Biblical Preaching in Small Churches
by Dr. Vernal Wilkinson
Preaching in a small church can be discouraging. The amount of education required for the small-church pulpit ministry is no less than any other. The time required to prepare a message is the same as in any pulpit ministry. Yet the crowds are by any definition and all expectation small. In addition the sought for life change seems incremental at best and inconsequential at least.
This discouragement is not helped by the attitude of many toward the small church and its ministry. The standard wisdom says that good preaching grows large churches. The discouraging corollary assumes the small churches have bad preaching. The small attendance numbers dishearten many pastors. A few years ago J. K. Bergland did a survey on great preachers and great preaching. The first of three expectations among those surveyed was that great preachers attracted great crowds. Second, great preachers do great things to people, giving them an emotional experience. Third, great preachers lead their audiences to profound and creative insights. If the small church preacher isn’t doing these weekly, the conclusion is discouragingly obvious.[i]
Only adding to these discouraging burdens are experts on small-church ministry who have determined that preaching is of little value to small congregations. Many say that preaching is far less valuable than other pastoral functions. The presence of the pastor in the home or hospital is a more effective communication than any single sermon in their eyes.[ii] Kennon Callahan who has written extensively on small churches has said that preaching is not a very effective tool to create strong small churches. He says that preaching should be helpful and hopeful. Bu any activity that gives help and hope to a small congregation is as good as or better than a sermon.[iii]
Two arguments against preaching in the small church are made by some. First preaching is too top-down for the small church. A sermon is by nature a top-down exercise. A person with superior knowledge imparts this knowledge to an assumedly ignorant audience. It is an exercise where a person in a position of authority communicates to an audience in a position of subservience. Secondly, it is a communication where the action is behind the pulpit and the hearers remain passive.
When described in this manner most of us who live in an interactive world, would find the exercise offensive. It is even more offensive in the small-church context. Glenn Daman’s characteristics of a small church can be summed up in two descriptions. Small churches are relationally driven and highly participatory.[iv] Because of this relational base and participatory nature the small-church audience cannot be separated from and subservient to the preacher in the course of effective communication. As a sermon becomes more information based these negative qualities would seem to grow in offensiveness. For example, an expository message where the speaker is communicating the message of a Bible passage in its context would seem less well adapted to a small church congregation than a kindly and encouraging talk on a bit of proverbial wisdom.
Yet the need for Bible preaching, even expository preaching in the small church cannot be ignored. The small church no less than any other is formed by the Word and grows spiritually through the Word. Jesus said, “I will build My church…” (Matthew 16:18). His word is foundational and upon it the spiritual life of the church, no matter the size, depends. Glenn Daman speaks directly to the issue saying, “Without biblical instruction people lose the moral restraints that serve to govern their lives.” He adds, “The need for biblical instruction is more acute today – this age in which people are inundated with information, much of which is of dubious quality… Amid this flood of information, biblical truth is often eroded by demythologization, contextualization, and redefinition by revisionists who reinterpret the Scriptures according to the norms of popular culture. To counter this trend, the church needs strong leaders who not only teach biblical truth, but who also can engage and respond to modern trends regarding biblical interpretation.”[v] It is a great disservice and a potential ruin to the small church to avoid or minimize preaching. That preaching must be biblically and exegetically based to best serve the church. Expository sermons are supremely well fitted to bring spiritual life and vitality to the small church.
There are ways the exposition of the Bible fits with the characteristics of the small church. The nature of the expository sermon not only meets the needs of the small church for biblical teaching but also the relational nature of the small church enhances the Bible’s authority. The pastor can deliver the expository sermon to the small church in ways that call upon its participatory culture to enhance the effectiveness of the sermon for life change. The key is humility in the character and approach of the preacher.
The preacher must approach the sermon as a servant of the Word himself. This answers the authority issue for the small congregation and changes the nature of an information based message. If the preacher presents himself not as the authority to teach but as the servant who discovers God’s message, he joins the audience and shares the discovery with the audience. This levels the relationship with the small-church audience making them equals. Together they stand under the authority of the Word to live accordingly. Since the pastor in most cases in an outsider to the web of small-church relationships, he must insert himself into that web rather than attempt to stand apart and above them instructing them. Because biblical exposition moves the authority from the sermon to the Bible it tends to resolve authority issues between the preacher and the small congregation. The exegesis process aids the relationship of pastor parishioner. In the course of exegesis the humble preacher discovers the Bible’s message and its application to human circumstance. In the expository sermon the preacher does not speak from superior knowledge but shares in a conversation of discovery with the congregation.
