We assume far too much of our people. By that, I don’t mean that we assume they are cleverer than they really are. Nor do I mean that we have a tendency to expect them to do too much work in the church. What I meant was that we assume they take in far more from our sermons than they really do. It would probably be more accurate to say that we assume far too much of our teaching programmes and abilities.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the primacy of preaching. I think the Word must be central to all that we do when we meet together and I believe the Lord commands us to preach the Word. So, however you read the rest of this, don’t take it as a cheapening of preaching, as a suggestion that sermons are optional or that there is some ‘better way’. Preaching is vital for the church and is rightly central (it does take centre stage in your church service, doesn’t it?)
However, what I meant was that we can assume that our preaching has achieved far more than it has. It’s not at all uncommon for preachers to finish a series in whatever book they’ve been in and assume, because they’ve stood up and spoken about it systematically each week, their members now have Numbers or Acts or whatever locked down. No need to ever mention those things again because our people now ‘know them.’ At the risk of stating the obvious, it just ain’t so.
I suspect the tendency comes from a few places. For one, the guy preaching has spent so much longer in each passage than anybody else. He probably does know the book reasonably well by the end of the series. But we quickly forget that the 15-hours or so spent on each sermon makes the 30-40 minutes of those listening to it seem paltry by comparison. In a reasonably short series of 6 sermons, your people will have listened to c. 3-hours of preaching whilst, at 15-hours per sermon, the preacher has spent 90-hours in the book. We quickly forget our people haven’t spent the same time reading, contemplating and exegeting the passage as the preacher.
Second, I think we over-estimate how easy it is to listen intently all the way through a sermon. Even those of us who preach regularly know that we don’t maintain full levels of concentration, in equal measure, all the way through a sermon. Our minds are prone to drift or we may chase a reference in our Bible and then miss short snippets of what is being said. That is to say absolutely nothing of the single mum trying to keep three toddlers quiet, the non-English-speaking family trying to follow a translation or the various distractions that (despite efforts to minimise them) are prone to crop up. Listening to 30-40 minutes of talk – whilst we may take much in – we inevitably don’t take it all in equally.
Third, I think we sometimes overestimate our effectiveness in communication. My sermon structure is clear, the illustrations make perfect sense and the applications are clearly derived from the text to my mind because I am the guy who wrote the sermon. But not everybody thinks like I do and not everybody seems to find it all as clear as I inevitably feel it is. We assume we are inherently interesting, effective and straightforward. That may well be true some of the time, but it almost certainly isn’t true all the time and I think we tend to overestimate our own abilities (or just assume because we’ve said it, it’s sunk in).
The upshot of all this is that we assume our people are drinking in everything we say when the reality that that – whilst some of what we say goes in – they don’t hear all of it and they certainly don’t retain all they hear. There can be an assumption that if we keep saying certain things we are just rehashing old ground. But, in my experience, saying something once from the front doesn’t guarantee that people heard it and certainly doesn’t mean they will recall it should you say it a second time.
Of course, this isn’t license to just rehash old, tired sermon illustrations week after week in the mistaken assumption nobody will remember them. Whilst they might not recall it a second time, a year or so later, you can be sure they will remember it the two-hundredth time when the 199th was only last week. Eyes will be rolled. Nor is this a basis to preach those tedious, repetitive sermons that everyone knows will end up with another rehash on the theme of X points to Jesus with a basic gospel message (again). Yes, our preaching must take us to Christ but if the second half of your sermon is always the same (Jesus is the antitype and here is a restatement of the gospel message), something has gone a bit awry.
No, the point here is that it sometimes pays to make sure the message has hit home. It’s for this reason that we have – at least some of the time – taken the sermons preached on Sunday and worked through the points of application in our midweek home groups. Some may say this is raking over old ground; our experience is that often what we thought was raked proves to have been a barely scratched surface. Likewise, it is why I do not mind restating things in the pulpit. That’s not just rehashing old sermons, but I am not beyond making similar (or identical) applications where appropriate because I do not kid myself into thinking everyone heard, or acknowledged, it the first time round.
Given it’s central importance, this is why we shouldn’t tire of restating the gospel. If we hold to a Christ-centred hermeneutic, we must ask what this passage tells us about Christ and (to avoid the repetitive, boring preaching I caution against above) how does this apply to me in him. If your application of every passage is just a statement of the gospel message or ‘…and this points us to Jesus’, you have only done half a job. Yes, it’s about Christ but, equally, how this points to Christ is not the same as what we’ve read before and it certainly applies to me in Christ differently to whatever we read last week. David as a type of Christ does not point to Christ like Moses’ serpenty-stick and how those things apply to me in Christ are certainly not the same. But if Christ is our hermeneutic key, and the gospel the primary way it applies, we should expect Christ and the gospel to feature frequently, albeit not in exactly the same way each week.
Here’s the thing, as we frequently state these things, our people will grow familiar with them. And what Christ-centred, gospel preacher doesn’t want their people to be familiar with Christ and his gospel? The best way to help your people know the gospel is to tell them the gospel frequently and to get them to tell others the gospel frequently. The best way to get your people to know Christ is to tell them of Christ frequently and get them to talk about Christ frequently.
The bottom line is this: don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.