Much of the time preachers direct their sermons to the wrong crowd. Of course, there is really no right or wrong crowd that must hear the gospel, but there is a group that we too frequently miss because we beam our message outside its range of receptivity, although it too desperately needs the gospel.
In almost every congregation are four classes of listeners. Usually there is a crowd we call the "believers." They are like the "good ground" in Jesus' parable of the sower (see Mark 4:1-20). Then there are the ones "sown among thorns." Secular life is all-engaging. Coming to church is a good practice, but the Word is choked out by other concerns. In the third rank are the "doubters," the "stony ground" hearers. They listen, but the very appeal of the gospel withers under the heat of debate and intellectual argumentation. Finally, there are the "hostile," comparable to those along the path, who seldom, if ever, are touched because Satan has hardened their hearts.
Of these four—the believers, the apathetic, the doubters, the hostile—which are the most precious to our Lord Jesus? Every loving preacher would no doubt argue that all are precious souls. Yet which group needs the gospel most? The question is pertinent.
Do we not love the praise and response of the "believers" more than we do the truculence of the "hostile"? One day as a pastor, I suddenly came to the heart-rending realization that when I preached soul-stirring messages, sparing not and calling sin by its right name, the ones who pumped my hand the hardest at the door were always the "believers." The apathetic, the doubters, the hostile, walked on by and smiled graciously (sometimes). Now, I've decided to attach little consequence to the compliments of the "believers." They are in the church already; they are accepting of whatever I may preach. But if I should find that my sermon evokes a compliment from one of the apathetic, doubting, or hostile, I take notice and know that I am now preaching the gospel.
To reach the hostile ones in our congregations, we must use Jesus' methods. Over and over again the Bible records that He went about healing men and women. Those who were suffering He did not wound, but ministered compassionately to them. Of Him it was said, "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench" (Matt. 12:20). Is it not true that those hurting most in our congregations are the hostile? Yet how frequently have we heard (or preached) the "blistering" sermon to which the believers have added their chorus of amens, and again the hostile leave the house of God even more hostile? How would it be if we followed Jesus' approach to such people, as recorded in Mark 5:1-20?
The Gergesene denomiac, a typical example of personified hostility, stands now in the presence of the Son of God. Could we not expect a lengthy enumeration of all the wrongs this man had done in his life to bring himself to this unhappy state? Surely the Lord will deliver a discourse on temperance and an exposition on the sure harvest that comes from "sowing wild oats." But no. Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, but He extended grace to the "hostile." And the response? The spiritually healed man in his overwhelming adoration for his Lord is now ready for discipleship. He wants to walk with his Saviour forever. In harmony with Jesus' methods, he is now commissioned to "go . . . and tell. . . how . . . the Lord . . . hath had compassion on thee" (verse 19).
Consider these ways you can practice Jesus' methods of dealing with the hostile. Let these form the backdrop against which you develop your subject matter for sermons.
1. Identify with people's needs through hme visitation. The nature of your calling as a pastor often exempts you from many of the problems that your people face, and to the extent that you are sheltered it is easy to forget the tremendous struggles that your people have daily. As you sit by their firesides in confidence, you can feel a parent's pain because of a rebellious son or daughter. You can feel the frustration of not knowing how to raise children in a permissive society. You can empathize with their distress at not having enough money to pay the bills. You can sympathize when they vent their feelings about having been exploited by an unscrupulous businessman. You can imagine their heartsick loneliness when a marriage partner is uncaring or even abusive.
2. Make yourself available to hear what people have to say even if it is unpleasant. The hostile particularly reveal their unmet needs in the things they say. Between the lines you will hear the sources for their pain that need healing. A part of the healing process will be determined by your willingness to listen. As an individual has an opportunity to hear himself talk about his problems, to ventilate his hostilities and his real feelings, some healing will take place. He will then come to the church as a place to be healed.
3. Become an "open" person. Allow the people of your congregation to enter into your own agonies. Convey to them the realism of your own experiences. The apostle Paul said, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). If you put yourself above the possibility of failure in any moral sense, you will soon become judgmental. But when a preacher under stands the grace of God himself, his people, after experiencing the effects of that enlivened graciousness, will come to hear more about where it comes from. The sermon becomes the principal vehicle that the pastor may use, not to enumerate sins, but to magnify the grace of God.
When the people of your congregation come to hear your sermon in spite of being faced with distresses that often evoke forms of guilt and hostility, they have said a great deal about themselves. In coming with their apparently sublimated hostilities, they are communicating, "I trust you; regardless of my anxiety, fear, anger, I am willing for you to enter my soul and lead me out of my bitterness." They are telling you that your mercy, your forgiving and loving attitude, will set the stage for recovery. If you are rigid, cold, legalistic, and demanding, it is unlikely that they will go away feeling that they have been ministered to.
A preacher friend once eloquently delivered a sermon the burden of which was that God expects sinners to cease their sinning and unbelievers to begin believing. Sins were enumerated and nonresponsiveness to the gospel was condemned. The sermon's climax appealed to the eschatological consciousness of all who were there. The new heavens and new earth were described in their Edenic beauty, paralleled with the presence of Jesus. Movingly, the preacher demanded, "Will you be there?"
Suddenly I was jolted as a young lady behind me blurted out under her breath, "I certainly hope not!"
Here, obviously, was a young person who had come to church that day in a hostile frame of mind. I don't know exactly what was in her mind, but my suspicions are high that she was one of the many in the "hostile" crowd who went away from church that day even more hostile.
Can we not, as Jesus did, show compassion for the erring, the weak, and the spiritually suffering? Indeed, we need not forget about those already healed—the believers. But let us preach the good news of God's mercy so that the often-over looked "hostile" will want to be with their compassionate Lord for the rest of their lives and for eternity.