How to Preach to the Heart and Change LivesJul 18, 2023
Meet Lawrence. He’s a dad of four young kids. He and his wife, Stacy live in the town you preach in. By all typical measures, they’re living a good life. They have some financial margin. They prioritize their marriage. They are connected to their family. And they have a good friend group.
But for some reason, Stacy has recently been insisting on them going to church together. She grew up in church but he didn’t. He’s never really seen the point in all of it. His life has been fine without adding another thing to his already full plate.
Nonetheless, she keeps insisting that they go to church. So Lawrence agrees. Maybe this is just something she needs to get out of her system, he thinks.
After some brief googling of churches in the area, they decide to visit your church.
Lawrence and Stacy walk into your church with their four kids. They find the Children’s Ministry check-in area. They get their younger kids checked in. Their oldest sticks with them. They make their way to the Sanctuary. The service begins. Music. Some people talk about some things like generosity and the upcoming events.
And then you step up onto the stage.
This might be the only time Lawrence and Stacy will step foot in your church. So let me ask you: how do you prepare and preach a sermon that pierces their hearts and changes their lives?
To start, we need to rewind.
Prep With the Spirit
It all starts earlier in the week. It all starts with prayer and opening your own heart to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has to be directing you. The Holy Spirit has to be invited into the sermon prep process.
You see, God already knew that on Monday, Stacy was talking to Lawrence about going to church. While you spent the day asking the Lord to lead you in preparing this sermon, He already knew that Stacy and Lawrence were going to load up their kids and make their way to the worship service at your church.
You didn’t know that. But God did.
So never start preparing until you’ve stopped and asked the Spirit to collaborate and told him you’re going to… LISTEN!
Prep With Your Wounds
One thing you should know about Lawrence: he’s never met a preacher. He’s never really even seen one (that he knew of anyway), well, outside of the sleazy prosperity preachers he’s briefly seen on TV back when you would go channel surfing instead of streaming everything.
His assumption is you’re going to be some un-relatable holier than thou kind of person. Either that or you’re going to be a weirdo like he’s seen religious people portrayed in movies and tv shows.
So you could say that the deck is already stacked against you if you want to preach to his heart and invite him into life-change by the power of God.
So what do you do? You prepare with your wounds in mind. Because if you want to break through the barriers around Lawrence’s heart, you’ve gotta show him that you’re a genuine person that he can relate to in some ways.
And the best way to do that? To prep with your wounds. As you’re preparing your sermon, don’t forget where you’ve come from. Don’t forget where God has brought you through. In fact, don’t just avoid forgetting it, but keep that at the forefront of your mind as you prepare your sermon.
And when it comes time to write that sermon, be willing to share from your heart. Because if you want to connect to someone else’s heart, you’ve gotta open up your own heart first.
Preach to the Stories People Tell
Now, how do you connect the Scriptures to the heart of a guy like Lawrence and his wife, Stacy?
You must not only exegete the text with precision, but you must also exegete people with precision.
As I’ve said, Lawrence has never really seen the point in going to church. His life has been fine. He’s not struggling with some crazy sin-habit. He hasn’t wrecked his life. He’s been successful in his career. He’s got a great family. They have a lot of fun together. He’s a good dad.
Lawrence is like a lot of people. He doesn’t think about death much. When he does, it’s usually when he’s at a funeral—and that’s not very often. But when he does, he’s comforted by the story that he’s been told. It’s a part of his belief system so deeply that it’s really in his bones. He assumes that the story he tells himself about death is the same story you’d tell him if you both had a conversation about it.
Good people go to heaven.
That’s a story he’s heard. It’s a story that resonates with his heart. He couldn’t even begin to imagine the idea that his grandmother didn’t go to heaven when she died those handful of years ago—she was the kindest person he’s ever known. That’s a story he tells himself.
He has no deference to any authoritative text for this story.
But Lawrence isn’t the only one who has a story he lives out of. Stacy does the same thing. Only hers is different.
God wants her to be happy.
