With each sermon I prepare for my congregation, I try to imagine three people walking in for worship that day. If all of them walk in one Sunday, will I be ready?
The Faithful: Sarah¹
Sarah has been in our community for nearly a decade. She’s present almost every week. She’s devoted to Christ and to our community.
Sarah has heard me preach a lot. Is she still hearing things that will challenge and encourage her in her faith? Is she hearing the whole gospel from different parts of Scripture over time, or is she just hearing my pet passages and issues over and over? Am I sure Sarah has heard clear preaching on repentance, faith, and holiness?
I enjoy preparing sermons for Sarah. I know I have more than just this Sunday. We can’t preach every point of theology at once, or every angle of a passage. Sarah’s faithfulness gives me the chance to share the nuances of our faith over time. So when we look at our big calendar—our preaching plan for the next 6-12 months—I especially think about her.
Since Sarah’s a committed leader in our community, I also need to ask how the sermon is speaking to us as a full community. How does it challenge not just the individual, but the whole body? Is this sermon equipping Sarah to live as a better member of this community? Is it equipping the community to support Sarah in her faith?
The Novice: Josh
Josh is a friend of mine. He shows up in worship once or twice a year, usually without warning. He would say he’s a Christian, but that has little relevance to his life. I long for him to become a Christian in more than name. He’s educated—has a masters, actually—but I know that he gets lost easily during a sermon.
I think about Josh as a listener the way Will Strunk, author of the classic book The Elements of Style, thought about readers:
“All through The Elements of Style one finds evidences of the author’s deep sympathy for the reader. Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get this man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”²
I think of Josh as “in serious trouble most of the time” while trying to listen to a sermon. Every minute of abstract talk and every unexplained biblical reference threatens to be the moment he checks out. He has no idea what “the exile” refers to, and only a vague idea of what “justification” means. So I’m constantly looking for those small ways to throw him a rope.
For Josh’s sake, I look for regular “engagement points” throughout the sermon. Can I give a visual, a story, a question, or an example? I think of those tools as “putting flesh on the concepts.” If I go more than a couple of minutes without any engagement points, I know I risk losing Josh.
Josh only shows up once or twice a year. For all those other weeks, have I watered down the sermon for no good reason? No! In that quote above about The Elements of Style, the goal wasn’t to dilute writing; it was to write something clear and engaging. Josh reminds me to be clear and engaging, but he’s not the only one in serious trouble of getting lost.
Some people have asked when we can begin making casual reference to the exile or justification. How long must we explain these things before we can assume people understand? Forever! So long as we’re preaching in an open Sunday service, there’s always that chance that a Josh walks in the door. We may have preached on justification for three months straight, but it’s still a brand new concept for him. Unless we bar newcomers, this need never changes.
If I preach in a way that Josh won’t understand, the Joshes of this world will stop coming, and my people won’t even consider inviting them.
The Preaching Professor: Mike Pasquarello
Dr. Pasquarello was my preaching professor in seminary. I look at every sermon and ask myself how I would feel if he walked in. You may have objected to the title of this essay: “God is our audience,” you say. “We prepare our sermons for the glory of God.” While I’m discussing three people here (and I think it’s appropriate to consider actual people as we prepare), Dr. Pasquarello asked the questions that we would ask with God as our audience. He emphasized three questions:
1. Does it proclaim the gospel? Dr. Pasquarello wouldn’t stand for interesting teaching about the Bible or motivational, self-help moral exhortations. Preaching proclaims the gospel. Without that proclamation at the center, it’s not just a bad sermon, it’s not a sermon at all.
“If Christ has not been raised,” says Paul, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”³ With every sermon, I ask myself how much of it could stand if Christ had never been raised. If a sermon is useful regardless of Christ’s resurrection, the gospel isn’t at its center.
2. Is it an invitation to participate in the life of Christ? Dr. Pasquarello taught me a higher view of the Christian life and calling. We don’t just put into practice Jesus’ teaching or even have “personal relationship” with Jesus, we’re called into union with Christ. Christ doesn’t become a part of our lives. Instead, we join in the life of Christ.
Is my preaching inviting people to this kind of union with Christ? Is it an invitation for people to say, as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me”?⁴
3. Is the sermon aware of the whole canon of Scripture, and is every Scripture I preach aware of Christ? Dr. Pasquarello wouldn’t allow us to preach a sermon from Genesis and stay there. Though those accounts came before Christ’s incarnation in history, they find their full meaning in Christ. We can’t preach from every book of the Bible every week, but Dr. Pasquarello taught me to be aware of the whole canon in each sermon, and especially to ask how we read every Scripture in light of Christ.
Those three people are very different. Different needs and expectations. Different starting points. Yet I believe every sermon can address all three of them. To be a good sermon, I think it must.
¹I’ve changed the names of the first two people listed.
² E. B. White in the Introduction to The Elements of Style: Fourth Edition, xviii.
³ 1 Cor 15:14