Knowing the Unknowable?

Yesterday I wrote about thinking through how your listeners will hear what you say so you can pre-empt misunderstandings.  Dave commented and asked what to do with a new/unknown group of listeners?  Great question.  I don’t have the answer, but I do have some thoughts.  Please comment to add yours.

1. An unknown congregation is not unknown to God.  So pray.  Pray for them. Pray for the preaching.  Pray that God will help you to find the information that will help you!  This is no substitute for the three ideas that follow, but it is foundationally important.

2. An unknown congregation can become known by enquiry.  That is, you might be able to ask and learn about a church ahead of time.  Ask the person who invited you to speak.  Call and speak to someone in leadership and express that you simply want to get a pulse in order to communicate more effectively.  Look at their website (don’t judge a church by its website, even though others will).  When you arrive, talk to the person who gets you wired up with the mic, and the person who meets you at the door, and the person sitting next to you, etc.  Ask questions and you will get to know a church more.

3. An unknown congregation can become more known by observation.  It is amazing what you can deduce by observing during the twenty or thirty minutes before a meeting, as well as during the first part of the service.  Good observation skills make the world of difference.

4. An unknown congregation have some things in common with known congregations.  The first two may be neither possible nor fruitful, but this one is.  I think preachers need to be good students of human nature.  Bryan Chappell writes about the Fallen Condition Focus in his book on preaching.  His point is that when you see the influence of the Fall in a narrative, then the contemporary listener will find that narrative relevant, no matter how obscure it might be.  The same applies here.  People tend to fall into similar patterns of error, of misunderstanding the gospel, of church behaviour, of needing encouragement, of hunger, yet inadequacy, stressed, uncertain, etc.

I’d love to hear more on this.  How do you, when you are preaching to an unfamiliar group, overcome the unfamiliarity?

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4 thoughts on “Knowing the Unknowable?

  1. Peter,
    Thanks for these thoughts. I’ve not yet had the responsibility to preach to an unknown audience so I don’t have a lot of insight here (hence the question). My only other thought would be to pray over your own communication especially in the area of clarity and simplicity. I don’t mean to dumb things down but to ask for an extra blessing in communicating in such a way that it would be hard for a general audience to misunderstand.
    In Christ,

  2. Hi Peter and Dave. Thanks again Peter for your Blog. I regularly enjoy your thoughts. Just to add a few thoughts to this discussion that I hope has helped to be more effective (whether I am preaching to people I know or don’t know) is to make sure I preach the gospel from the text. I am not saying to merely preach an evangelistic sermon but to communicate the relevance of the gospel from the text I have been assigned or chosen. I need to clarify that I did not say make the gospel relevant but to communicate the relevance of the gospel and there is a big difference between the two. The gospel is relevant, but its relevance is often missed or overlooked especially if our hearers understanding of the gospel has been truncated to be merely a fire insurance policy or some other aberrant view. Bryan Chapell’s book, and especially the chapter on the Fallen Condition Focus, was very helpful for me in this area and assists me to begin to think of possible ways to address misunderstandings of those who might hear my sermon. Bryan Chapell writes, “The corrupted state of our world and our beings cries for God’s aid. He responds with the truths of Scripture and gives us hope by focusing his grace on a facet of our fallen condition in every portion of his Word. No text was written merely for those in the past; God intends for each passage to give us the “endurance and the encouragement” we need today (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). Preaching that is true to these purposes (1) focuses on the fallen condition that necessitated the writing of the passage and (2) uses the text’s features to explain how the Holy Spirit addresses that concern then and now. The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.”
    Chapell, B. (2005). Christ-centered preaching: Redeeming the expository sermon (Second Edition) (50). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

    So I ask questions like this in my preparation in order to make the text intelligible for the hearers: What does the text say and what issues does it address that relate to our fallen condition? What do my listeners have in common with those to whom it was written? How does this text reveal the gospel’s superiority to other world-views (including a truncated Christian worldview)? How and why is it a superior way? And lastly, How should it affect the way we live? When I approach a text in this way, I will very likely deal with some of the misunderstandings of my hearers and make clear the gospels relevance to their lives.

  3. I would add a fifth point:
    An unknown congregation will have something in common with yourself.

    It is possible to carefully work through aspects of a sermon which you personally could easily misunderstand, or know that you have misunderstood in the past. I think that Paul takes this approach in his letters often, being his own antagonist and responding to his own objections to the things he writes, and I often find myself having a little debate when I’m preparing a sermon. Asking myself questions like “but what about in these circumstances, does that still apply?” or “but surely you could understand it this way instead?”

    And along the same lines, trying to note possible misunderstandings is a lot easier if you ask someone else with an objective eye (ear?) to look at (listen to) a sermon during the preparation.

  4. Peter, your fifth point makes me aware of another way to effectively preach to those I either do not know personally or may not know where they are with the Lord and it is that I really have to allow the Word of God to cut deeply in and through my own soul before I can even began to bleed it out on to them. I am able to more effectively comfort those with the comfort that I have received and the same is true about conviction. When I am convinced that I am the first in line to need what this text brings then I may be able to more convincing communicate it to others. So I regularly ask the question, Why do I need this text myself and what do these people have in common with me and my fallenness. This then is a way for me to know the unknowable about those to whom I might preach.

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