A Church for a Guy like Me


There ought to be a church for a guy like me,” Rick said. We were having lunch at a Furr’s Cafeteria in East Dallas. I had met Rick just three days earlier, after the Sunday worship service that I had helped plan. In one conversation, Rick changed my preaching forever.

Rick didn’t go to church. In debt after another failed marriage, he had moved back in with his parents, who lived behind the church where I interned as a seminary student. Rick hoped to find a church that would help him make sense of his broken dreams and navigate the future. He assumed this church might help; this church assumed more than Rick had hoped. He told me as much as we shared lunch that day, almost 25 years ago. Below are three things Rick taught me.

Assume Less about Listener Interest

Too many preachers fail to ask themselves what all successful fishermen ask: what bait should be on the hook? Preachers may think that since their own training required only an open Bible and syllabus notes, then the same should be true for their parishioners. “My Bible teachers didn’t cater to me, and I learned the material just fine,” the preacher may think.

However, people in the pews are more likely to learn from the sermon when it addresses personal crises. These may be obvious, such as an impending divorce or the death of a friend or family member. But others may be less apparent to the outside observer but are no less intense for the person experiencing them: conflict with an employee, worry over a child’s schooling or the security of the world post-9/11, for example. Identifying common themes that constitute inner crises—unsatisfied longing, unresolved rationality, moral dilemmas, relational alienation or fear of death—will help the preacher to better plan an effective sermon.

“Less-assumptive” preaching won’t assume that the listener is interested. After a busy week and a relational conflict at home, listeners need the preacher to address their “crisis” in a way that demands attention.

Assume Less about Listener Literacy

Every preacher should ask, “Do I care more about being helpful or sounding smart?” Often the preacher assumes too much about the listener’s biblical and theological literacy. Just because many know who killed Goliath doesn’t mean everyone does. “Turn in your Bible to . . .” without qualification is another reminder that “this isn’t the church for a guy like me.”

Instead, assume that a listener may be opening the Bible for the first time. Assume that the listener doesn’t know who killed Goliath. Assume that the story-hearer can’t believe this biblical account more than a story on par with Dr. Seuss.

“Less-assumptive” preachers put divine revelation on the bottom shelf so that everyone can reach it.

Assume Less about Listener “Buy-In”

Recently, I was preaching on the eighth commandment: “No lying.” I was encouraging the hearers to tell the truth and suggested that lying hurts trust. Trust is essential for relational intimacy, I said, and we all desire relational connection. Makes sense so far, doesn’t it? The problem is that the hearers may be thinking, Good advice, but you don’t live with my spouse. I can’t tell the truth. You don’t know the anger I would have to deal with.

Honor your parents is a biblical proposition, but what does it look like when parents are elderly, were jerks in the past and are demanding in the present? The listener may respond, “What does this mean? I can’t obey this.” Or “My situation is certainly an exception.”

If that happens, no matter how true my preaching is, I have failed to address the part of the hearer that carries the greater weight of Christian formation. The effective communicator will assume less and persuade more, while engaging the listener’s emotional barriers and rationale. Doing so, we continue the instructions of our Lord Jesus when he appointed Paul “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, . . . so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18).

“Less-assumptive” preaching works hard to engage the hurdles that keep hearers from “buying” the sermon’s content and applying it to life beyond the weekend. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).

Last week, a friend brought a 24-year-old young man named Justin into their home to answer his spiritual questions. She and her husband stayed up late hoping to persuade Justin to say yes to the gospel. Then, they invited him to attend their Alliance church the following Sunday. I bet they were hoping their pastor was preparing a “less-assumptive” sermon. I bet Justin hopes to find “a church for a guy like me.”

Do you need a preaching coach? Read the online interview with Dr. Bob Wenz.

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