Identifying Individuals – Beware!

Most of us instinctively know that a distant preacher that never bridges the divide between pulpit and pew is not a model we aspire to emulate.  We want to connect.  There are many ways to do that – through content, demeanor, illustration, vulnerability, etc.

One way that some preachers try is to single out an individual in the congregation.  It sometimes works.  It sometimes backfires badly.  What’s the difference?

1. People don’t come to church to be embarrassed.  Many churches have learned not to invite first time visitors to their feet while the congregation sings a “Jesus welcomes you, so do we!” overture.  Embarrassing.  The same is true in the sermon.  If the preacher points to an individual it draws attention and embarrassment.  If you happen upon a long-time faithful leader, it will probably be ok.  But if you happen upon a first-timer, they can easily become an only-timer.  Which leads to the next point.

2. Do you know them?  Simple guideline – if you don’t know the person, don’t even think about singling them out.  If you do know them, then there is a chance that you know what is going on, how secure they are under attention, whether your comment might strike too close to home, or be wildly wide of the mark.

3. Is it helpful to them?  Is it helpful to all?  Again, if you don’t know them, you don’t know whether the comment will be helpful or painful.  I hope none of us would point at somebody and talk hypothetically about their private lives, medical situation, spiritual state or relational health.  But the fact is, unless we know them well, we won’t know if we touch too close to home, or too far wide of the mark.

4. Will they look foolish?  Will you?  Again, if you don’t know them, you can’t know how they will seem to others.  Equally, you won’t know how you look either.  One comment.  One obvious assumption.  One very embarrassed couple of people.  One section of a church laughing at the preacher (not with, at) for his error.  One whole congregation feeling uncomfortable because of the whole interchange.  Was it worth it?  Not at all.

If you know the congregation and the individuals and the life situations and are sure it will work, then perhaps consider identifying an individual.  Otherwise, probably better that you don’t.  Work on other ways to bridge the gap.

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