The heightened authority of the Bible and the mutual conversation of discovery between the preacher and the small congregation are enhanced because the preacher is known outside the pulpit. He is one of the members of the church community. His faults and failures, passions and enthusiasms are common knowledge to all. Therefore the sincerity or hypocrisy of his pulpit ministry is known. A humble preacher who will admit conviction when he has discovered the message of the Bible will be given credibility. Studies have shown that one important expectation for congregants is that the preacher would sincerely believe what he preaches.[vi] The small-congregation preacher who is humble enough to admit conviction and affirmation during his study will build his relation with the congregation through exposition. Glenn Daman points out, “The final test of biblical exegesis is found in the implementation of the principles of the passage in the lives of the preacher and the listeners.”[vii] The humble servant of the Word shares discoveries with the congregation and reflects the authority of the Word over his own life.
Exposition is enhanced in the small church by the relationship driven quality of small-church life. Because the preacher is part of the lives of the community members he has the greatest opportunity to make the sermon speak to the context of the congregation. The small-church pastor is involved in the daily life of the church folks. Therefore the pastor has a unique opportunity to speak relevantly to his audience. “…relevancy is defined not by what is relevant to society at large, but what is relevant to the people sitting in the pews,” says Glenn Daman.[viii] The small-church preacher knows what is relevant to his folks because of his involvement with them. There are several ways to build and deliver an expository sermon with relevancy to the audience.
One important way to build a relevant sermon is to state the big idea of the passage as a question. Most sermons are built around a thesis about which the preacher will talk. But a question framed in the terms of the people and couched in their context opens the way for the discovery of the relevant message of the Bible. The Bible exposition then uses the main points of the passage to answer the question. In this type of exposition the listener is invited to discover with the speaker the Bible’s answer to a question that she herself might have asked about her life. The pastor knows the terms to use and the question to ask because he has first studied his audience and knows their needs.
In the small church the sermon can be illustrated from the members’ lives and context because the pastor has gained personal experience with them. The seasons, industries, natural surroundings, hopes, sorrows and issues are the sources of these illustrations. I first began to preach in a small, rural resort community. My initial sermons had illustrations from literature and history. But after living through a tourist season, a dreary winter season, after seeing the hopes for summer profit rise and fall with the local lake level, after sitting with the grief stricken at a drowning my illustrations began to change to reflect the life of my hearers. The biblical preacher can illustrate from these circumstances the vital application of the Bible’s message for the every day life of his hearers.
The biblical preacher can mirror the emotions of the community in connection with the Bible’s message. Any preacher can communicate shock, anger, dismay, hopefulness or joy over the events of the world or nation as portrayed in the media. But the biblical preacher in the small church can share all these emotions with the members of the church community as the Bible addresses their issues. His emotional credibility and connection with the web of relationships that make up a small church will be the medium for the effectiveness of the message.
Participation in the course of an expository sermon is very effective in the small church because of its participatory nature. The basic request for participation occurs when the thesis of the sermon is asked as a question. Right away the audience knows that they are asked to look and discover the answer in the Bible. The preacher should ask for participation in the course of the sermon and wait for the audience to comply. He may ask them to look up a verse or make a note. He may even call on someone to read the verse. He can ask a question of an individual whom he knows has experienced something applicable. He can ask them to remember an incident or community story. He can ask them to join in some way in the course of the sermon such as nod the head or shake the head. He can ask them to imagine or act during or after the sermon.
To preach biblically in the small church can be done because the preacher is known by the people and because he can know them in return. If the preacher will not preach as the outside authority on the Bible, but as a humble servant of the Word, his sermon will be a conversation with his friends of shared insights. This moves the authority from the preacher to the Word. The preacher joins the congregation in studying and submitting to the Word in the course of the sermon. In so doing the preacher inserts himself into the web of relationships that make up the small church. This relationship is enhanced when the preacher is known outside the pulpit to be a sincere person who lives as he preaches.
Biblical preaching can be accomplished more readily in the small church because the preacher knows his audience, their life issues and circumstances. This knowledge allows him to deliver a sermon that is not as rhetorically glamorous but with down to earth illustration and application. Effective communication of the Bible’s message is essential to the life of the small church. It can be done in the relationally driven and highly participatory milieu of the small church.
[i] W. H. Willimon & R. L Wilson, Preaching and Worship in Small Churches (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980) p. 103
[ii] Brandon O’Brien, The Strategically Small Church (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010) p. 150.
[iii] Kennon Callahan, Strong Small Congregations (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000) p. 184.
[iv] Glenn Daman, Shepherding the Small Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002) pp. 42 – 52; Vernal Wilkinson, The Bible, Live (Denver: Outskirts Press, 2011) p. 8.
[v] Glenn Daman, Leading the Small Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007) p. 56f.