Knowing the Times
It is easy to miss people’s hearts when we don't know what time it is. Time is an essential element to self-awareness and maturity. Saying the right thing at the wrong time can ruin a friendship. Trying to be romantic when your spouse is finishing a work project on a deadline is annoying. A preacher who doesn’t know the times of his people, or himself, comes across as lacking self-awareness at best and missing the heart of his people at worst.
Time is a crazy concept when you think about it. It’s everywhere and affects everything, but somehow it’s nowhere. It's almost impossible to describe or explain, and yet Western culture has never been more obsessed with "time" than now. Thankfully, the concept of "time" is all over the scriptures and we are called to have keen awareness of it:
“Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do,” – 1 Chronicles 12:32
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father's family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?" – Esther 4:13
“But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” - Hebrews 1:2
“…making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” - Ephesians 5:16
Preaching to the Heart
Knowing what time it is in your congregations’ life, as well as your own, is critical to effective preaching. In order to preach in a way that cuts people to the heart we must know what time or life stage our people are experiencing. Every generation and every stage of life asks different questions. Their hearts long for, ask, seek, and contemplate different things. A congregation filled with angst-driven 20-somethings will ask different questions than groups of married 30 year-olds with 2.5 kids or empty-nesting 50 & 60 year-old couples who are figuring out the second half of life.
Great preaching is never answering the quibbles of commentaries. Great preaching is speaking the Word of God into the audience’s heart, answering questions they weren’t even sure they were asking.
Here are three questions to ask yourself in order to know the ‘times’ of your congregation better and thus speak to their heart:
- What time is it for the people currently in the congregation?
- What time is it for the people we want to start coming to church?
- Am I dripping my times, my script, and my heart concerns into my preaching unnecessarily?
Do surveys on current attenders. Compile demographic information for new members. Do these things in order to map out who is really in the chairs on Sunday before jumping to conclusions. Preach for the people who haven't started coming yet, as well for growth. It’s the same principle as that of preaching apologetic points in your sermons, it tends to bring in more unbelievers over time. As a result of preaching to various life-stages, the congregation will invite older or younger friends more naturally and be eager to do so if they notice all the different questions your preaching speaks to. It’s an easy turn off for an older visitor when they hear sermon after sermon about life purpose and vocational calling when they are struggling with evaluating their past decades of life or caring for their teenagers. Missing the times of the congregation can turn the pulpit into private conversation between the preacher and God with the church tuning out over being transformed.
Growth for Young Preachers
Some of the my most common feedback I give to young church planters is this: "Your preaching sounds like a message to yourself over a message to the congregation, or congregation you hope to build." Our kids are cute, but they can’t be every illustration and they can be radically isolating to those struggling with infertility, those with much older children, and younger singles who do not have kids on the radar yet. Be careful how often you go to the same generation for pop culture references and set up punch lines well even for those who may not get the reference. It can make us endearing, but also be isolating when certain members of the audience consistently don't get the joke. Go for universal experiences in illustrations or when telling particular stories make sure to explain them in a relatable way to bring everyone along. Have elders or trusted church members give you honest feedback regularly and ask them if the sermon spoke to their emotions, fears, and dreams. I try to practice a discipline of having at least five to six trusted members and pastors read my manuscript before I preach it, then I try to pursue feedback each Sunday from a few more members.
Below is a series of questions from Wayne Cordeiro’s Leading on Empty in which he elaborates on the type of questions each life stage asks. Look through and ask how your preaching could answer these questions with the gospel for your congregation, the lost you want to attract, and help us think outside of our own "times" with our preaching. When we answer the questions that people are asking at a heart level with the gospel, the preaching isn’t tickling their ears, it’s bringing balm to their soul.
Questions to Ask to Get to the Heart 
 These questions are from Wayne Cordeiro’s Leading on Empty. Order his excellent book here.
- What is my identity? Who am I becoming? How am I different from my mother or father?
- Where can I find new friends that will treat me like family?
- What will I do with my life?
- What do I want in exchange for my life’s labors?
- What parts of my life need correction?
- Around what person or organization or conviction will I organize my life around?
- How I do prioritize the demands being made on my life?
- How far can I go in fulfilling my sense of purpose?
- Who are the people I know I walk through life with?
- What does my spiritual life look like? Do I even have time for more?
- Why am I not a better person?
- Who was I as a child? What powers back then influence the kind of person I am today?
- Why do some people seem to be doing better than I am?
- Why am I often disappointed in myself and others?
- Why are limitations beginning to outnumber options?
- Why do I seem to face so many uncertainties?
- What can I do to make greater contribution to my generation?
- What would it take to pick up a whole new calling in my life and do the thing I have always wanted to do? (I feel trapped.)
- How many years do I really have left?
- Why is time moving so fast?
- Why is my body becoming so unreliable?
- How do I deal with my failures and successes?
- How can my spouse & I re-invigorate our relationship know that our children are gone?
- Who are these young people who want to replace me?
- What do I do with my doubts and fears?
- Will we have enough money for the retirement years if there are health problems and economic downturns?
- When do I stop doing the things that have always defined me?
- Why do I feel so ignored by a large part of the younger population?
- Why am I curious about who is listed in the obituary column of the papers, how they died, and what kinds of lives they lived?
- Do I have enough time to do all the things I’ve dreamed about in the past?
- Who will be around me when I die?
- Which one of us will go first, and what is it like to say good-bye to someone with whom you have shared so many years of life?
- Are the things I’ve believed in capable of taking me to the end?
- Is there really life after death?
- What do I regret?
- What are the chief satisfactions of these many years of living?
- What have I done that will outlive me?
- Does anyone realize, or even care, who I once was?
- Is anyone aware that I once owned [managed] a business, threw a mean curveball, taught school, possessed a beautiful solo voice, had an attractive face?
- Is my story important to anyone? How much of my life can I still control?
- Is there anything I can still contribute? Why this anger and irritability?
- Is God really there for me? Am I ready to face death?
- How will I die? Will I be missed? Or will it bring relief to my family? Heaven? What is it like?
This post was written by Daniel Montgomery, Lead Pastor of Sojourn Community Church; Co-Founder and President of Sojourn Network.