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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.

The Weary

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.

The Wandering

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.

The Lazy

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.

The Lost

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.


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25 thoughts on “Preaching to the Whole Choir”

  1. Dan Stringer says:

    According this weary, wandering, lazy and once-lost sheep, I would contend that Tim Keller preaches well to all 4 groups.

  2. Great word today, Kevin. Thank you for sharing your thoughtfulness and experience. Those definitions have already challenged my approach to preaching.

    And coming out of a ‘weary’ season, I’ve found CJ Mahaney to be just what the Spirit ordered.

    Many blessings to you and your church!

  3. Wayne SAge says:

    Excellent! Very good and very needful. Thanks for the post.

  4. If a pastor is mainly one type, how do we in the pew alert our pastor to our needs for another message from time to time?

  5. ryan couch says:

    Wouldn’t a mutant preacher that was a perfect combo of Chappell, Piper, Chandler, and Keller be freakin’ amazing? Although I might contend that we may need to throw in a little Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen. It would also be awesome if this super preacher looked like all of them too; so that he had a feature from each. In fact that might be attainable for me, I’m calling my plastic surgeon right now.

    Seriously…good stuff!

  6. Kevin DeYoung says:

    For the record, I think all the preachers I mentioned can preach well to all four groups. And there are others I could mention as good examples. These four just stood out off the top of my head.

  7. Great post, Kevin. Zack Eswine makes a similar observation. He gave me a helpful tip a number of years ago when he suggested that I remember the following four groups as I preach: hard-hearted believers and soft-hearted believers, hard-hearted unbelievers and soft-hearted unbelievers. There is great danger in preaching as if your whole congregation was made up of only one of these groups, but I find that our naturally tendency as preachers is to drift in that direction if we don’t concsiously and prayerfully seek to avoid it.

    And I know you weren’t fishing for compliments, but…I’m not sure of the metric by which we measure whether someone is an “expert in preaching,” either in theory or practice, but I for one have been enormously blessed by both your wisdom in regards to preaching, as well as by your pulpit ministry itself. Keep up the good work and may God’s grace continue to be made manifest in your ministry.

  8. Bill Knudson says:

    The traditional Lutheran sermon presents both law and gospel often in distinct sections. There’s a lot to be said for this approach although not every passage of scripture lends itself to this. Also, it is often the case that those who need the gospel focus on the law, and those who need the law focus on the gospel.

  9. Carol’s question is a good one, and as one who is training for pastoral ministry I would be interested to hear the responses of current pastors.

    Though I would admittedly be thinking ahead, Carol, if I was forced to answer your question I’d say the following: As your pastor, I would appreciate you making an appointment to talk with me. Then, just be honest and gentle at the same time. You could let me know at the outset of your appreciation for the oversight of your soul and of my “laboring hard at preaching and teaching among you.” And you could say that you read a blog post recently that you think would be beneficial and helpful for me to consider. You could show it to me or summarize it, and lovingly suggest that as it comes across to you I seem to be really good at speaking to one category. Yet it also seems to you that there’s an imbalance and that you think the congregation could benefit from hearing more x, y, and z.

    I know with the discouragements of pastoral ministry that some seasoned pastors who have been bitten by the sheep may read that and balk. But I sincerely hope that if God were to bless me with the oversight of His flock that He would also supply the grace and humility to receive such kind and gentle reproof from concerned and committed members. I think the key is demonstrating clearly your concern for the pastor’s benefit and the church’s benefit — as opposed to your own desire to be right or to put him down.

    It also might be helpful to keep in mind: it could be that your pastor thinks he is preaching to these four categories, and if so he’ll probably ask you for a couple examples of what you mean. So, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have those ready. But again, not as ammunition but as tools which will serve his greatest benefit.

  10. Skeeter says:

    Wasn’t it Charles Wesley who said, peach 90% Law 10% grace? Bret Lamb from Lion Lamb evangelistic ministry often says, you got to get a person lost be for you can get them saved. I believe the reformed church is extremely weak on preaching evangelistic messages from the pulpit. Many of us probably can hardly remember when the word “hell” actually passed over our pastors lips. Yet this is where all people are going if they do not repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ to save them. As a person who does personal evangelism using “The Way of The Master” program, I come across many churchgoers who are lost. They’ve heard christian things but never understood that they have broken God’s Law, the 10 Commandments, and stand guilty before a Holy and Righteous Judge who must condemn all sin. Many in the church are clinging to their self-righteouness to save them and don’t understand that they are on their way to hell sitting in the pew.

