Putting the Cookies on the Right Shelf

Have you ever sat in church and been frustrated by the sermon? How about bored? Have you ever been completely confused? If you have been any of these things, you’re not alone. Although we preachers sometimes like to think that only those who are “less spiritual” or aren’t interested in “the deep things of God” are the problem–but truth be told, many times its the preacher who is at fault. It reminds me of the pastor who stopped his sermon to tell a little boy to wake up his sleeping father. The little boy replied, “You put him to sleep, you wake him up!”

If you’re a pastor or preacher and you have seen the stifled yawns and the impatient looking at watches, I’d like to help in one area that you might need to consider–your target audience.

I have been blessed (and not-so-blessed) to hear hundreds of sermons by seminary students as a professor of preaching for 12 years. Some were confusing, others were boring, while some were too scholarly, and others were simply biblical history lessons. A good strong cup of coffee was helpful in getting through some days in preaching lab.

J. Vernon McGee used to say that a preacher needs to put the cookies on the bottom shelf where they can be reached. By this he meant that preachers and teachers need to make sure that their sermons are accessible to the common man. Dr. McGee died over 30 years ago, but his radio teaching is still popular all over the world because he made sure to teach at a level that was easy to understand.

One way to help sermon preparation hit the target of listeners is to make sure that the cookies are not only on the lower shelf, but also on the right shelf. By this I mean that every teacher and preacher should understand his audience’s spiritual maturity in order to teach in a way that everyone is fed. In a healthy church there will be several levels of spiritual maturity–unbelievers, new believers, spiritual “teens,” and spiritually mature. If you aim your teaching only at the mature, the unbeliever and the immature will be confused and not get anything out of the teaching. If you aim at the unbeliever or the spiritual infant, you will find that your more mature listeners will become frustrated, and bored.

If you are stubborn and only supply a steady diet of spiritual steak (sometimes raw) or spiritual baby food, you will find that those that are babes in Christ or those that are mature will eventually leave your church because they are not being fed in a way that benefits them. That’s not their fault, it’s yours. So what is the answer?

Put the cookies on the right shelf. In each sermon, and I’d even say in each teaching point, make sure that you speak to every level of maturity. Make sure you use theological language for the mature, but define it for the immature and growing. Give application for those that are still learning how to apply the Bible for themselves. Stretch the younger in Christ, but make sure you patiently explain the difficult concepts. Use illustrations to shed light on abstract truths, and make sure that you point to Christ so that the unbeliever can hear the message they need most: how to be saved.

When you put the cookies on the right shelf, everyone will be fed. And a well fed congregation is a happy congregation.

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