Exegeting the Congregation in Preaching
Preachers should recognize the importance of exegesis, of carefully studying a text of Scripture in order to interpret its true meaning. For the preacher is to present himself "approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). Every preacher worth his salt should say "Amen" to that.
Yet if he wants his sermon to have an appropriate saltiness to it, he should realize his study does not end with the Bible. To preach appropriately, he still needs to exegete the congregation.
One of my preaching mentors used to say to me, “When you are done studying the Bible, you are only halfway done. You must now study the congregation.” For a message to address the people receiving it, the preacher has to consider how to apply God's truth to them. John Stott captured this sentiment in his book on preaching with the title Between Two Worlds. Stott meant the preacher must engage both the world of the Biblical text and also the world of his hearers. Contemplating the spiritual state of the hearers helps the preacher strive for more direct applications that give his message connection to the congregation and urgency.
In evangelistic preaching, we should understand the that preacher must see the lost state of other's souls in order to reach them with the gospel. George Whitefield saw thousands of people converted in both England and America during the eighteenth century with his preaching. Often he would weep as he made his urgent appeal for repentance. When questioned about this, the evangelist responded,
You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves. Your immortal souls are upon the verge of destruction, and, for ought you know, you are hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an opportunity to have Christ offered to you.
These words remind us of how Jesus wept over Jerusalem, crying out to them that he longed to gather her people to himself like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. The godly man who sees the true spiritual state of the lost begins to care for them more greatly than they even do for themselves.
Some may criticize such directed preaching, that evaluates accurately the spiritual condition of the audience and urgently appeals to them, as unnecessary emotionalism. Yet when evangelistic preachers during the Great Awakening were accused of this by ministers in established churches, Jonathan Edwards countered:
I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about great things of religion, has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary, a much greater tendency to beget true apprehensions of them, than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of them…Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored, but to have their hearts touched; and they stand in that greatest need of that sort of preaching, which has the greatest tendency to do this.
“Heart-touching” preaching also needs to be the standard in the preaching that is done in pulpits on Sunday mornings when congregations are being urged on in holiness. The preacher is to foster community through his ministry of the Word, so he must be in tune with the needs, gifts, and life of the congregation he is serving. In its section on preaching, The Westminster Directory for Public Worship states that the minister is to perform all his duties, especially preaching,
Wisely, framing all his doctrines, exhortations, and especially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail; shewing all due respect to each man's person and place, and not mixing his own passion or bitterness.
To accomplish that, the preacher must know his flock well. He must not only have God's Word inscribed upon his heart (Heb. 8:10). The true preacher must also have God's people written there as well, having exegeted them thoroughly. He should demonstrate by his preaching the truth of Paul's words to the church at Corinth: "You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor. 3:2-3).