Sometimes our preaching doesn’t connect with our hearers. Before we conclude that we are not called to this particular place, we want to remember that whether as a Rookie, who preaches for the first time at our first church or as a seasoned veteran starting again at our third church, every congregation has its own culture, its own storyline with God and its own providences and people prior to our arrival. Even a church planter gathers people who have previous experiences, assumptions, and interactions with God, people and places. So, every time we preach we cross cultures. Before we pick up and move on to another church or ministry, or bully ahead, we have to first discern if we learned what God wants us to see about the people in front of us and to respond accordingly in Him.
Here are six markers to help you assess the obstacles that might exist between your sermons and the culture of your congregation. These obstacles might be negatively impacting how the congregation is hearing you. With trusted leaders:
1. Prayerfully identify the default Leadership Style of the church or core group: If you are a contemplative poet and the previous pastor was an extroverted list giver, the transition from deductive bullet points and meeting agendas to inductive metaphors and relational meetings will take some time for people to understand and to adjust. While you help them to regard a metaphor you might need to learn to use a bullet point.
2. Identify the current Theological Culture: If you talk about obedience and the previous pastor talked about grace or visa versa, the congregation won’t be able to hear you without help. The one will think you are a legalist the other will think that you are an antinomian. Rather than saying the same thing louder or assuming the congregation is hard hearted and wrong, they will need you to take into account where they have been and to help them understand.
3. Identify the Default Temptations: If you preached for years to folks who were constantly tempted to inappropriate conservatism you might find that your assumptions and words make no sense to your new congregation who is much more prone to an inappropriate liberalism. With the first church you were always saying that our doctrine rests on grace and needs to lead us to love. When you say grace and love to this new church they say, “duh.” Their problem has more to do with the fact that you said, “doctrine.”
4. Identify Biblical Literacy: If you say, “Stephen was stoned to death,” and people snicker because they think that a guy named Stephen was strung out on drugs and died, then you have to pay attention to that. Instead of getting frustrated at what they know or do not know, take stock of what it is God will have you teach them step by step, little by little, over time. On the flip side, some people can quote all of the stories in the bible but do not apply their meaning to their lives. If we let true Literacy include both the facts and the meaning of the Bible, we have good labor to do either way.
5. Wounds/Triumphs: If the church has had a split in its past and people still live in proximity to each other or if many people are divorced or if several could not have children or many have special needs kids and you talk about church, marriage or parenting without this awareness, you will likely and unintentionally add insult to injury. If the church has a history of evangelism and many in the year previous to your arrival came to know Jesus you will want to know this before you start your series on Evangelism to let everyone know that they don’t evangelize enough.
6. Your Previous Story: Implied in all of this is the culture that we bring with us as preachers; Our assumptions, leadership style, default theology and temptations, our wounds and triumphs. Preaching crosses cultures. Sermons can’t work like a formula. No wonder we need the Holy Spirit!
So, just because our sermons were effective in our previous seminary class or church, doesn’t mean that we will automatically and immediately prove effective with our new hearers. Often, it will take time for people to connect with our sermons. This seems particularly true the smaller the church is numerically. God seems sometimes to use the nuances and distinctives of a local culture to humble us into listening again, to remind us that these people in front of us differ from the folks we used to preach to and to recover our dependence upon Him for their care through prayer. Before you pick up and leave for another church, take some time with trusted leaders. Assess. Pray. Learn. Try again. Sermon effectiveness might be waiting in God’s hands just around this corner of humility road.