Although it feels like a lifetime ago, before planting the church I spent years as a worship pastor. And among the many great things I picked up along the way there was a lesson that I learned around the midpoint of my tenure that has resurfaced and I’d like to share it with you. It’s a simple (not easy) but simple lesson that now has barring with respect to preaching sermons. The lesson I was taught was that when it came to song selection the first rule was; you have to know your audience.
Now, the lesson wasn't that you have to know your audience so that you can play to them, or so that you can be liked or any of these other things. That wasn't the point at all. The point was rather that if I was in a room with fifty teenagers verses if I was in the room with fifty adults that were say, over the age of sixty five, the songs that I choose are going to be very different, or should be. And they are going to be different as a function of serving the people that I'm leading. All of this so that they (the people) can be unencumbered by style or genre and get right into the task at hand; which of course was worship.
Let me flesh this out a bit further. If I was in front of a group of people that were all sixty five or older and I kept forcing in modern worship songs those people may be mature enough to worship anyway, and most likely they are, but if not there are hurdles that I've put in place that they now have to jump over just to get to the starting line. The hurdle I’ve put in place is responded to with something like, “I don't know this song” or “I’ll just sit here and listen” or “I’m not going to participate because I'm not familiar.” So, when in a group of sixty five year olds, it's likely that you're going to be using more familiar material to them. Maybe it’s hymns, maybe not, but what's great is that you instantly get out of the way so as to facilitate the moment where it's just them and God. Now we know very well that Jesus is the one who who brings us into the presence of the Father but the idea is that familiarity can be really important. So all of a sudden they’re in this place of worship and we as leaders have (in a manner of speaking) disappeared.
The lesson I learned basically said, you have to find out where the audience is and you've got to lead them where they are. So with teenagers, it may be one thing with adults, it may be another thing, it could vary demographic, racial, socioeconomic, it could be a lot of factors that change how you worship but the goal of the worship leader is simply to serve. This is what biblical leaders do!
So I thought that was great as a worship leader and I kept that bit of info in my back pocket to share any chance I got. I had meditated on it and it changed a lot about who I was. Over time I stopped trying to force feed my new favorite song to the congregation and I started recognizing that I had a responsibility to meet the people where they were because the most important thing was not them learning a new song but worshiping God. As leaders we are to lay down our agendas in order to serve after all it’s supposed to be God’s agenda and not ours anyway right?. This is what Jesus has called us to do.
So fast forward several years to now where as a senior pastor, what I'm starting to recognize is that the same lessons apply in teaching. Here's what I mean by this; It’s far too easy for pastors, those of us who are given the privilege (at least some) given the privilege to study, to write, to engage in academic pursuits as their career, it’s far too easy to deliver to their congregation the newest debate or argument that’s come across our desk. And it’s quite preferable too because we’re able to keep it nice and neat.
Maybe you've spent a lot of time debating soteriology or maybe it's eternal security or maybe you’ve engaged in the “new perspectives on Paul.” There's a of ideas out there. But what you do is you bring to your church this plan and you want to bestow on them are these lofty ideas. Of course (this is really important to note) these ideas are intriguing to you, they're exciting to you and people see the passion you have. I know this firsthand. They know that it's important and it is truly important. But what often happens is that we bring these ideas to the table and to a people might not find any of it pertinent to their life. So we try to come in and promote these ideas but people just sit there kind of scratching their heads in confusion or boredom. Hopefully they're mature enough to go home and talk to God themselves and let Him teach them. I’m afraid however that many don’t and so all they hear are these ideas that we as teachers are hung up on at the moment. It is my theory that this accounts for a measurable amount of people switching in churches, although I have no data to back that up.
I think this is why we have people saying things like, “I listened to my pastor, but I also listened to other pastors or podcasts or read blogs or whatever. I think, and this is a personal conviction and clearly a place where I have to get better, I think pastors struggle to meet people where they are just like a worship leader with wrong songs. I think a pastor has to do the very same thing and that is serve people where they are. That might mean putting down our pet ideas
I remember early on in planting the church God telling me not to answer questions that people weren’t asking. I think now I recognize it as not answering questions that my people are not asking. Sadly we’re not serving people where they are, we’re expecting them to arrive where we are. And we often fail to remember it’s taken us years to learn the things that we know or even claim to know.
I've been leading a group of fathers for quite some time now, I think it’s been about five years, but one of the questions that has resurfaced as we've gone verse by verse through the Old Testament (we started in Genesis and we're just now after all these years in 2 Samuel, so you can see how long this takes) is, “when do I share with my children some of these lessons?” The old testament as you know deals with some very graphic subjects and so my answer to this question is always that we should address subjects and stories and ideas in the scripture with our children when they have attained a certain maturity level, so as to be able to process the text faithfully.
What I'm doing there is I'm saying we will address Bible subjects and topics with respect to our audiences maturity. Just like the worship leader needs to think about his or her audience before choosing songs, and the pastor needs to think about the maturity of those he leads, a father has to know where his children are. I've shared in times past in our father's group that we wouldn't bring up topics such as sexuality and things like it to a four year old unless they've asked certain questions and even then we talk to them on the level that they're at. We don't go into lofty scientific explanations or into deeper emotional meanings because we're trying to appeal to their question at their maturity level.
We have to do this very same thing as teachers and pastors and leaders. So it all comes down to this; we have to serve people where they are. That's what we're all about as pastors. Teaching the scriptures and rightly dividing the word of God requires getting in with the people, finding out where they are and responding appropriately.
This may even change how we approach the scriptures. I went from topical preaching to expository preaching and now to this strange hybrid. You see I want to teach great ideas of the scripture, but I want to teach them as I see them playing out within the context of our particular community. For example, I just recently wrapped up a series on the book of Galatians in which I drew parallels between what the Galatians were being led into (a false Gospel) and what we hear taught today in the Church. (a false Gospel or Gospels) I began by teaching the biblical principle that says, a life lived with God is what motivates a life lived for God. I also warned that you can't do the opposite and expect the same results. You can't have a life lived for God that automatically result in a life with God. In clarifying this I was bringing a key teaching into where we live.
So as pastors and teachers, we've got to know our congregation. We got to know the people that we're serving. We've got to help them where they need help. We've got to correct where they need corrected. We need to encourage where they needed encouragement. So all of this is to say we've got to stop just delivering the ideas that we're excited about, the most recent thing that we're dealing with and we've got to in faith believe that if our people are struggling in say area A, and if we will search the scriptures and we will lay our lives down to serve them, that God will speak to them about area A and that we will be of even greater impact when we do this.
There are personal benefits to this model of serving as well. It destroys frustration and anxiety. It kills that malcontent that says, “Why is it that people aren't doing this or why don't they like that?” Nobody ever promised in ministry that people would love these things we learn. What was promised is service to the community, ministry, that we would lay down our lives, that we would serve people and that we would serve them where they are.
So where are you? Please comment in the comments section below or send an email to email@example.com