Preaching: An Impossible Task?
The atheist spouse who is in church to support his wife; the teenager trying to work out if Christianity is worth the painful finger-pointing in the playground; the grieving home-group leader who is silently suffering yet another miscarriage; the widower whose granddaughter has been diagnosed with cancer. On any given Sunday morning all of these people could be sat listening to your sermon. How can we possibly engage all these people with their different generational perceptions, pastoral sensitivities and spiritual journeys?
Questions of communication have been common to preachers for centuries, but it seems to me that the job is getting harder. Holding the attention of people who spend a significant amount of their week online presents us with a new set of challenges. According to author Nicholas Carr, the digital revolution has actually rewired our brains. We may be better than our parents at accessing and piecing together disparate bits of information quickly, but we seem to have diminished abilities to read and think deeply. Traditional sermons are becoming less comprehensible to the majority as Daniel Pink and others argue that this rising mindset is more likely to engaged by story, design and humour.
Communication experts and educational theorists not only call us to recognize the changing brain functions, but also differing preferred learning styles. There are those who learn best through reflection, while others prefer conceptual analysis or practical opportunities. Add to this the variety in personality types, cultural differences, generational assumptions, educational backgrounds, rural/urban or high/low culture differences and male/female approaches to processing information and we start to grasp the enormity of the task of communication, without even beginning to tackle the pastoral and spiritual obstacles.
With this daunting array of analysis on offer preachers often respond with a fight or flight mechanism. Some of us continue to preach the way we have always done, running from the research for fear it will dilute our faithfulness to Scripture or somehow compromise or overly-complicate the spiritual event that is preaching. Others of us fight back arguing that if St Paul could manage without a twitter account or an awareness of Myers Briggs personality types, then communication theory is a red herring we need to wrestle back in the water.
At one level these approaches have some merit. Analysis paralysis can lead preachers to fumble or freeze and fail in our God-given call to proclaim Christ and declare the whole counsel of God. Our confidence must be firmly in the word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to engage peoples hearts and consciences to comfort, to convict, to convert and to cultivate faith.
But on the other hand, in order to fulfill our calling as pastor/teachers, we need to know the sheep we shepherd. Although human nature has not fundamentally changed, the fast-changing culture is affecting the way that human nature expresses itself. Those in the medical profession cannot be complacent about keeping abreast of the latest developments in treatment and practice, batting them away with the argument that human anatomy has not changed. They are required to sign up to lifelong training because as our social environment changes so do the presenting ailments of our nations health. Preachers should be no less committed to seriously pursuing excellence and relevance in our communication skills, learning from those who are providing the latest research into audience analysis.
Recognising that many of us are lagging some way behind, and lack the time to wade through the key literature that can helpfully be added into the toolkit of preaching resources, here are three simple suggestions to get us started:
Preacher Tim Keller argues that if the only people we consult in our sermon preparation are biblical commentators and systematic theologians, we will automatically mould our sermons to answer the questions they are asking. By spending more time consulting with those in our congregations we will begin to see far different lines of enquiry. Talking with people who are not Christians will help our sermons answer their objections. Spending time with employed members of our congregations will help our sermons find application into the workplace. Engaging with young people will help our sermons to cross the generation gap. Talking to people is not rocket science, but is the single most useful way we can improve our communication, enabling us to develop natural instincts when it comes to connecting with our audience. And talking has never been easier. Social media provides us with facilities to ‘talk’ in a variety of ways. We can use Facebook, for example, to throw out some questions about the upcoming sermon and prompt online debate that can feed or fuel our sermons.
As a travelling preacher, I often speak to audiences I have never met before. The temptation is just to deliver my standard stump speech illustrated by my stock visual presentations. But as the differences between Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain show us, Jesus himself adapted content for the different contexts and congregations. Interacting with the audience through a series of questions before and during the sermon has a number of benefits. Firstly it encourages dialogue. Nowadays there are very few arenas where people sit and only listen to an argument; in the web 2.0 era the right to reply and contribute is increasingly normative. Even the most traditional of news analysis programmes on television now encourage twitter response, for example. Secondly although we need to assert the unique authority of Scripture, we also need to affirm the giftings of the body, and be humble enough to accept questioning, correction, and confirmation of our preaching. Thirdly interaction allows the speaker to immediately gauge the spiritual temperature and educational makeup of the audience. This turns the sermon into a live event that goes beyond the capabilities of podcasts and pre-recorded videos. For example when I spoke at a school Christian Union recently unbriefed I had a favourite sermon up my sleeve. However after only a few minutes of interaction, I discovered the class was still overwhelmed with grief over the tragic death of one of their peers in a car accident the previous week; so I reshaped the tone and application of my talk to take this into account. Finally the process of interaction contextualises the sermon, as applications can be suggested from the floor, rather than simply from the pulpit. By including even one or two worked examples in this way, the congregation are shown how the sermon can spill over into the life of the church or wider community.
God is the great communicator. As Creator he understands how best to communicate with us and has gifted all of his people with his word and his spirit in order that we might know him better. I believe God has deliberately inspired scripture not just in content but in format. It is no accident of history that the Bible is written with a wide variety of styles and genres. For example: the psalms are a unique gift to aid Christian emotional integrity, the wisdom literature is given to us to develop godly discernment, the prophetic literature gives us a window on how to live faithfully in all areas of life especially when God’s people are marginalized, and the epistles provide practical and theological advice to churches. All too often our sermons reflect only one of these styles – usually the ‘one side of a conversation’ model of the epistles. By experimenting with a more emotional, or a more prophetic or a more story-based style, we may discover that we have untapped resources to offer and that we engage people in a very different way. Jesus was the master of variety – he was as happy dialoguing with Nicodemus as he was telling parables to hostile audiences. Sometimes he summarised his teaching with pithy one-liners and other times used current affairs to provide worked examples of how to apply Gods word to contemporary events. Have a look through your sermon programme for the next year and look for ways to bring variety a varied diet to your congregation, perhaps by deliberately preaching from a wide variety of biblical genres. For example you might spend six weeks working through a minor prophet but then teach through the parables of Jesus for the next six weeks. If your preaching is determined by the lectionary allow the set readings to shape not only the content of your preaching, but your style as well.
From a human perspective preaching is an impossible task, but if in humility we submit our preaching to the authority and direction of God’s word, by his grace God takes our words and makes himself known through them. In the power of the Holy Spirit preaching is not only possible, but powerful, life-changing and world-transforming. May God bless our preaching ministry as we talk, interact and experiment and do our best to present ourselves ‘to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.’ (2 Tim 2:15) May we find the words to say to help those atheists find faith, our teenagers find courage, the suffering find comfort and the elderly find hope.
Dr Krish Kandiah is Executive Director for Churches in Mission at the Evangelical Alliance. He has written numerous books including Route 66: a crash course to navigating life with the Bible. He blogs about preaching, technology, mission and culture at http://krishk.com
This article first appeared in The Preacher a magazine of the College of Preachers.
 Daniel Pink, A whole new mind, Marshall Cavendish (2008)