Preaching with People in Mind

Preaching (Part 5)

Sermons must give witness to the theological claim of the text so that the congregation is transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of the world. Exegesis and hermeneutics explore ways the preacher identifies the theological claim of the text. Before I begin exploring sermon scripting, let’s look briefly at the congregation.

When studying congregations, consider 1) Program: The “what” of a congregation’s life; the organizational structures, plans, and activities through which a congregation expresses its mission and ministry both to its own members and those outside the membership. And consider, 2) Process: The “how” of members relating with one another has to do with the underlying flow and dynamics of how a congregation is knit together in its common life and affects its morale and climate. For example, how leadership is exercised and shared, how decisions are made, how communication occurs, how problems are solved, and conflicts are managed. Consider 3) Social Context: Setting – local and global – in which the congregation finds itself and to which it responds. Finally, consider 4) Congregational Identity: Persistent set of beliefs, values, patterns, symbols, stories, and styles that makes a congregation distinctly itself.

  • Know the history of the congregation.
  • Appreciate the congregation’s heritage; heritage gives continuity and legitimization.
  • Give a perception of the ways things are.
  • How does a congregation use and understand symbols?
  • How do they practice group rituals?
  • Understand the group’s demographic picture.
  • Know the group character.
  • Identity – what it was, is, and will be (being and becoming); cannot overlook being when you want to introduce change.
  • Heritage – A congregation’s acknowledgment of the inheritance of beliefs and practices about Christian faith and life and the purpose of the church that it has by virtue of being a Christian church and standing with the particular historical stream.

Lenora Tubbs Tisdale lists several contextual factors to keep in mind, including:

  • Education – levels and/or areas of expertise
  • Social status – feelings of belonging or shame
  • Ethnicity – shared histories, group identification and meaning
  • Class – security, authority, and hierarchy
  • Age – human development and generational identification
  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • The local theology of the congregation includes:
    • View of God, humanity, nature, time, ecclesiology, sin and salvation, and mission
    • Power – what can or cannot be said; who has power, who does not; how power is gained,
    • Globalization – movement, economics, technology,

Tisdale goes on to describe how congregational ethnographies should include congregational narratives and stories, rituals of congregational life, the community’s art and architecture, the community’s sages and heroes, folks on the margin of the community, events (celebrations and crises), and more (websites, histories, archives, and demographics).1

Sermons in the present tense address the concerns of individuals, congregations, and the larger community. What are the concerns of the people? Such a pastoral list of concerns might resemble your prayer list.2

  1. When writing a sermon, find the correspondence between the “concerns of the text and the concerns of the ” When you have a pastoral list of people’s concerns, you can compare it to the concerns of the text that emerged from your exegesis.
  2. When you compare your two lists, the spark of sermonic imagination occurs when you notice that, for example, concern #6 on your pastoral concern list correlates with concern #2 on your text concern On a different Sunday with a different text, then a different pastoral concern will correlate.

Finally, there are three universal concerns that all people everywhere have: Transcendence (everyone everywhere wants to know that there is something out there bigger than themselves); Community (everyone everywhere longs to love and be loved); Significance (everyone everywhere wants to know that their life counts). Everybody is dealing with issues of identity, belonging, and purpose. There are certain universals of what it means to be human. Questions like, “What keeps us awake at night?” “What are our aspirations, hopes, and dreams?” “What are our fears?” “What do we fear we might lose?” “What tears up our days?” The list not only includes fear of death, condemnation, guilt, and shame, but also struggles with work, family, health, and finances.

All of this requires patience.3 Pedagogical Patience – People learn in stages and won’t be able to accept “D” before they have accepted “A”, “B”, and “C”… Pastoral Patience – There are dynamics that might set limits on our constant engagement and a willingness to adjust.

  1. Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, 64–77.
  2. Contextual analysis and the use of theological resources is beyond the scope of this guide. See Sensing, Practicing Theology, forthcoming.
  3. Mason Lee, ACU BIBM 693 class presentation. See also Mason Lee, Learning to Speak of God: Patience as a Homiletical Virtue, Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2023.