Preaching in a Manner that Fits the Hearers?
Adults and children, highly educated and educated to an elementary degree, prosperous and less prosperous, singles and families, students and people in the thirties, divorced and married people, widows and widowers — all step into the church building on Sunday morning to attend the church service. How can we speak to all these different people at the same time in a meaningful way?
A letter is discussed during the consistory meeting. This letter has been sent by a number of young families. They would dearly love to see that the minister devotes more attention to their young children during the church service. Church language is difficult to understand and meanwhile it is remarked that the message given on Sunday is not sufficiently concrete to serve daily life during the week. The church officers discuss what the wise way is to deal with this. “And”, one of the deacons reacts, “is there not more behind this?” Do these young people, in all likelihood, desire a different kind of preaching?
In this manner, some time is spent discussing the letter, but it is difficult to find a solution. How must we deal with target groups in the worship service (children, students, people in the thirties, old people)? Should they receive separate attention during the preaching? How can we all, together, be addressed with the one Word of God?
Nucleus of the Sermon
In Reformed theology, the sermon occupies the central place during the worship service. The opening and proclamation of the Word of God forms the nucleus of the gathering together of the congregation. What exactly happens during the sermon? It is important to see that God himself comes to the congregation in the sermon. He speaks. We can also say: he speaks to us in and through the Lord Jesus, the Word who became flesh.
Whoever understands this, also understands that in the content of the sermon, man or any group of people can never be central. When God comes to us in his Word, an anthropologic or sociological analysis can never be the leading guideline (F.G. Immink). That is to say that a minister, when he is preparing his sermon, does not, in the first place, consider the social situation of his congregation. The most important question is not whether the children are sufficiently addressed. Neither is the most important question whether the people in their thirties or the elderly receive enough personal attention in the service. The core question in the preparation and in listening to the preaching is: what does God say in this section of the Bible? How does God make himself known as the triune God in this section?
Member of the Congregation
Is there then no place for the members of the congregation? Should children, young people and the elderly not be addressed? And do not age, intellect, and a way of thinking play a role in it? It is attractive to immediately respond with a yes to this question. Yet, it is necessary to stop here for a moment. A larger development is hiding in the shadows behind the request for attention for specific target groups.
G. Heitink, a well-known retired professor in practical theology at the Free University, has written much about the church and about the differences between members of the congregation. He points out that there has been a change in our social structures. There used to be a “unity in life”. That is to say that the church stood in the center of the village or city and everyday life revolved around the church. You had the market square, family businesses, guilds. Together with the church they formed the structure of society. In all that the family was the cornerstone. Your identity was largely determined by the society in which all of this occurred.
In our time, this situation has totally changed. The “unity of life” has disintegrated. To begin with, people live in different social roles; you are a parent, a worker, a citizen, a tourist, a church attender. These roles no longer interconnect. Besides that, the number of roles has expanded. Because of all that, the differences between individual people have also increased. Just think of the great number of educational directions, areas of interest, and possibilities for development. One may have a higher education, another has specific interests, a third earns a great deal of money and a fourth struggles with sickness all of his life. Gradually, the unity of life has fallen apart.
People no longer belong to a group, but are seen as individuals. Thus every one has his or her own needs. For example, you can see that in a classroom at school today: formerly a class was seen as a unit — with all the differences that there were between students. Now we speak about “appropriate instruction”. Every student asks for separate attention and treatment. That which you see in such a classroom in miniature, you see magnified in all of society.
Behind the question of a goal-oriented approach in the church, we see the same development. Also the church caters more and more to the specific needs of the people. Just think about youth services, services for students, child moments, evangelization services.
Is This Bad?
Naturally, you can ask yourself whether this is bad? We no longer live in the previous century. As church, you should therefore go along with these modern developments. Just as in school and in businesses, differentiation increases, so also the church should approach children, young people, people in their thirties and the elderly in different ways. Besides, did Paul not also do that when he wanted to be a Jew for the Jews and a Greek for the Greeks?
Of course, it is true that the minister, just as Paul, must keep in mind the concrete situation of the members of the congregation. It is not wrong to speak directly and specifically to the children or the young people once, or if the congregation includes many students, to factor in their questions. It is something different if the minister is more or less pressured to speak to special target groups. Then, as minister, you cannot freely and honestly proclaim the message that you understood from the Word of God during your preparation time. This is simply because the message for that Sunday out of the Bible may sometimes be at odds with the particular needs of a specific group.
Besides this, a goal-centered approach may exclude other specific groups, an approach which may make it difficult for others to receive God’s message. This is a real danger when the congregation expects that target groups will regularly be addressed separately. A target group focussed approach threatens the unity of the Christian congregation.
In my opinion, the questions regarding children, young people and the elderly are transcended when we focus on the Holy Spirit and on the redeeming work of Christ. The Holy Spirit desires to work during the preaching in the Sunday worship service. He seeks people, changes them, renews them, so that they learn to entrust themselves to the Lord Jesus.
When this is the point of departure, then the question is not whether every target group has been addressed, for on Sunday, we all appear as sinners before the face of God. Because of that, all of us, whoever we are, are dependent on the grace of God alone. That is what the minister may proclaim in the name of God. He has the same message of grace for all; salvation in Christ and faith in him, and the Holy Spirit desires to apply all this to our hearts. When we understand that it is the Holy Spirit who causes us to understand the Word, discussions about age, interests and education levels of congregation members, come to stand in a different light.
Be continuously aware that the sermon is the proclamation of God’s Word in which the whole congregation is addressed. During the church service, we hear, in the first place, the message from the Bible. Answers to our specific questions and needs are secondary in the order of address.
Realize that ministers are but “men created from dust” (Calvin). One minister is more gifted in addressing children, another is especially gifted in reaching the elderly. Endeavour, as consistory and congregation, not to force the minister into a straightjacket.
For ministers: look at yourself critically as a minister. On the one hand, dare to stand in opposition to the congregation by being hesitant to incorporate all kinds of “wishes” of congregation members. Acquiescence means losing your authority and freedom. On the other hand, do understand that you are called to bring the gospel as close to the people as possible. When there are many young families in the congregation, give attention to them. As the congregation grows in age, keep it in mind.
As congregation, understand that the church is not the place where you will receive help and attention in all areas of life. The nucleus of being a church is that the triune God wants our salvation. “We go to church with an eye on our personal salvation” (A.A. van Ruler).
Questions for discussion:
- Do you go to church to hear what God is really saying to you?
- How do you speak with your children, if you have any, about the sermon, after the Sunday service?
- In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus never speaks directly to children, but always through the adults. This is because they have the first responsibility for the salvation of the child. What does that say to us today?
- Discuss this statement: “Attention to the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of reconciliation through Christ, transcends all differences in age, educational attainment, and social status which are present in the congregation.”