You’re preaching stuff you don’t know you’re preaching. Ian Pitt-Watson said, “Sermons are more like babies than buildings. We do not really construct them–they grow in us.” Pitt-Watson partially meant what we discussed yesterday, that the sermon, in important ways, is the product of the preachers inner-life. Pitt-Watson also means that there is homiletical music playing in the background of preacher’s mind – notions, concerns, instincts, experiences, and preferences – that s/he may or may not be aware of. For instance, one of my favorite speakers ends each one of his sermons rehearsing a core doctrine of his congregational and seminary training: Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I’m certain he is sometimes aware of this and I’m sure that sometimes he is not. It’s in the background of his thinking. In some ways he cannot help it.
For your own preaching to grow and become a more robust representation of the gospel, you need to be aware of what you’re preaching that you may not know that you’re preaching. Why? Because the goal of preaching is to say what the text says. Its function is to have the same effect on the congregation as the text was intended to have in its original setting (there are not bullet points in the original text, by the way). Preachers need to unearth their particular background issues so that the hearers hear the Word of God.
What Are The Background Issues?
- Theology. What are the biblical doctrines which are the center of all other biblical doctrines? Believe it or not, you think some things in scripture are more important than others. Plus, you have certain “takes” on scripture that may not be shared by the congregation down the street. What is your atonement theory? What is the purpose of the church? Of worship? Of preaching? All these things effect how you handle the text. Likely, you made these decisions a long time ago without even thinking about them. It’s what you were taught as a child in Sunday school or in seminary. By the way, this is why it is dangerous to “borrow” sermons from others.
- Worldview. What are the cultural and intellectual forces which shape not only the kinds of questions you ask of the text but the form and function of the sermon? Are you a strong Democrat? A severe Conservative? Is the family the foundation of society? What are your thoughts regarding social justice? do you read Rob Bell or John Piper? Paul Krugman or George Will? Your worldview will give shape to your sermons and your hearers will hear it. Are you revealing your political hand in your sermons thus cutting of a hearing for a segment of your congregation? Or do you see your political agenda and the gospel as one in the same?
- Biblical Authority. How does the Bible function authoritatively. Is it literal or figurative? Is it both? What the hermeneutic at play? Are there “weightier matters” in the text or do you think “it’s all equally important?” What about church polity? The role of the preacher in your view of church polity?
- World of the Bible. What are the cultural, geographical, social, and political realities of the ancient world (which seem strange to modern readers) which allows us to understand the original stories and doctrines in their historical context? How role does history play? Does the knowledge of history have a role to play in preaching the text or do you assume the ancient world is ancient history and no one cares?
- Exegesis of the Congregation. I spoke of this yesterday, in part, in the discussion of going to lunch with members. What are the unique interests, problems, and needs of your congregation which must be addressed for preaching to be effective? Your congregation is in a unique place in it’s history this Sunday. This is why you simply can’t “dust off an old sermon,” or preach someone else’s manuscript. Preaching requires that the preacher know their congregants.
Knowing what’s playing in the background will help you allow the text to speak for itself. But before you put pen to paper you should know what it is that you may deliver without knowing you’re delivering it. Your congregant deserve to hear the Word of God, not merely what you think about the Word of God.