Preach to the Congregation You Have by David Dunham


Pastors, do you speak to the audience you have? That might seem like a strange question, but I am often convinced that sermons are directed towards people and issues that are not present and not relevant in a specific congregation. I fear that too many sermons fall short of their intended effect because they simply state the obvious and apply principles in ways that neither challenge nor reshape congregations. To preach well, a sermon must address what our congregations most need to hear.

We tend to call them “red meat.” They are those kinds of sermons, lessons, and addresses that give people exactly what they want, some tasty, juicy, morsel to sink their teeth into. We use the “red meat” idiom at times to suggest that we are appeasing people, like throwing food to the wolves to keep them at bay. Red meat is going to look different in different contexts. So in some context it will be sermons about the abandonment of the Bible (especially the King James Bible), but in other contexts these will be sermons about the mistreatment of the poor. Depending on the context, the values and general convictions of a congregation, either sermon could be fodder for the sheep.

The failure of this type of preaching is that it never challenges a particular congregation. Red meat sermons merely confirm what an audience already believes; it gives them what they already want. In some cases it can convince them that they don’t need any more change, and that these sermons are really for the people “out there,” beyond the walls of the church. It’s almost like preaching to people who aren’t in attendance. It’s like trying to convince someone who’s not present that your convictions are true. Red meat sermons will not challenge our people to grow and consider fresh perspectives and different applications; rather, sadly, it will tempt them to become complacent, arrogant, and judgmental.

Think about your congregation. What do they already value? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Where do they struggle? When are they most tempted to compromise? What are the most tempted to neglect or overlook? Think about how your sermons can challenge their assumptions and presuppositions. Think about how your sermons can bring fresh perspectives and new avenues of application. If you’re people are prone to legalism and judgmentalism then you probably don’t need to preach regularly on the sins of liberalism and compromise. It’s not that you should never address those sins, but they won’t be your main focus. If your congregation loves the poor but has a low tolerance for doctrine then you should challenge the latter issue more than you encourage the former. A more specific example might help to crystalize my point.

Homosexuality is often a target in sermons these days. As a relevant cultural issue that’s not surprising. There are two ways we can talk about this issue in our sermons. We can decry its immorality and we can urge Christians to love their gay and lesbian neighbors well and with the gospel. Both approaches are, of course, appropriate and both should be preached. Yet, consider your congregation. Which do they need to hear more often? Is your congregation full of young people who are, on the whole, less inclined to see same sex relationships as sinful? Then you need to urge them to confront the sinfulness of this trend. On the other hand, is your congregation made up of believers who stand firm on this issue but who need to be reminded that the truth is to be accompanied by grace? Then you preach consistently on how to love your neighbor. We want to see our people grow, not merely confirm their present convictions. This means preaching sermons that challenge them.

Again, it’s not that we should never preach the “confirming” sermon. We all need to be encouraged to keep doing what we are already doing. The fundamental issue is, rather, one of emphasis. Are we emphasizing things that will challenge and convict our people? Will they be forced to rethink unbiblical or pseudo-biblical perspectives? Will they be encouraged to nuance their stance? Will they be helped to apply a truth in an untouched area of their lives? Know your congregation, pastors, and preach to the congregation you have.

It’s tempting and easy to always preach “red meat” sermons. People will love you for it and applaud your “boldness” for saying “tough” things. But we who teach know the truth. These are easy things to say. They are the applications and convictions that come naturally to us and to our people. Bold preaching challenges the subtle sins that some will find hard to hear. Bold preaching considers the congregation we speak to and seeks to help them expand beyond their present spiritual life into something deeper. Pastors, preach to the congregation you have, and say the things they most need to hear.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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