As a pastor you struggle with important decisions in choosing the preaching portions for your weekly sermons, or in determining the books of the Bible from which those sermons will be preached for some days to come. It is not a matter to be handled lightly because in those choices the welfare of God’s congregation is very much at stake. How can you reach the best decisions?
There are a number of factors that might be considered, but the one that I shall address in this article is the welfare of the congregation itself. In making such decisions any pastor who truly cares about the flock will seek to divest himself of his own interests and hobbies, will refuse to allow his fears and apprehensions about consequences to dictate the choices, and will think only of his obligations toward God and the welfare of His people.
But how does he know what is best for his flock? Often, the pastor is stymied right here. It is not always easy to arrive at an answer to that question. That is why I should like to look at some of the determining factors that may help you to arrive at good decisions.
Gaps, Imbalances, etc., in the Past
One of the determining factors in reaching good decisions about preaching material is the past. If you can discover what the previous pastor preached about during the last three years (I am now assuming that you have recently come to your present pastorate) you will soon recognize areas that he traversed rather thoroughly as well as those to which he never seemed to travel. You must learn something about his hobbies, idiosyncrasies, emphases, and concerns; otherwise you will fail to recognize the gaps, imbalances, and teachings to which the congregation has been exposed. You will look for these things not to criticize but to find out what is necessary for you to do over the next few years to balance things out for the congregation.
Obviously, you yourself may be the preacher whose preaching the congregation has heard for the past three years. What do you do then? Exactly the same thing—look for the hobbies, etc. that you have been pursuing during that period of time. The bulletins for the past three years will clue you in on what you have done if you happen to have forgotten. In evaluating the past, you must be every bit as critical as if you were looking at the preaching of another who preceded you. Be tough. Ask the same questions you would of another’s work. Don’t spare yourself; learn to be truly self-critical. Don’t close your eyes to obvious gaps or attempt to rationalize your omissions. If you find that you are having a hard time being objective about it, take the results of your findings to another pastor whose judgment you trust and ask him to give mercilessly his best opinion of the matter (and don’t get angry with him when he does).
Immediate Problems, Issues, etc.
In addition to the past, you must take a look at the present. You must not be so concerned about achieving some theoretically correct or exactly balanced approach to teaching scriptural truth—as desirable as that may be—that you fail to take into consideration the many current problems, dangers, issues, or threats that your people are confronting at the moment. Are the Mormons active in the community? Then surely something about them, their doctrine, etc., would be appropriate, regardless of the fact that (according to some ideal, theoretical plan of yours) it is the time for a study of the Amalakites. Is the congregation threatened with family difficulties? Then certainly it would not be amiss to forget the Amalakites for now and, instead, to conduct a series on the Christian family.
Current issues and concerns may often supersede other plans made some time before. Like Jude, you may find it necessary to change the emphasis of your instruction.
The past and the present figure largely into decisions about what to preach, but so does the future. There are certain concerns that every pastor ought to hold regularly before his congregation with a view toward affecting growth or edification among the members of the body individually, and for the building up of the congregation as a body. These areas of preaching have to do with the great doctrines and the great truths of the faith and their implications for daily living. It is important to respond to immediate need and to attempt to fill in gaps that remain from past deficiencies, but even the old timers, who have heard it all before, along with the children and new converts, need to be reminded of the great facts of the faith. And they need to be challenged afresh about witnessing, prayer, Bible study, church attendance, etc.
So, any plan for preaching ought not merely respond to outside factors, lest it become reactionary rather than responsive, but must include a regular diet of growth material that will help any congregation, no matter what its other needs and problems may be.
Issues on the Horizon
Continuing to look into the future, you must be able to anticipate problem areas in the society and in the Christian community in which your members live. For instance, it is not too difficult to discern that the church/state issue is becoming a live one, not only from the point of view of what is happening in the interface between the two but also from the perspective of various viewpoints that are being propagated widely within the Christian community itself. You must anticipate your congregation’s questions about the issues and some of the difficulties that they may encounter, so that when they do, the biblical perspectives that you have developed for them will enable them to handle whatever happens. This is preventive, preparatory preaching.
In his sermon to the elders who had come to Miletus to see him (Acts 20), Paul took pains to warn about the future and to prepare the elders for problems arising both from within as well as from without their midst. All too few pastors do preventive, preparatory preaching like this.
So, in determining what to preach, consider the welfare of the congregation and blend concerns from the past, the present, and the future so that you will preach in balance, serving proper proportions of each to the congregation to which God called you to minister His Word. In that way, you will proclaim the “whole counsel of God” and “hold back” nothing that is “beneficial” (Acts 20:20).