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preaching to people who actually exist – rhett snell


I preached my first sermon roughly 13 years ago, but I still think of myself as a new preacher.

I think that’s because for large swathes of that first decade, I wasn’t actually preaching to flesh and blood people. At least not the ones sitting through my sermons.

I was preaching to my heroes. I was preaching to my bible college lecturers. I was preaching to my favourite authors.

I was the sort of person who, when given my first opportunity to plot out a sermon calendar (for our evening service – mostly young people), decided to get going with a series on theories of the atonement.

Now, of course that might not be a bad idea, depending on your context. But the truth was, I was disappointed with my congregation. I was frustrated that they weren’t as enraptured as I was with theology, or if they were, it was usually something about the end times. “Just read some N.T. Wright, people!” I wanted to say.

Thankfully, I don’t think they noticed. I’ve found that people tend to be very generous towards young preachers. But far too much of my preaching in that time had little impact, and I came to learn that the congregation weren’t to blame for that.

The good news is, God hit me with a one-two punch which helped me to see preaching in a fresh light.

First, a friend provided me with a few “faithful wounds”, by suggesting that I may have been giving my hearers the impression that they needed a theology degree to get something out of the bible.

Second, I read Gary Millar and Phil Campbell’s brilliant little book Saving Eutychus, which eviscerated any thought I had that theologically rich, biblically faithful preaching couldn’t be simple.

Preaching to the heart as well as the head. Preparing a sermon, not an essay. Being comprehensible without being condescending. These were all things Millar and Campbell taught me, and things which continue to be at the forefront of my thinking when I prepare a sermon.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin: preachers who are all application and no content. All engagement but with nothing of substance to communicate. By no means am I suggesting that this is the lesser evil.

But the struggle for me was – as I’d been taught – to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity. As I’ve spent time with other preachers, freshly graduated, I’ve realised I’m not the only one with this struggle.

The challenge for us bookish types, I think, is not to preach to our heroes, but the congregation in front of us. To spend time with them, to learn their language. To get familiar with and to preach to the world they actually live in, rather than the idyllic, imaginary world we might prefer.

There are definitely still Sundays where the punch of my sermon fails to land with my congregation. When my preaching is too much head and not enough heart. But it happens less than it used to. And I’m finding that I really enjoy preaching to a real congregation, rather than an imaginary one.


  1. good word Rhett, a helpful thought for new and established preachers. I think I was guilty of this the other day when I was so enraptured with my topic I tried to squeeze a lot more in than usual, about halfway through I started to notice half the people were really struggling to keep up. oops, it wasn’t a good feeling.

  2. Rhett Snell says:

    Thanks Jonathan. I’ve just finished a 3 week topical series (I feel the need to clarify this is my only non-expository series this year!), and the same thing happened to me. In trying to convey info that I wasn’t an expert on, but had read, I got a bit essay-ish. Not a good feeling, but a good reminder.

  3. Alison Wise says:

    Hi Rhett, I found this really interesting and could easily picture the scenario you described. Thanks for your honesty. We’re now at a very participatory church, Maungaraki Baptist, after deciding to no longer participate in our former place because of the lack of earthquake safety. We’re loving the smallness, the sense of community and, for me, the ability to contribute openly. I put your name into Google as I’m wanting to connect with Sarah, and her cell phone number didn’t work for me. Perhaps you could let her know that I’d like to communicate with her? I quite often wonder how you are. Hope you’re both doing well, that your family is thriving and that you’re happy in whatever you are doing now. Kindest regards, Alison Wise

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