Ever had one of those moments when someone thanks you for saying something in a sermon, but which you can’t recall saying, or which you never intended to be taken that way?
Or ever preached a sermon that seemed very effective in one church only for it to fall flat in another church?
The difference often comes down to context.
1. Understanding the significance of context
In What Do They Hear? Building Bridges Between Pulpit and Pew (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), Mark Allan Powell explores why what a congregation ‘hears’ is not always what the preacher ‘said’. One of the reasons is that how we read and receive Scripture is shaped by our social locations.
Describing an experiment conducted with students from different backgrounds, Powell uses the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 as an example. His American students tended to overlook 15:14 (‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’), while most Eastern European students identified the famine as crucial to the story. Students from Tanzania noted 15:16 (‘no one gave him anything’), highlighting the way the people of the distant land exploited the son’s desperation instead of helping him. Powell also demonstrates how, in reading stories in the gospels, clergy tend to identify mostly with Jesus, whereas lay people are more inclined to identify with other characters, such as the disciples or the Pharisees.
Here, if we need it, is a reminder that we don’t preach biblical passages into a vacuum. We preach to particular people from particular backgrounds with particular responsibilities and concerns as they gather at a particular time in a particular place. The people in our congregations live out their identity as disciples of Jesus in particular circumstances.
Scripture itself leads us to expect nothing less. God’s word doesn’t float free in a contextless ‘ether’. It’s rooted in and flows out of particular on-the-ground situations – whether it’s the different types of Psalms arising out of multiple moments in the life of faith, Jeremiah in Jerusalem or Ezekiel in Babylon, Matthew or Mark telling the story of Jesus for early Christians, Paul writing to the Galatians or to the church in Corinth, Peter writing to Christians who, like exiles, are scattered across Northern Turkey, or John writing up his visions from Patmos for those being persecuted for their faith. God’s word addresses God’s people where they are.
So, we preach it as a word which flows out of particular contexts in the life of God’s people to be addressed back into particular contexts in the life of God’s people.
2. Taking account of contexts
This being the case, in our preparation for preaching we engage carefully with the biblical text, but we also reflect (insofar as we are able to do so) on the various contexts in which our people find themselves – the places where they live out their discipleship to Jesus.
Taking context into account allows our preaching to be timely, grounded, and personal. We sometimes think that the more we speak in general terms, the wider we’ll reach; but that doesn’t mesh with the reality of people’s lives. Preaching is for real people in real contexts, not generic people in generic contexts. We do not escape our everyday reality to hear a promise or a rebuke or a command from God’s word; we hear those in our current, concrete, and often complex circumstances – a promise or rebuke or command that addresses us where we are.
‘Context’ might be global, regional, local, or personal. Personal elements of context might include situations at home, at work, wider social activities, with family, colleagues, friends, acquaintances. Ideally, we focus on where people are. Starting globally might feel remote and overwhelming for many listeners, but we can start with the home situation or something in the neighbourhood or an item in the news, and perhaps draw wider implications for the national or international context.
We don’t take account of context in order to appear ‘relevant’, but to give our hearers an imagination for seeing their context as part of the larger world in which God is working. Sometimes our engagement with Scripture may provide a mirror that reflects something of our context back to us, helping us to understand it more deeply. On other occasions, it may engage with aspects of our context and challenge us to envision alternative possibilities. How might things be different where we are – at home or at work?
3. Preparing sermons with contexts in mind
In some respects, taking account of context is less about adding a further step to our preparation, and more an awareness that permeates the whole process. Even so, it might be helpful to reflect self-consciously on some of the specific situations of congregation members known to us and bring these to our engagement with the text. Below is a series of questions and prompts we have found helpful to consider in preparing to preach from biblical passages:
(a) What does this passage reveal about God/Jesus/the gospel?
(b) How does this passage shape our understanding of what it means to be a disciple?
(c) Knowing where at least some of the congregation have been this week, and being aware of their contexts:
- What might I want to highlight and explore from this passage?
- What might connect with their situations?
- What would offer a challenge?
- What would offer encouragement?
(d) Reflecting on this passage would lead us to pray that…
(e) Living out this passage over the next week might involve…
The order of the questions is significant. We don’t want to impose our congregation’s personal needs or their particular situations too quickly on to the passage without hearing first what God has to say through it. So, we begin with a question which asks what the passage affirms about God, Jesus, the kingdom, the gospel, and so on – these are given priority.
And then, we ask how the passage might shape our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Only then comes a question related to context. Here now is an opportunity to reflect on the daily frontlines of the members of our congregation and ask how this passage – given what it says about who God is and what God has done in Jesus, and given what it says about discipleship – might address them, where they are.
Out of that then flows a prompt about prayer and a prompt about action.
Give the questions a go with your next sermon.
We don’t need to become professional ethnographers in order to do this task well. We learn it over time through observation and conversation – paying attention to people, asking questions, listening to stories, gathering insights – all of which can make a difference to our awareness of where people are at.
Importantly, preaching is not the only way to address a congregation’s context – the sermon is not a self-contained entity. But it takes its place in the dynamic of the gathered worship, and so is integrated with confession, praise, prayer, song, silence, communion – all of which form us as followers of Jesus for our everyday frontlines.
Antony Billington & Neil Hudson