When preparing a sermon, the first thing to remember is that, when it comes to biblical interpretation, context is king. Every first-year seminarian has been taught this lesson, and rightly so. You cannot accurately interpret a text, much less rightly preach it, unless you consider its context. As Don Carson has warned, “To take a text out of its context is to have a pretext.”
Yet for the preacher contextual concerns involve more than a familiarity with your passage and the book in which it’s situated. To be sure, familiarity with your biblical context is paramount, but the preacher must maintain other realms of familiarity. Accomplished surgeons know their patients as well as their instruments. For the preacher it is not all that different. One of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects of sermon preparation is familiarization.
For the sermon to be maximally effective, there are several realms with which the preacher must be familiar. Consider with me these four crucial ones.
Know Your Audience
The first question you must ask is, “To whom am I preaching?” Depending on the audience, whether your church or another group, your message may change or at least be adapted. Certainly, Scripture’s authority and power ensure its ability to transform any person in any context. Our setting doesn’t change what we say, but it may change how we say it.
We want our sermons to achieve the most optimal impact. Different groups in varied settings often require sermons that are different in style and depth. Thus, every sermon should be customized and crafted specifically for its recipients.
This became clear to me in February 2006. The prior Lord’s Day was the last Sunday in the pastorate I’d enjoyed for nearly four years. I had just transitioned to a new position in the president’s office at Southern Seminary. My family and I were in the throes of unpacking and attempting
to settle into our new home in Louisville. Unexpectedly, I received a call on Friday afternoon about preaching in Nashville on Sunday. The pastor had
a family emergency, and since the church had strong ties to the seminary, I felt obligated to meet their need. The short notice of the request and an already overbooked Saturday (including the commute to Nashville) meant
I had little time to prepare.
I elected to use a previously preached sermon. Though I spent as much time as possible reviewing my notes, I failed to remember that the two congregations could not have been more different. My former church was considerably smaller, more rural, and obviously well acquainted with me and I with them. The church in Nashville was nearly ten times larger, in a major city, and they did not know me at all.
I’ll never forget the feeling I had during the preaching event when I realized that my application and illustrations were less than ideal for that audience. Thankfully, I was able to adjust midcourse and prevent disaster.
So, as you prepare the sermon, think through who your audience will be. Ask yourself questions like:
• How will this point strike the eighty-year-old lady who lost her husband
• Will the less-educated folks in the audience be able to process this biblical
concept as presented, or does it need to be simplified?
• What does this truth have to say to the young couple struggling with marital trouble?
• How might this concept be expressed in a way that is encouraging to the
middle-aged woman recently diagnosed with cancer?
Remember, the more personal the sermon, the more likely it will be well received. For those who weekly preach to the same congregation, there’s simply no excuse for sterile, impersonal preaching.
A pastor is called to do more than simply lecture; he is a shepherd called to care for his congregation. When you’re truly shepherding your people, the Lord will bring specific people and situations to mind as you prepare, and He will lead you in applying the text to your congregation, not just to Christians generally. Indeed, each sermon is custom-built, bringing a specific text to bear on a specific congregation. As York and Decker note:
Sermons are not about just imparting information. They should be custom built to change lives. We don’t want to fill their heads; we want the proclamation of the Word to grip their souls and motivate them to conform to the will of God. Our approach to the Bible and to preaching, therefore, has application as its ultimate goal. Application is what makes the Bible come alive and makes sermons practical.
Know Your Context
Second, the preacher must be familiar, broadly speaking, with the text or book he is preaching from. This familiarization takes place at both the macro and the micro level. At the macro level, the preacher should let the big picture of the text marinate in his mind.
For example, if you are going to preach through the book of Acts in the fall, then read through it a few times during the summer. Likewise, peruse commentaries and other resources to help familiarize yourself with the broad contours of the book. Obviously, as your sermon preparation progresses, you’ll move from broad familiarization to a more technical analysis of the passage.
