In the absence of a union of Pew-Sitting Sermon-Hearing Church Goers (PSSHCG) to let pastors know how the congregation is receiving their sermons, we are hereby taking it upon ourselves to act on their behalf.
There being no PSSHCG union, sermon listeners usually resort to anonymous letters, hurried conferences in the foyer before and after worship, and murmuring in order to express their opinion of the preaching in their church. Such protests are frowned upon by pastors (with good reason), but with no acceptable way of registering their concern, sermon-listeners often have no other recourse but the anonymous letter, the quick foyer conference, or murmuring.
Until such a time as this group forms their PSSHCG union, we will (ahem) be glad to speak for them.
As the Apostle Paul once said, “I speak as a fool” (II Corinthians 11:21).
For what it’s worth, what follows are the Ten Commandments of Preaching as felt by the men and women in the pews.
1. Don’t Bore Us.
The cardinal sin of sermons is that they can be boring. When you stop to consider the subject with which we deal–God! Jesus! Salvation! Heaven and Hell!–you would agree it takes considerable skill to speak on these in a boring manner. But some are able to pull it off and do so regularly.
What makes a sermon boring? There is no answer to this question. Or to be exact, there are ten thousand answers. The simplest answer is: it depends.
A great sermon for adults would be boring for a group of 8-year-olds. A message for the spiritually mature might be dull for a class of new believers with no spiritual background. For some, a sermon with all precepts and no illustrations would not work. For others, the opposite is true.
Pastors must know their people in order to find their spiritual and intellectual level, what they can understand and will appreciate, what will bypass them or should be saved for another time.
A sermon should interest its audience. (If the pastor finds it boring in his study, I guarantee you the congregation will come to a similar conclusion on Sunday. Better to seek the Lord and either liven it up or find another subject.)
2. Don’t Ignore Us.
This follows on the heel of the first command–don’t bore us. Pastors should know their people. The Ephesians and Romans were a different sort, apparently, from the Corinthians, prompting the Apostle Paul to write to these churches in entirely different ways and on different levels.
Pastors cannot afford to barricade themselves in the study all week and emerge on Sundays to deliver sermons that will connect and bless, inspire and teach. The concept of a “teaching pastor” is one we hear a great deal, about which I sometimes wonder. Every pastor should teach from the pulpit, but only by shepherding the flock during the week will he be able to deliver lessons they find relevant and applications they find workable.
George W. Truett used to say he spent the week diagnosing (i.e., ministering to his church members) so he could prescribe on Sunday.
A sermon should be right for its audience.
3. Don’t Insult Us.
Reruns of old messages may insult your members and depress them once they realize you are not getting with the Lord in your study to find His message but are dipping into your sermon barrel. Once in a while, yes. But not too regularly, preacher.
Old sermons almost always have dated, stale illustrations and often deal with antiquated issues no one cares about any longer.
Recently, I ran across a printed message from a half century ago in which a pastor friend had preached on “why dancing is sinful.” In a world where ungodliness runs along the more serious lines of adultery, alcoholism, pornography, unbelief, and greed, such a sermon would not work today. (I am not saying all dancing is acceptable, but that sermons attacking all dancing are insulting to your people.)
A friend who pastors in a dry county in North Carolina told me of a neighboring preacher who led his people to picket a new restaurant that opened in his town. The owners had christened it the “Sagebrush Restaurant and Saloon,” and he found that offensive. No matter that they did not serve alcohol in any way. Day after day, he and his people circled the restaurant holding their signs.
I suggested to my friend that he take up a collection and send that preacher to New Orleans. I would be happy to reintroduce him to the concept of sin, something he has apparently forgotten.
A sermon should respect its audience.
4. Don’t Overload Us.
A pastor friend told me recently that when he tackles a subject for a sermon, he wants to know everything about it, find every Scripture that pertains, and not preach it under he has mastered it. The problem, he admitted, is that he often gives the congregation the benefit of every last detail. He overloads his people.
Too many statistics will tax the minds of your congregation and cause most to tune out.
Too many scriptures muddy the subject, overload the minds of the hearers, and burdens note-takers.
Too many points will discourage the hearers from trying to retain the message. There is a good reason most pastors try to limit their points to three or four. You are preaching to a people who are beset by limits: a limit to their time, their attention, their endurance, and their good will. Try not to exceed the limit, pastor.
A sermon should give the congregation digestible servings of information.
5. Don’t Entertain Us.
In a noble attempt to connect with the congregation and establish a rapport, some preachers resort to telling jokes and humorous stories, one after another. And since the congregation responds as the preacher was hoping–they laugh–he goes home that day feeling he succeeeded. However, the laughter was deceptive.
After a 30-minute sermon filled with funny stories at which the congregation laughed, they will walk outside the church frustrated. “Where was the worship?” they will wonder. “Why weren’t we lifted to the Lord?” “Why did he do that? Why doesn’t he preach the Word?”
They will laugh at your stories and hate you for it later.
