Preaching to the converted?
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “Who is this sermon for?” There are, of course, different approaches to preaching – different styles, different lessons to draw from the Bible readings. Which we choose will depend first on our congregation – those to whom the sermon is addressed – and second on what outcome we desire from the sermon.
Many, perhaps most, of us who find ourselves in the pulpit (or behind the lectern) on a Sunday, will be preaching to people who are in church because they want to be there. These are people who, by and large, are sitting in front of us because they have a faith. They are people who believe in God, who have a relationship with the Lord Jesus, who are in church to worship God, to draw closer to Christ, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to join together with other believers as the body of Christ on earth. Inevitably, that won’t be the case for every member of every congregation on every Sunday. Nevertheless, people who go to church on a Sunday largely do so because they are Christian believers.
What does it mean to preach the good news, the gospel, to those who already believe? What are we trying to accomplish? These are not, for the most part, people we need to convert. We don’t need to convince them of the truth of the faith, or inform them of who Jesus was and is and what he’s done out of love for the world. We might, however, want to help them understand how the gospel message maps on to the world today. They may need encouragement and advice about how to live the life of God’s kingdom in this world. In what we choose to say and how we choose to say it, we should try to offer insight into what it means to live as a Christian, or as a Church, in the world.
When I’m preparing a sermon, I always start with the biblical text. I’m one of those that thinks that, although preaching should address the issues and challenges facing us today and should be relevant to the lives of those hearing it, it needs to emerge from the scriptures. So, when I read the set text – being an Anglican, I work from the lectionary and the readings set for each Sunday I look for three things. First, what jumps out at me as the ‘main message’ of a passage or passages. This will be different at different times, even if it’s a passage I’ve preached on before. Inevitably, the things happening in our own lives, the life of our congregation, and in the wider world will always affect how we approach scripture. That’s not to say that our context distorts our reading of scripture, but we’ll be primed to notice some things more than others depending on the circumstances at the time we’re reading. Second, what connects the different passages set for the day? It might be that this is the best lens through which to focus the sermon, especially if preaching on a special occasion or in a particular season of the church’s year. Third, how does the message or the theme of the passage (or passages) connect with the lived reality of my congregation today?
Those three things, the main message, the connecting theme, and the connection to the life of the congregation inform the type of sermon that I’ll preach. It might be a sermon to educate, to encourage, to challenge, to comfort, or to exhort. Although each of these will have its own style, I find that in any of them, the main message or theme works like a thread weaving the different parts of the sermon together. How the message is presented, of course, will be determined by the desired outcome. Whatever the message of the sermon or its style, we should remember that, when preaching to the ‘converted’, we should be, “...teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1.28). That, surely, is the goal of any preaching to those who are already believers – to help them grow in Christ and become mature in the faith. This is, of course, a goal that is never fully reached, but should be always pursued. Does our preaching help or hinder people in striving for that maturity? Does it challenge and encourage? Does it get people excited about their faith? Does it give permission for people to ask questions?
How can we know what sermon a congregation needs to hear on any given Sunday? Perhaps sometimes we might start our sermon preparation by asking the question, “What is the sermon that I need to hear right now? What words of challenge or encouragement can I find in the scripture text to help me live as a Christian at this time and in this place? What, in this passage can help me to grow in Christ?” Then, of course, the next question needs to be, “Is that also the sermon that my congregation needs to hear?”
The Revd Jennifer Brown is Director of Training for the College of Preachers, a theological educator, and a parish priest in the Church of England.