Practices for Empathic Preaching

August 22nd, 2018

Consider Concentric Contexts

A sermon that faithfully expounds a biblical text in its literary and historical context but never grounds the exposition in the congregational context is really just a Bible study. Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of the Sermon presents a thoughtful strategy for first locating God’s action in the text and then connecting it to what God is doing in the congregational context. Preachers who empathically locate a corresponding plotline between the trouble and grace in the text and the trouble and grace in the context are well on their way to offering sermons that are “faithful and fitting.”[i]

Considering concentric contexts transforms biblical exposition into sermonic expression. When I was preaching on a weekly basis, I devoted Monday and Tuesday to exegeting the biblical text, listening on behalf of my congregation for a “word from the Lord” from the word of the Lord. Once the sermon focus (some call it the “theme sentence,” “main point,” or “big idea”) came into view, I prayerfully and empathically considered how the main thrust of the sermon intersected the various contemporary contexts of the preaching event.

I started close to home and then worked outward. First, I considered how the sermon focus confronted and/or comforted me. In other words, I engaged the text devotionally. I started to notice that the sermons I preached with the most power are the ones in which I wrestled personally and devotionally with the angel of the text. When that happened, I usually came away enthusiastically limping with Jacob under the weight of a word from the Lord.

Then, I considered how the “word” for the coming Sunday intersected the realities in our congregational life together. How does the sermon focus correct and/or confirm our theological convictions and communal practices? I tried to imagine how specific people might hear the trouble or grace in the sermon. Peter Jonker is spot on. In Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons That Connect, he writes, “Putting yourself in a specific listener’s shoes can make certain parts of the text leap out at you, it can bring certain gracious promises to the surface; it can stimulate new questions.”[ii]

"Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here:

On the heels of that consideration, I reflected on how the sermon addressed the larger community around the church. I empathically asked, “Where is the gospel in this sermon for our community?”

There are national situations, struggles, and trends that can be probed through the lens of the sermon focus. How does this sermon focus offer hope for the hurting in our nation? How does this word from the Lord counter unexamined but harmful national trends?

Technology, immigration, and ease of travel have “globalized” us. What happens globally impacts us locally. A careful consideration of how the sermon connects to world concerns is warranted. What good, bad, or ugly global phenomenon is countered or confirmed by the gospel voiced through the coming sermon?

Usually on Wednesdays I allowed the sermon focus to wander empathically through my life, the congregation, the community, the nation, and the world. Most of the time, I found many points of contact between my exegesis of the text and my exegesis of the contexts. I came away with more sermon illustrations, implications, and applications than I could possibly use. I never had to run to those books promising fresh illustrations that thousands of preachers have already used. Considering concentric contexts turns a Bible study into a relevant sermon, putting contextual flesh on the exegetical bones.

Picture Your People

At some point before you finish writing the sermon, pause to picture your people. Pray the sermon focus through the pictorial church directory. If you don’t have pictures of the people who attend your church, you can picture them with your imaginative eye. Or, even better, you can bring back the pictorial directory! “A thumbing through the church’s pictorial directory” can help pastors “summon to mind all manner of life’s hard knocks.”[iii]

Work alphabetically through the directory of people who attend your church. Prayerfully imagine how specific people might respond to the sermon focus based on their particular situations. How might Joanne, a divorced mother of three small children, hear this sermon focus? How might Al, a seventy-year-old with lung cancer, connect with this word from the Lord? How might the sermon focus present good news to Erin, a sixteen-year-old whose parents are addicted to heroin? Simply work through the church directory in alphabetical order, praying for a dozen or so people and families each week you preach.

This thirty- to sixty-minute exercise, more than any other, did the most to increase my empathy for the people to whom I preached. I prayed for as many people as I could, but I wasn’t in a hurry. I paused and prayed longer for those people who might find the impending sermon particularly difficult or hopeful. When I went back to finish writing the sermon, I made sure to edit out esoteric mumbo jumbo and replace it with language that earthed kingdom reality in the real lives of the real people to whom I preached.

[i] Tisdale’s phrase to describe the importance of sermons being faithful to the biblical text and fitting for the local context.

[ii] Peter Jonker, Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons That Connect (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015), 93.

[iii] Scott Hoezee, Actuality: Real Life Stories for Sermons That Matter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 96.

Excerpted from Preaching with Empathy: Crafting Sermons in a Callous Culture by Lenny Luchetti. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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