Questions to be asked at this stage are:
• What are the main themes in this book?
• Does the author repeatedly emphasize anything throughout the book?
• What is the outline of the book?
• What are some seemingly difficult passages in the book?
Once the preacher is generally familiar with these book-level questions, he can then move to the micro level with more specific, passage-level questions like:
• What is the author saying in this passage?
• How does this passage relate to the preceding passage?
• How does this passage relate to the following passage?
• What is the main point of this passage?
• How does this passage affect the flow of thought in the rest of the book?
One way I attempt to grasp the “big idea” of the text is to force myself to write out the main idea of the passage in one sentence. I have found that the earlier in the sermon preparation process I can produce the central proposition of the text, the sooner the other components of the sermon will come together.
John Stott comments on the need to ascertain the main idea of the text, and he offers suggestions as to how one might obtain it. Specifically, Stott argues that patience is central to familiarizing oneself with the text. That is to say, familiarization should function more like a Crock-Pot than a microwave. Slow and protracted contemplation often will yield the best results. Stott writes:
So then, in our sermon preparation, we must not try to by-pass the discipline of waiting patiently for the dominant thought to disclose itself. We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, even under it, until we give up all pretensions of being its master or manipulator, and become instead its humble and obedient servant. Then there will be no danger of unscrupulous text twisting. On the contrary, the Word of God will dominate our mind, set fire to our hearts, control the development of our exposition and later leave a lasting impression on the congregation.
Third, while at first blush this may seem odd, you will learn that how you feel spiritually directly influences how you preach. You should strive for self-awareness. This moves beyond the blatant question, Am I living in sin?
Rather, it is to reflect on the spiritual indicators in your life. If you are ill tempered toward your wife, adrift in your devotional life, or just cold about spiritual things, your preaching will suffer. You should be especially mindful of this as you approach the Lord’s Day. Self-awareness is a difficult subject to master, but he who would be a powerful preacher must give himself to careful consideration of his own spiritual state.
Beyond the weekly evaluation of his own spiritual status, the preacher should also look inward as he considers what passages and/or books of the Bible to preach through. Generally, what you find interesting in Scripture, you will be able to communicate in an interesting way. Likewise, what impassions you will surely lead to more impassioned preaching.
Of course, this should not devolve into hobbyhorse preaching; a faithful pulpit will, over time, preach the whole counsel of God, including books or genres with which the preacher struggles. Nonetheless, it may be wise to get plenty of repetition in before taking on a particularly challenging book of the Bible.
Furthermore, I’ve noticed that often my strongest preaching comes from preaching an area of personal weakness. For instance, several years ago I was frustrated with myself for not doing a better job of practically living out my faith. I decided to preach through the book of James and, in a real way, the Lord grew me spiritually as He grew my church spiritually. Self-awareness is difficult to master, but wise is the preacher who gives it intentional thought.
Know the Culture
Fourth and finally, though the preacher always has both eyes in the text, he should, nonetheless, try to keep his hand on the pulse of his culture. Strive to be mindful of how society is influencing the congregation and what the pressing concerns of the day may be.
For example, I have been burdened in recent years about the proliferation of pornography, so I have preached sermons on this sin. Likewise, being aware of pressing political issues and knowing what is dominating the news cycle can help foster specificity in sermon application.
When it comes to preaching effective sermons, familiarization is an essential step. How will you helpfully apply the text if you don’t know your audience? How will you faithfully exegete the text if you don’t know the literary context? How will you rightly proclaim the text if you don’t know yourself? And how will you accurately situate the text if you don’t know your cultural context?
If you are familiar with these four areas, then you can count on an accurate and persuasive sermon that moves your audience to action. If you are unfamiliar with these four areas, then you can count on a shallow sermon that has little effect on the audience. The only question now remaining is, Are you willing to put in the needed work of familiarization?
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Jason Allen’s book, Letters to My Students: Vol. 1 — On Preaching and originally appeared at jasonkallen.com.