If God calls you to a ministry of entertainment–He can do this if He pleases, and I am not saying He does or does not–then, you may tell your funny stories and jokes and such. But not in the Sunday morning worship time. That is the most sacred time of the week for God’s people, an hour when they expect to hear God’s Word read and preached.
A sermon may have entertaining aspects, but its purpose is to deliver God’s message to His people.
6. Don’t Manipulate Us.
I once knew an evangelist who had a most unusual method for the invitation. After a 15-minute sermon, he spent the same period of time leading people through a series of steps which were intended to get them “down the aisle” and to the pastor at the altar.
First, at the end of the sermon, he would ask everyone to bow their heads in prayer. He would lead them in a prayer of commitment or recommitment. Then, he would ask, “If you prayed that prayer, I want you to raise your hand.” After a suitable period for responses, he said, “Now, if you raised your hand, I want you to look up at me.” Finally, he asked these who had prayed, had raised their hands, and had looked at him, to get up and walk to the front where a counselor would be waiting to help them make their decisions.
The first night of the revival, I thought that was rather unusual, to devote a full 15-minutes to this invitation. The second night, I was surprised that he did the same thing. Then, it became apparent that this was his modus operandi. Every service of the revival, this was his technique. He was determined to get people down the aisle one way or the other.
Is this manipulation? To me, it is. The evangelist was pressuring the unwary listener to making public a decision they had made in the privacy of their own hearts.
Sermons should respect the congregation, never “use” them.
7. Don’t Underestimate Us.
A sermon should challenge its hearers to great things. That’s why the old messages (from nearly a century ago) on “short hair, makeup, and skirt length” just didn’t get it. They turned the congregation into legalists, reducing the will of God to a set of rules, most of which were set by the preacher. Furthermore, the sermon was directed just at the women. It was unworthy from beginning to end.
A good pastor is also a teacher of his people. If his congregation is made up of thoughtful, growing believers, they will be receptive to learning godly principles of living, the background to the parables Jesus taught, and even the occasional insight from the Hebrew or Greek language. (Hearing insights from the Greek when I was in college is what drove me to study the languages in seminary.)
Now, it’s possible to overdo the teaching business and go over the heads of the hearers. As a friend of mine once told his pastor, “The Lord did not tell you to feed his giraffes!”
A sermon should be uplifting and even educational.
8. Don’t Fail Us.
The congregation expects the pastor to live by the apostles’ testimony of Acts 6:4, “We will devote ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” That’s why they try to pay the minister well, so he can be on call for the congregation full-time and be well-prepared when he walks into the pulpit.
Pastors should love their study. They need a place where they can leave their Bibles and study helps, notebooks, and other resources without danger of someone moving or taking them. Ideally, they need to block off numerous hours each week to spending sufficient time there so they will be ready to feed the flock when Sunday morning rolls ’round (as it surely will).
Every congregation will have members who can tell when the preacher is skimping on the preparation. (A friend who leads the worship in his church says the pastor whispers to him to “take a little longer with the hymns; I don’t have a lot this morning.” It’s an unusual pastor who would admit to that.)
God said to the spiritual leaders in Jeremiah’s day: “If (you) had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they would have turned from their evil ways” (Jeremiah 23:22).
A sermon should be conceived in the heart of God and birthed in His counsel, then presented to the Lord and His people–like the Baby Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22)–only when it is fully ready.
9. Don’t Obey us.
Everyone in the congregation has his/her idea of what constitutes a good sermon. And, some will be quick to tell the preacher what he should be preaching. Some want more sermons on sin (they’re against it) and on prophecy (giving dates and identifying the antichrist). Some want longer sermons (I had a man tell me he had no use for the music, that if the full hour was the sermon it would please him) and some want shorter. Some want more stories and others want none.
A pastor will listen to their requests respectfully and then say, “Pray for me. I do want to preach exactly what the Lord says.” No one can argue with that.
I’ll go so far as to say that if the preacher did cater to the various requests of church members concerning the sermons, they would lose respect for him. Something inside them knows that a man of God should get the sermons from God, not from the squeaky wheels inside the congregation.
10. Don’t Neglect Us.
Shepherd your people during the week, preacher, so you will be able to connect with them in your sermons on Sunday.
Last Sunday, my pastor preached a sermon on grief. He told me that was not his intention, that he had announced a different message altogether. However, something happened toward the end of the week that sent the congregation into mourning.
A young couple in the church had twins born prematurely recently and neither lived. One lived only hours, and the pastor had done a funeral, then called the congregation to intercession. This weekend, the second child died, breaking the hearts of everyone in the church, whether they knew the parents or not. So, the pastor shelved his message and preached to God’s people on grief.
No one has to tell you when a pastor has a shepherd’s heart. You will know his heart when you see him tending to the hurting sheep.
Jesus said some people watching the sheep are merely hirelings and cannot be depended on when times are scary and the sheep are endangered (John 10:12-13).
Pastor, thou shalt be a shepherd to God’s people.