That’s a story she’s told herself for years. God wants her to follow her heart. In a real way, and not because she’s meaning to, she has centered her worldview on her own preferences. God exists to give her what she wants.
She also has no deference to any authoritative text for this story.
We could name plenty of other stories Lawrence, Stacy, and the rest of the people in the pews on Sunday tell themselves and live out of.
But if you want to preach to people’s heart, you must preach to those stories. Steel man those stories (tell the stories accurately) and then show the contrasting story of the gospel. When people are set free from the stories they tell themselves, they are poised for true, lasting life-change.
Preach to the Fears People Feel
At the end of the day, Lawrence and Stacy, while they are living a life they are quite happy with, they are still human beings who share in many basic fears when it comes to life.
Their fears can hold them back from responding to the gospel. Their fears can hold them back from trying something new. Their fears can hold them back from saying yes to the things God calls them to do.
Lawrence, for example, fears change, failure, and uncertainty. That’s why he is so disciplined and organized. He keeps his life consistently the same. When he and Stacy became parents, this took an enormous amount of adjustment for them, but he had the hardest time with it.
That’s why going to church—something completely new—is a stretch for him. And it’s why everything you say in your sermon, he’s going to default to being skeptical about because any sermon worth preaching will call people to respond. So how can you not only give voice to his fears but also show how surrendering to Jesus offers a journey far more worth going down than the one he’s been trekking?
Stacy, on the other hand, fears loneliness, rejection, and something bad happening. Her fear of rejection is why it’s taken her this long to insist to Lawrence that they begin going to church. She has wanted to for a long time but she has known how out of left field it would be to even bring it up to her husband. So how can you show her how welcoming Jesus is to any and all people?
Obviously you can’t speak to every fear every person experiences in every sermon but you can preach to a few of them and show people how the gospel begins to extinguish those fears.
Preach to the Work God is Doing
There’s a risk that we run when we open up the Scriptures. It’s that we make it sound like God did a lot of work back then and give the impression that He isn’t working a whole lot today.
But we must make it clear: the same Jesus who healed the blind man is still making people see today. The same God who spoke to God’s people through the prophets is still speaking today. He’s still working. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is alive and working in Christ followers today.
It’s vital that if you prep with your wounds, that you also preach to the work God is doing. It could be in your own life. It could be in the life of someone in your congregation (with their permission or by keeping things more vague). It could be in the life of someone outside of your congregation that you read about.
God is always working. And simply reminding Lawrence, Stacy, and the rest of the congregation of that fact is a perspective shift that everyone needs (no matter how many times some of them have heard it before).
Never Forget the Valley
And whatever you do, please, please, please, never forget the valley when you prepare and preach. Never forget the valley.
Because while the members of your church and new people like Lawrence and Stacy may look like everything in their lives is going well and they’re happy-go-lucky, no one avoids the valley.
People of all walks of life have walked through valleys of various kinds. And you might not realize the specifics, but the odds are ever in your favor that someone (many people, probably) is walking through a valley.
And people like Lawrence and Stacy (and everyone else) need to be encouraged that while walking with Jesus doesn’t mean they don’t get to avoid the valley, but it does mean that they won’t walk through the valley alone.
When they surrender to Jesus, they walk with him all day err’day. He won’t run from them when things get tough. He won’t bounce when stuff gets serious. He’ll walk with them through the darkest valleys you’ll ever experience. And because of His presence, eventually, you’ll walk through valleys and won’t fear evil.
And it could be, that’s exactly what Lawrence and Stacy needed to hear because they’re both holding onto something heavy that they haven’t told anyone about.
And while they didn’t come forward and tell you about what they’re carrying, they walked out of your church that day with new seeds sown in the soil of their tilled hearts. They’ll be back the next week. Because they both realize that they need God. They’re desperate for him, in fact.
- Prep with the Spirit
- Prep with your wounds
- Preach to the stories people tell
- Preach to the fears people feel
- Preach to the work God is doing
- And never forget the valley
You are doing your part to preach to people’s hearts and invite them to life-change through surrendering to Jesus.
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