Sometimes preachers fail to distinguish between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation. For some, the two may be identical (preaching a sermon to a congregation) but, on the other hand, they may not be (and usually are not). What is the difference to which I allude, what are its consequences, and what can be done about it?
The difference between preaching a sermon and preaching to a congregation is enormous. In the first, all, or nearly all, of the preacher’s effort has gone into preparing what he hopes will be THE SERMON. It is a masterpiece of style and artistry. People come just to hear and admire the sermon itself. Usually, such sermons are read or memorized. Almost always they are written out in full. In such preaching, the focus is on the sermon as such; it is a thing in-and-of-itself, and whether the particular congregation before whom (not to whom) it was performed (not preached) were to hear it, or another, is irrelevant. It can stand alone on its own two feet as a literary work. There are actually no such sermons in the New Testament. The Sermon on the Mount might be thought to be so. But although it is a fine piece of literature, Christ’s sermon was not designed to be wondered at or appraised for its artistic merits. And, as you read it, you soon recognize that it will not allow such treatment. With its second person approach, it constantly prods and pokes at you, by its direct simplicity it unmasks and convicts. The literary critic can find what he seeks only at the cost of hardening his heart to the message while attempting to concentrate solely on form. Even that is difficult: the form itself is testy and terse rather than smooth and elegant; critics, who know their stuff, cannot for long feel at home with it. It cannot be subjected to good criticism; it demands subjection instead. The so-called Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not an instance of THE SERMON. Rather, it is a supreme example of preaching.
Preaching is an activity; sermon-making is an activity. But the product of the latter is a sermon (or, in some extraordinary cases, THE SERMON) while the product of the former is changed lives. The end or goal of sermon construction is literary; the end of preaching is moral and spiritual. In preaching, the focus is not on the sermon but on God and what He has to say to the congregation. When biblical preaching takes place, people do not think about the sermon or about the preacher; they think about Christ and in some way about their relationship to Him.
In the Scriptures we are commanded “Preach the Word”; nowhere are we told to prepare sermons. Too often, homileticians in seminaries have focused on the art and craft of sermon construction or the preparation and delivery of sermons. While there is need for instruction about how to gather, order and deliver the elements of the message one preaches, nevertheless, the difference in emphasis can make all the difference in outcome. We should talk more about the activity of preaching and less about the production of sermons. The two activities along with their goals and products differ substantially as we have seen already.
Congregations know the difference. Many members of a congregation may not be able to articulate that difference, but they know. “Our former pastor preached to us; I went out of the service every week knowing that I had received a message from God. Our present pastor works hard on his sermons—you can tell that—they are smooth, polished, but.…” Notice where the focus is in each instance: in the first comment it is on God, His message and my responsibility. In the second, on the pastor and his sermon. Under the former pastor’s preaching there will be life in the congregation, challenge to young people, conversions, breakthroughs, growth. Under the second man there will be dullness, deadness, stultification, dry professionalism and a growing churchianity.
“What can I do, if I have developed the bad practice of preparing sermons rather than preparing to preach? How can I change?” In some cases, the answer may be complex, in others more simple. But it will probably consist of at least the following changes:
- Stop writing out sermons. That means, of course, that you will neither read nor memorize them. Instead, prepare full preaching outlines, designed to be used as a help in preaching.
- Focus your thinking in preparation on God, on the message, and on the congregation—not on the sermon. Ask continually “how can I best bring this message from God to this congregation?” not “how can I best prepare a fine sermon?”
- Think about the congregation: Who will be there, what knowledge, prejudices, beliefs, etc., that they will have. Concern yourself with preparing to convey God’s message to this congregation, not with preparing a universal literary masterpiece that can stand apart on its own. Instead, particularize. Prepare to preach to one specific congregation on one occasion, not a sermon for the whole church for all time. When you preach, preach for results in this congregation, not as though you were addressing the entire world, or perhaps the church universal!
- Care about your people and adapt every story (or illustration, if you prefer) specifically to them. Prepare to preach to their needs, weaknesses, etc.; don’t address the ills of the planet. The planet isn’t there to hear!
Other solutions to the problem might be suggested but, frankly, I am convinced that the basic need is to become fully aware of the problem with its various ramifications. Once an earnest preacher recognizes that his concern has been about sermons rather than about God and His flock, he will repent and find a way to change. Those pulpit prima donnas who can see no problem will go on destroying congregations with abandon, and nothing short of dismissing them before it is too late will do. But for those who have unwittingly fallen into the trap, or who have been led into it by seminary academies, and who want to change, let me suggest one final solution to the problem. If for a period of three months you will prayerfully burn your sermon outlines, together with any and all preparatory notes, so that nothing remains, and allow no tape recordings to be made, and concentrate on the activity of preaching, you should be able to make the transition from writing sermons to preaching to people. During that period you will discover what it means to prepare to preach for the blessing of one congregation, on one occasion, instead of preparing to play to the grandstands of all time.