What Your Parishioners Wish They Could Tell You (Guest Post)

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I've attended church my entire life, listened to dozens of preachers, and heard hundreds (thousands?) of sermons.

But only a few preachers' sermons have transformed my life.

What made the difference between a sermon it seemed I could hear anytime, any place and a sermon that cut to the core of my humanity and drew my soul toward God and neighbor?

The sermons that communicated transformative truth were all characterized by a few core qualities. Consider these three suggestions for sermons that will help your parishioners better know and live God's love and grace:

1. Use illustrations authentic to you and the times.

Each preacher whose sermons grew my faith was entirely different:

  • One preacher loved Monty Python movies and Lord of the Rings. In fact, he was an avid movie watcher, so many sermons included clips and excerpts with insightful connections to Scripture. 
  • Another had visited Israel and taken photos of many places referenced in the Bible. When these locations came up in his sermon, his knowledge was personal and his passion palpable.
  • One life-changing Sunday School teacher ran a company during the week and spoke often of the challenges and grace he encountered running a business.

the substance of an illustration is far less significant than the preacher's honest and enthusiastic connection to that illustration.

In story-telling, it's the element of surprise—of unknown—that hooks the listener. 

And what's unknown to the congregation is how you see something, how you've experienced God's truth, how you connect the stories in Scripture to the people, places, and events around you.

Your congregation needn't share your love of gardening for your gardening illustrations to connect. Your authenticity creates the connection. 

Why? Because paradoxically, universal truths are expressed most effectively in the specific.

Sharing the specifics you connect to—whether a personal anecdote, a passage from a theologian you respect, an event or story dominating the public discourse, or some other interest—helps your audience see you authentically as a fellow sojourner so they connect to the Truth of your sermon.

When you've been around the proverbial church block for a while, you've heard many of the same stock illustrations that can be found through a quick Google search. Each hearing renders them less effective.

Allow your unique perspectives and life experiences to inform your sermons. Your congregation will thank you.

2. Don't avoid the hard parts.

When we first moved to Houston, we spent several weeks attending a small but sincere church where the preacher's authenticity and love for Christ shown through every message.

I'll never forget one Sunday, though, when he preached from Matthew 8 on the faith of the Centurion but completely ignored the stressful content in verse twelve:

12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I'm sure the preacher offered a lovely sermon about the Centurion's faith utilizing thoughtful anecdotes.

But the only thing I remember about the sermon is that he ignored verse twelve, leaving us with big, unresolved questions.

When a congregation is looking for God, looking for love, looking for grace, or looking for assurance, verses like this create cognitive dissonance. These small statements stand out in flashing neon lights to listeners who may not have a frame or paradigm from which to make sense of these passages.

And when the preacher—who has the training, commentaries, and other tools to make sense of Scripture—avoids these unsettling passages, many parishioners leave frustrated and confused:

  • Does the verse/passage mean what it seems to mean at face value?
  • Is there some context we need to understand Jesus's words?
  • How do we make sense of this???

We need help!

Is it any wonder the behavior of Christians in the public sphere is at times confounding? Too often, we're left to draw (often faulty) conclusions about difficult Scripture, conclusions that may be far from God's intention.

Authenticity in preaching means being honest about the nuance, complexity, and seeming contradictions in Scripture.

In truth, we don't need you to have a definite explanation or answer.

A simple acknowledgement is enough: 

"This passage has given theologians fits for ages. We don't have time to address it here, but rest assured, God's love is unchanging."

Please, as the professional in the room, give us something to make sense of the hard parts. As a preacher, your gift to us is bringing the Scripture alive and helping us find God in it.

Ignoring the hard parts makes us afraid that you or the Bible or, worse, God can't be trusted.

3. Preach through the lens of Christ's faithfulness rather than the lens of human faithfulness or failure.

My husband and I were newlyweds when we stumbled into a Sunday School class for young families. After attending church my entire life, it was the businessman leading our class through 1st and 2nd Samuel who revolutionized my faith.

To that point, I'd always heard Scripture interpreted through the lens of how the Bible characters' actions brought about God's actions, good or bad.  

As a result, all of my personal study of Scripture focused on decoding the "formulas" of Christian success: what must I do to stay on God's good side.

But in this study of David's life, the teacher always emphasized God's faithfulness to David, whether David was faithful or faithless.

He didn't analyze each story for the actions David took to secure blessing or condemnation, as though God were some kind of genie to be manipulated through behavior.

Rather, this teacher revealed the steadfastness of a loving God toward a child who sometimes obeyed and sometimes rebelled, who at times had great faith and at other times doubted, who sometimes turned to prayer and other times turned to lust.

How freeing to see that God could be depended upon even when I could not.

By focusing on God's faithfulness, this lay teacher helped me understand grace, true grace, for the first time.

In turn, this perspective changed the way I understood and viewed everything: 

  • God's character
  • my position as child of God
  • Bible stories I'd read/heard dozens of times
  • the world
  • the people around me
  • my role—my privilege to serve—as reconciler, light-bearer, and good-news spreader to a world desperate to know they are not defined nor measured by their failures.

When we look for Christ—for the redemption of the cross—throughout Scripture, we tell different stories than when we look for the ways people succeed or fail in pleasing God.

Tell the right story, the Good Story, and transformation will happen without guilt, shame, application points, or pledge cards.  

 

This is a guest post by Shaundra Taylor, a life-long church-attender, writer, and behind-the-scenes supporter of BsP.

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