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Now that I’ve blogged through my own definition of preaching, I’m aware of a significant omission. We’ve defined preaching as God speaking in the power of His Spirit about His Son from His word through a man.

What’s missing? Well, honestly, a lot of things. But for my purposes: audience. Perhaps we could end the definition with “to men.” Preaching is God speaking in the power of His Spirit about His Son from His word through a man to men.

That’s obvious. But sometimes stating the obvious clarifies things. It’s so easy to overlook things in plain sight. So, a few basic things.

For example, we do not preach “to the culture.” It seems some godly brothers slip into using “culture” as a synonym for “people.” But when that happens we misdefine both culture and people. While culture is something people create and in some ways shape, it’s also the milieu or marinade in which people soak and are seasoned. And if we “preach to the culture” or even spend too much time preaching about “the culture” we’ll almost certainly not be preaching to the particular persons before us. Preaching to the culture makes a man an abstraction rather than a man. Sermons on culture make for engaging conference talks but lousy weekly feed for the sheep. Don’t “preach to the culture” when you have real flesh-and-blood persons before you. I guarantee you the persons are more interesting and preaching to them more difficult and rewarding.

Nor do we preach to demographic groups. I’m no fan of the homogeneous unit principle. It seems to me that anything intentionally narrower in scope than the biblical definition of the church actually distorts the church. So, we’re not being faithful if we only want a “cowboy church” or a “surfer church” or any kind of “add-your-adjective church” when the Bible calls us to a spiritual family that crosses boundaries, affinities, and demographics. True preaching should notice the various persons before the preacher and over time address their various situations. True preaching resists stereotypes and revels in the complexity of lived experience.

We don’t preach to needs. “Felt needs” shaped and emptied sermons for a couple of decades. There are many critiques we could offer of felt needs preaching. I want to offer one: It reduces people to needs and dysfunction. Not only does it not adequately address the Bible, such preaching does not truly address the whole man. But true preaching addresses the whole person in all their strengths and weaknesses, all their needs and graces. Sometimes (all of the time?) the solution for a need is to look away from ourselves and look to the Savior, to look away from our “need” and look to the grace of God.

We don’t preach to current events or event makers. I don’t know who first said they read their Bibles in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but that’s probably a bad idea. I understand that the Bible is always relevant and that the events of our world all happen within the overarching narrative of redemption history. I understand that it’s useful to make contact with things going on around us. I assume we all do that in some way; we don’t live in a hermetically sealed biblical bubble. Most of us. But some preachers have a tendency to see page 3C of their local paper referenced in some specific way in Obadiah. Others have their sermons dominated by the events of the day. Some even believe the constant diet of political diatribe is “biblical faithfulness.” Really, it’s ranting about civilian affairs. Often it’s eclipsing the gospel. It’s often carnal and always limited. Events don’t sit in the pews before us. People do. Most of us don’t preach to event makers. When and if we do, they’re still just persons who put their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else. And even when crushing events come down on our people, they’re still better served if we treat and address them as people rather than analyze the events. They’re helped more by the balm of Scripture than by the beauty of our analysis. At best, current events provide a starting point for applying Christ to the hearts of our hearers. Current events preaching does little to sustain their faith.

We don’t preach to fans or haters. Preaching is not a show. The folks in our churches aren’t ticket holders and the vast majority of them are not critics. They’re people. They didn’t come to adore the preacher–we hope. Nor did they come to throw fruit–we hope. They’re neither fans not haters–if they know their preacher. They’re fellow pilgrims. If we treat them like they ought to want our autographs or like they’re jealous know-nothings who oppose us, then we’re hindering rather than helping their pilgrimage. We’re placing ourselves at the center of their spiritual lives rather than God. We’re offering ourselves as the subjective center of their worlds rather than treating them as persons who should actually see their lives from their vantage point. Preaching ought to confer dignity on the hearer by regarding the hearer as a living, thinking, feeling, individual experiencing life as such, not looking to live vicariously through or reactive to the preacher. They’re not fans or haters but blood-bought persons from every walk of life–just as God desires.


So, the audience before us should not be reduced to abstractions or made objects in some way. True preaching addresses the hearer in his or her entirety, taking seriously their lives and perspectives. While we don’t preach anyone’s confidences from the pulpit, we should know our people so well that in sometimes subtle and sometimes intentional ways we find our delivery of the word of God shaped by the persons we address every week. Congregations help us preach if we consider them real persons.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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