sermons are broad enough for any congregation at any time and any place. I could preach from Joshua 3 about having enough faith to be a crossover people to any congregation on any Sunday anywhere in the world. We always need faith to go from one season to the next.
But I preached it as a visiting pastor in a congregation that had endured a church split only months before, and it was both spiritually impactful and immediately relevant. It was the right word at the right time to the right people.
Not every sermon is going to be able to be perfectly timed or seamlessly timely. This is especially true for pastors of local churches. We have to preach at least weekly. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for just the right words before we speak. But intentionality in this area will make us more accurate.
Here are four principles that can help aim our speaking to our people specifically.
1. Know your people. This isn’t going to be the same for the pastor of the rural Baptist church as it is for the pastor of the nondenominational megachurch.
Pastor Joe-Bob knows everybody in town a little and knows everybody in his church very well. He spends lots of time at pig-pickins, birthday parties and tossing horseshoes with many—if not most—of his congregation. When many in his congregation are going through troubled times, he knows it intimately.
Pastor Coolshoes at the local megachurch, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly spend the amount of time getting to know every member of his church the way Joe-Bob does. And he shouldn’t be expected to! Large church pastors I know maintain schedules that make me glad not to be one. Their staff assists with cultivating intimacy in the church through small groups, fellowship events and implementing worship environments that cultivate connectedness.
In many ways, the megachurch pastor’s task in this area is harder, but it’s hardly impossible. He needs to listen to his leadership team keeping him abreast of trends in the congregation. He needs to listen to those members of the church he does know well to keep his finger on the pulse of the congregation’s needs and concerns that he can address in sermons.
The rural pastor knows his congregation’s hurts and trials intimately. The megachurch pastor has to know them innately. Most of us live somewhere in between.
2. Know your setting. Sermon content should always be biblical, and there should be a great degree of overlap from the city to the country and from the farming community to the business district. However, the way we present the content ought to be specific to the people to whom we are speaking.
When I was the pastor of a country church on the edge of a swamp, I used more swamp metaphors. When I served a church in Florida, I was more likely to mention my incredible phobia of sharks. If I preach a sermon in a city church and utilize a farming metaphor to help make my biblical point, it may make sense and be helpful and may even be memorable to a few people.
But if I use a farming metaphor in a church full of farmers, my metaphor will plow the fields of their faith all week long as they plow the fields and remember the metaphor. Context is always essential in every way.
3. Be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I prepared a sermon recently to be preached in the rural church where I serve as pastor on Memorial Day. I prepared it nearly a full week in advance. While I liked the sermon and felt like it was honest to the text of Scripture and potentially relevant for an audience of Christians, I had a nagging feeling in my spirit all week that it was not the right the sermon to preach. Learn to cultivate sensitivity to the Holy Spirit about preaching.
4. Be willing to follow His leading. When Sunday rolled around, I tore up the sermon notes an hour before the service was to begin, went into my study to pray and felt utterly drawn to preach a sermon from years before.
As the service progressed from opening worship to prayer time, I was quickly reminded that more than half of one elderly Sunday School class was in the hospital that week, that one couple had lost a mother and a father that month, that two new moms were struggling just to retain sanity in their changing life circumstances, and many more trials were present in our fellowship.
Instead of the rather hard sermon I had prepared about the need for repentance in our nation, I delivered a sermon full of encouragement about God’s love and strength and provision for believers in times of hardship. It was much closer to the bull’s-eye of what those people needed on that day in that place.
Pastor, preacher, teacher, when I come into the meeting house, I come to hear from the Lord, I’m glad when the message is a good one in general, but I’m helped, uplifted, challenged and changed when the message is clearly from God and it’s for me in my setting in my circumstances today.