A preaching solution
A problem that can afflict preachers is the issue of defining your audience. Who is your preaching directed towards? Is your primary audience Christians or non-Christians? A preacher’s answer to that question can powerfully influence how he prepares and delivers sermons. This question frequently arises in areas of ministry that is filled with both Christians and non-Christians alike, such as youth ministry. Many times, a preacher will focus on one audience exclusively, to the detriment of both the sermon and the audience.
Sometimes a preacher determines his audience to be primarily non-Christians. Sermons with this focus tend to be superficial: the text isn’t exegeted thoroughly, areas of Scripture that should be more greatly explored are neglected, and many times the sermon is covered in a veil of casual and ambiguous language. The intent of the preacher may very well be noble. He wants to talk about Scripture in a way that an un-churched person can understand, and he wants to discuss Biblical ideas in a way that is relatable to the secular mind. The problem with this approach is that it frequently leaves the growing Christians in the audience starved for Biblical truth. If one never hears Scripture exegeted in a way beyond how he initially heard it when he was a non-Christian, how can he hope to grow?
When I was a student in my church’s youth ministry, I could easily discern whenever the preaching was simple and shallow. There were nights when I left youth group desiring more in-depth preaching, and when I couldn’t really tell my family what I learned because I genuinely didn’t learn much. When I started serving as youth ministry staff in my adult years, I would talk to students, who grew up in the church, who sometimes expressed they didn’t feel they were growing under the preaching. Though it’s fairly anecdotal, the point I’m trying to make is that even Christian youth can discern the quality of preaching and have a desire for spiritual growth. Don’t ever think that students can’t tell the difference. Don’t ever think that the level of depth to preaching is irrelevant; because youth can tell, and they do care.
At the other end of the spectrum, some preachers determine their audience to be primarily Christians. This focus is usually better than the last, but still not without its shortcomings. Thankfully, sermons preached with this focus typically have more depth, exegete Scripture more thoroughly, and dive into critical elements of the text. The preacher is more concerned with the growth of the Christians, and many times this is accomplished. However, a serious shortcoming to this focus for preaching is that the gospel message may not be proclaimed. If the sermon is intended for a Christian audience, what need have they for hearing the gospel message? The problem with this is that it neglects the non-Christians likely in the audience and contradicts the example of preaching in Scripture. Scripture makes clear that the gospel message is intricately connected to preaching:
“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” – Romans 1:15
“For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” – 1 Corinthians 9:16
“But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” – Acts 8:40
“When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat [Paul and Barnabas] and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel.” – Acts 14:5-7
“When [Paul and Barnabas] had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch” – Acts 14:21
As is evident in Scripture, the gospel message is always an intricate component of preaching. Thus, it would be foolhardy for a preacher to neglect it in his sermons. However, this raises a question. What does it mean when people “preached the gospel”? Does this mean that the apostles and other preachers were just quoting and discussing evangelistic parts of Scripture, such as Old Testament equivalents of John 3:16, Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9 and the like? Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate. If we want to see how they were preaching the gospel, we just have to look at the plethora of sermons recorded in the book of Acts. The major sermons can be found as follows: Acts 2:14-36, 3:11-26, 7:1-53, 10:34-43, 13:16-47, 17:22-31, 20:18-35, 22:1-21, 26:1-29. Just a casual reading of these sermons shows the reader that the apostles and other preachers weren’t just superficially discussing evangelistic parts of Scripture. On the contrary, all their sermons were exegetical proclamations showing how Scripture points to, is fulfilled by, or is rooted in Christ. When the apostles and other preachers were proclaiming the gospel message, they were proclaiming Christ from all Scripture. Preaching is so much about Christ, to the extent that preaching was routinely summed up in Christ:
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” – Ephesians 3:8
“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” – Galatians 1:15-16 a
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-24
“And every day, in the temple and from house to house, [the apostles] did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” – Acts 5:42
“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” – Acts 11:19-20
An analysis of the preaching patter in Acts shows that preaching cannot neglect the gospel, and that the gospel is preached by preaching Christ from all Scripture. If our sermons are without Christ and the gospel, what are we preaching? Has our preaching descended into mere systematic theology lectures? Preaching is beyond that. My friends, preaching is so much sweeter and dynamically complex than just systematics lectures!
What then is the solution to our conundrum? Who should our primary audience be for preaching? Looking at how preaching is primarily used in Scripture, one can see that it is used primarily for the building up of the church. This inherently assumes a Christian audience. However, sermons have also been directed towards crowds with many non-Christians, so that is also a consideration to be made.
Who then should our preaching be directed towards, Christians or non-Christians? The answer is both! Preaching is of first concern for the building up of the believers, but at the same time recognizes that there very well may be non-Christians in the audience. How does one preach this way, to both believers and non-Christians? As has already been alluded to, you do this by preaching Christ from all of Scripture. When one preaches Christ from all of Scripture, one necessarily has to thoroughly exegete and explain the text. Once this has been accomplished, the preacher then shows how the text of Scripture points to, is fulfilled by, or has its foundations in Christ. This discussion of Christ then lends itself to explaining relevant and pertinent aspects of the gospel message. The Christians are built up through thorough exegesis of the text and through seeing Christ in a new light in Scripture; and the non-Christians are able to hear the gospel message. The needs of both audiences are addressed, neither is neglected! So, let us preach Christ, whereby we can edify the Christians and evangelize to the non-Christians alike!