What Newbies Want in A Sermon—And Many Oldies
A bit of an explanation here first. I read this article by a young church planter who had followed the advice and paradigm regarding the place and content of preaching in the church, specifically one that is a plant. What stood out to me was how he learned that the new believer was not happy about the reduced sermon format that limited content and limited time. The preacher is to be a trained speaker who dazzles and draws his listeners into the story of the gospel. Here is how he put it:
. . . nobody wants to bore saints or seekers when talking about something as exquisite as the gospel. The intent was to call proclaimers to be humble, excellent workers who would never besmirch the Good News by bad delivery. The problem, though, lay in the basic, internal posture we were asked to adopt when bringing the Word to sinful, human listeners: deferential apology. As in, “I’m sorry I have to ruin the moment now, but this IS church, and we DO have to mention sin, hell, and the cross of Jesus from time to time. This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you…”
The key is a good delivery of the good news and an apologetic demeanor when bringing up the bad news of the human condition. Most pastors who have a love for those who are outside of the grace of God know this tension. I remember seeing a person I knew was not a Christian come into our church for the very first time (or any church for that matter) and the sermon I was to preach was on the sovereignty of God in salvation. Heavy on total depravity and heavy on sovereign grace. But when you are preaching out of Romans 3 or Romans 9, that is what you have before yourself for the text.
What happens next in this man’s story though is telling. He goes on to relate some rather startling discoveries as his ministry took root.
About 4-5 years in, something happened that changed my faith in unadorned preaching and evangelism. There were finally enough true converts in our congregation (God had sovereignly used our clumsy proclamation to win believers) that I could track the sources of feedback I received. The recently lost-and-found WERE frustrated with me – but for cutting messages short, trimming content, and watching the clock! Those who had demanded curt, topical homilies were cradle-to-grave types. Denominational veterans claimed to be shielding newbies from discomfort, but the newcomers were clamoring for biblical depth and blunt confrontation.
The new Christian wanted to hear the Word. A lot of it. They wanted to be drawn into the thicker, denser parts of biblical, exegetical theology. They wanted to watch and learn how to really look at the passage and see what God had revealed to them. It was those who were raised in the church who wanted less. Less content, less theology, less preaching, less everything.
In my experience as a pastor who took over the pulpit of a well-established church is that many older believers become jaded. They have watched people come and go, and the same with the pastors who taught them. Each comes with a plan and then eventually goes when it doesn’t work. Perhaps they sat under many sermons that were long and shallow, which are always worse that those that are short and shallow.
For many (based off of conversations I have had) they realized that there was a real disconnect between the sermon and what the pastor and the church actually did. Hypocrisy was the word of the day, or decade. Others saw the pastor preach law, not grace and they felt the burden of the mill-stones being tied around their necks. And finally, others could not walk away with any sense of why that sermon mattered. There was never an attempt to connect the richness of the theology of the text to the richness of the Christian’s life.
What I have learned over the years is that true Christians love the Word, even when they don’t realize it. I have taught seminary level theology classes to members of my church with faithful attendance and eager participation. One woman told me after I taught Christology, Soteriology, and Hamartiology for over six months to her and about thirty others that she would frequently go home weeping as the impact of the verses and the theology sunk into her heart. I have watch old Christians who carry the battle scars of many in-house fights grin from ear to ear as they are stretched to see more of God.
Where am I going with all of this? Just that every pastor, if he is to be a real pastor rather than a church grower, must be a man who preaches well, but preaches deeply as well. He must be willing to draw the people, new and mature alike, into the deep parts of the Word. He must be willing to stand beside them as they flounder about at times and cheer when they realize that by the Holy Spirit work they are able to even stand and flourish in the deep end. He must not shy from the hard doctrines and he must open the whole Word of God to the people. The new Christian wants it and needs it, the old Christian does too (even if some of them don’t know it), and those who don’t want it cannot be to whom a pastor preaches.