A sign in the window of a variety store read "Dry goods and notions." I always loathed the possibility that it might fit over my pulpit. Dry goods interesting and inspiring to no body. Notions shallow ideas spoken willy-nilly off the top of my head with no valuable insight, no spiritual depth.
Where does the preacher go to find something worth saying? We've looked at four sermon resources: your Bible, yourself (your personal relationship with Christ), your library, and your file. We conclude with another important resource: your people.
Know your people's problems
All preachers should study their Bibles. But the best preachers will also study their people. What are their needs? Where are they hurting?
The later years in pastoral ministry are dangerous years. Having once known the questions people wanted answered, we think we know now. But meanwhile the questions have shifted, and we end up answering questions only the older members are asking.
How do you learn your people's problems?
Visit. One member complained about her pastor, "He won't visit and he can't preach." The distinct possibility exists that he can't preach because he won't visit. Pastoral visitation is important to preaching. It protects us from the tendency to see our people as they look during the couple hours they spend in church rather than the way they live the other 166 hours of the week.
Listen. The preacher's calling is to articulate the faith. We make our living by talking. No wonder one of the hardest things for us to do is listen. Yet we learn most when we 're listening, and least when we're talking. We mustn't be too quick to offer solutions to people's problems. Even the balm of Gilead doesn't do much good if we start applying it before finding out where the pain is.
Seek spiritual solutions
Preachers are out of place and ineffective when their sermons give only human answers to human needs. We are not called to be amateur psychologists or off-the-cuff sociologists. Most needs preachers deal with are basically spiritual. The best answers to the problems of life are found in Christian theology, not in human sociology.
Too many modern preachers, in their commendable desire to meet people's needs, do not provide spiritual solutions. As Luccock illustrates: "This modern Pilgrim's Progress is not a journey to the celestial City of God, beginning with a load of sin falling from the back, and continuing in a life-and-death struggle with sin, but a pleasant little ramble to self-expression and success."
Paul warned, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Tim. 4:3, NIV). We must be wise enough to separate our listeners' wants from their needs. They may want us to help them feel good. But what they most need is a way to help them be good. And that way is inevitably Godward.
Listening to your members not only helps you understand their needs, but can also help you find spiritual solutions. Some ministers meet with sermon committees to obtain spiritual insights on Bible texts and receive suggestions on problems to be addressed in upcoming sermons. Other preachers use a midweek service to give a brief biblical exegesis on the passage to be used in the next worship service sermon, then ask the group how the passage applies to life as they live it. The best ideas are included in the sermon being prepared.
Wed divine truth and human need
An intellectual may love truth and use people. A pastor must love people and use truth. For truth is of value only as it helps people. This is why pastors are in a position to be the best theologians, wedding divine truth and human need.
This was one secret of the Protestant Reformation's success. Look at three reformers whom we might call first, second, and third John: John Calvin was pastor of the central church in Geneva. He used his sermons to explore the basic issues of the Reformation. John Knox led the Scottish Reformation from the pulpit of his church in Edinburgh. John Wesley preached to the people of England three and four times a day, and his theology is found almost exclusively in his sermons.
Today is another time of radical change. It's a time for doing theology close to the people. Coffin said, "Preaching is putting the hands of the people into the hand of God." To accomplish that you must have hold of both hands.