I’m no expert in preaching, neither in its theory nor in the actual doing of it. But one thing I’ve learned is that there are different kinds of people in the congregation who need to hear different sorts of things. Obviously, no sermon can be all things to all people. We must stick with the theme presented in the text. We must preach withing our own personalities. Most of all, we must trust the Spirit to preach a better sermon to each heart than the one we deliver.
But still, there’s wisdom in considering what different segments of the church may need to hear. The Puritans were masters at this, often dissecting the congregation into different categories and applying the word accordingly. Early in my ministry I developed a fourfold schema that has served me well. In every sermon I try to remember that I’m preaching to the weary, the wandering, the lazy, and the lost. You may have different categories, but I find these four helpful for keeping my sermons fresh, relevant, and not too lopsided in any one direction.
These faithful saints need compassion and encouragement. They are fighting the good fight, but they are struggling in some way. Maybe their kids are wayward, or the test results were not hopeful, or they’ve been attacked at work, or they are loaded down with guilt for sins real or imaginary. Whatever the case, these brothers and sisters are feeling weak. They need you to be Richard Sibbes this morning.
These are professing Christians who aren’t living like it. They could be students with a double life–party on Saturday, church on Sunday. Maybe this is a husband pursuing an affair or a wife who refuses to forgive. Maybe it’s an older member who has stopped coming to church regularly. These folks need warning and rebuke.
These are the apathetic and nominal Christians. They know all the right answers and they basically avoid the obvious mistakes, but they’re rending their garments and not their hearts. They are superficial Christians. Their faith costs nothing, risks nothing, and probably counts for nothing. Our churches are filled with these folks. They need conviction of sin. They need an ringing alarm clock in their ear.
These individuals need warning too, but they are in a different boat. They don’t claim to be Christians. They may have hurts (real or imagined) from the church. They may have intellectual objections. They may have unfair stereotypes of Christians. They don’t need an us-against-them message. They need to someone to understand their objections. They need truth, sometimes strongly, sometimes subtly.
Learning More Than One Part
In most congregations, you’ll have all four groups in church every Sunday (though sadly the last category–self-identified non-Christians–may not always be present). If you only preach to one group you’ll get in a rut and invariably you’ll not be preaching the whole counsel of God.
If your preaching is always aimed at the weary, you’ll do well at emphasizing the grace of God and the tenderness of God. But what about the lazy and the wandering who feel perfectly and mistakenly secure? What about those who do not need a pat on the back but a kick in the pants? It’s good for every sermon to land on the gospel, but sometimes it’s best to wade through a lot of law before you get there.
If you always preach to the wandering and lazy, you’ll give people a good beatin up, but you may hurt the dear saints who come to church most Sundays already feeling beat up. Some sermons should be a trumpet blast, but if that’s all you do, their ears may start to hurt, or worse, they’ll grow deaf to your sound.
And if you only think of the lost in your midst, you’ll be winsome and relevant, but you may not get into the sort of issues that longtime Christians need to hear. You may shy away from necessary controversy and forget that sometimes the lost are earnest seekers, but sometimes they’re just punks (as we all are at times).
Most preachers gravitate toward one or two groups, sometimes for good reason. Bryan Chapell is well suited for the weary, John Piper for the wandering, Matt Chandler for the lazy, Time Keller for the lost. God doesn’t ask us to preach like only someone else can or preach for someone else’s context. But he does want preachers to remember that the choir is made up of more than just sopranos. So when you’re preaching, be sure to hand out more than one part.