    What converts the soul? The Bible says, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” Psalm 19:7.

  11. Skeeter says:

    I wouldn’t want to take for granted one moment that the nicest Granny in my church is saved!

  12. Gunner says:

    Thanks, Kevin. This is helpful. Over the last few years I’ve started to notice that I preach hard to the wandering and the lazy and I’m trying to be wise and thoughtful about not giving up that part of my preaching while learning to woo and comfort well. These types of categories would be helpful for those (in or out of seminary) learning to preach.

  13. Thanks so much, Mike, for your thoughtful response. I will refer to it in the future–get an appointment if I need it.

    One time I e-mailed my pastor that I disagreed about something related to what he said but that I was also having a lot of stress (my husband has dementia). My pastor wanted me to come in and listen to the tape again, but he didn’t pick up on the stress level at my home; I declined coming in to listen to the tape and said it was okay. Perhaps I put him too much on the defensive. His point was that the woman should dress attractively for her husband and I wanted to stress inner beauty in my e-mail to him. It wasn’t an important a point for me to come in to discuss and relisten to the tape with the pastor and elder present so I declined–would have been too much stress for me. It really was just my additional comment and I was hurting over another issue. What I really needed was shepherding for the hardest job I have even had as a caregiver. “How do I obey a husband who is losing it and our roles are changing?” was really my big question. An associate pastor, however, has picked up on other areas of preaching and shepherding in the church with his sermons. The senior pastor excellent on exegesis and theology. I am blessed and regularly tell them I appreciated the message.

  14. Great post! Much appreciated.

  15. Cathy says:

    Wow! An older person that stops coming to church regularly needs warning and rebuke?? Uh, or maybe they need to be asked if all is ok, and do they need help. Or maybe they are too embarrassed that they cannot hear as well, or sit comfortably for the entire service. Sounds to me like when the coffers get lighter it is time for the guilt patrol to go out, not to mention judgment patrol… I am really amazed at this topic, and sounds like Kevin needs more vacation?? No, I am not a minister(of course not, I am female!), nor am I any kind of theological expert, but I don’t see ministers calling their congregations either weary, wandering, lazy, or lost as real helpful. I know I am a sinner, I know my heart is not pure. I know that the world calls me louder at times than God does. I need a shepherd that knows that I want to be God’s servant and am there to learn and be part of a community of people like me. Not just another lost lazy person that the poor perfect minister has to come down on. BTW Exactly when in school do you become judge?

  16. Chris says:

    Cathy,
    although your tone is just a bit off-putting and sarcastic I think you make good points that speak to the need for a little less judgment and a little more compassion from some preachers. I’m also reserving the right to say I might be misreading Kevin’s comments too. These may all be categories of compassion in his mind, but I can see how they come across as stridently judgmental.
    BTW, I think pastors to some extent are called to judge, for the benefit of the whole flock. Hopefully they show maturity and wisdom in doing so.

  17. Shannon says:

    This was so very helpful! Maybe whichever part you usually ‘sing’ also influences you. I’m not a pastor, but I can imagine that whatever resonates with me is what I’d most like to preach about.

    I think this could also be helpful when giving advice. Is the friend on the other end of the line weary? Or is she wandering? This will influence which ‘solo’ I suggest she sing. And it could influence the tone of the whole choir.

  18. G HUBBARD says:

    Kevin, may i tell you of our program that is totally free to all and whose purpose is to inspire people to talk with the Lord daily on everyday life concerns. part is our song and message lyrics SPREAD THE WORD-TALK WITH THE LORD. lyrics are free to non-commercially free info and lyrics g. hubbard p.o.box 2232 ponte vedra fl 32004 one Pastor used a post or two as sermon topics blog to http://talkwiththelord.blogspot.com/

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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