I became the pastor of Henrietta First Baptist Church in March of 1997. I was 25 years old. I do not recall the exact moment it happened. However, I suspect that sometime within the first two years of my service as pastor to this congregation, I learned an important lesson about the preaching task. The lesson: the preacher should not prepare a sermon with individual people in mind. The reason: whenever I did this, the person or persons I thought really needed to hear the message were not in worship that Sunday. This occurred almost without fail! So, for example, let’s say I preached from James 3:1-12. This is where James calls the tongue a fire and he says that while beasts and birds and reptiles have been tamed by humankind, no one can tame the tongue. I chose this text because Brenda and John gossiped about other folks in the church. Brenda and John need to hear this message from James 3:1-12. Brenda and John are faithful and regular in worship participation. Most every Sunday, they are there. However, as it so happens, the Sunday I rise to proclaim this message about the dangers of the tongue, Brenda and John are out sick.

Lesson learned.

So, on Sunday mornings, I am NOT preaching to you (insert your name). Rather, on Sunday mornings, I preach to the church – to the congregation that is the First Baptist Church of Ahoskie – to whoever’s ears and heart happen to be in the sanctuary. Thus, each week I choose a text from the Bible to preach from on Sunday morning. I then do my best to understand what the text meant in its original setting from the ancient world. My goal then is to strike the same point with my modern congregation that the biblical author struck what his ancient congregation. There is a bit more to it on my end. I also desire to address the needs of the First Baptist Church of Ahoskie – whatever I discern those needs to be in the current life of our congregation. Here then is my preaching process: 1) choose the biblical text, 2) decide the meaning of the chosen biblical text, 3) integrate the meaning of the chosen biblical text with the perceived needs of our congregation, and 4) present the results, in a Sunday sermon, with enthusiasm and clarity.

We just completed a sermon series from 1 Peter. During this series, I reminded you (the congregation) each week that Peter’s remarks are not addressed to any single individual as are, say, some of Paul’s letters. Rather, Peter’s remarks are addressed to the congregations of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. These places are found in modern-day Turkey. In this letter, Peter’s approach to preaching is like mine. He discerns a need that these congregations share – the encouragement to withstand some sort of persecution while demonstrating godly behavior to the persecutors. He is not so much concerned with Cecil or Lisa or Brad or Stephanie. How could Peter know all that is going on in each of their individual lives? Peter then confronts the needs of the churches with his words.

Weekly preaching reminds me that church is a “we”. Church is not an “I”. Church is more akin to basketball than to tennis. We Americans struggle with the concept of communal needs (plural) over individual needs (singular) to the detriment of the church. It is a daily challenge for me to lead our congregation to comprehend that when just one church member neglects gathered worship on Sunday mornings the vibrancy of the entire congregation is diminished. We simply do not think like this. We are often more concerned about our individual desires than what is best for the entire community.

Please know that when I take the pulpit on Sundays, I am not preaching to you (insert your name). Rather, I am preaching what I sense the church – the gathered community – needs to hear. Of course, I treasure the individual meetings I have with you (insert your name). During these times, you share with me your specific concerns. I then pray for those concerns and offer words of counsel if desired. However, on Sundays I am aware than no two people have the exact same needs. And, often, I am not privy to the specific burdens many people carry. If I were to preach to you (insert your name), a lot of others would be left out. So, I opt to address the needs of the church with the biblical text and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I so look forward to preaching to the First Baptist Church of Ahoskie this Sunday!

In Christ,

Paul R. Gilliam III