The Challenge in Preaching: Do They Know What We Mean?


I have a missionary friend who has been uniquely used by God. But, I confess one thing: he does annoy me. When he is conversing, he frequently interjects a phrase, “Do you know what I mean?” Almost seems like an elongated “uh” or “um.” However, upon further reflection, the phrase, “Do you know what I mean?” is very appropriate when we are preaching.

Communication, we are taught, is not so much what we say as what the listener hears. What they thought we meant to say. Those of us who are married experience this problem, don’t we? We try to communicate our thoughts clearly, but our spouse hears something different.

Ever since the serpent’s sales pitch in the garden, there’s been a communication problem. It can happen with all communication, especially preaching. The serpent was “quoting” God’s words, or rather misquoting them. Instead of remembering what God had previously said, Eve heard something entirely different. Instead of a kind and generous God, she envisioned someone who was selfishly withholding the best for Himself. In place of a command intended for her own protection, she now heard an attempt to restrict her rights.

Everything changed that day. Fear replaced trust. Guilt destroyed intimacy between man and God and between the man and his soul mate.

Satan’s tactic was not limited to the Garden of Eden; in fact, it may be played out every time we preach about the character of God. Instead of a “he said/she said” marital problem, it is a “we said/they heard” theological problem.

For example, we say, “God is our heavenly Father.” But, not every person in our congregation hears what we intended to communicate about God. The very word “father”—a word that ought to communicate love, protection, and provision—may have been skewed by life experiences or previous indoctrination. God seems to be anything but a loving and caring father.

Perhaps it would be profitable to introduce our people to some of these perversions about God. Here are a few that I have discovered:

1. The absent landlord

We begin a public prayer with the invocation, “Our Heavenly Father” or say that God, like a father, is always there when we are afraid or hurting deeply. But, they hear, as a result of personal experience, that God is more like a negligent dad who was always too busy to listen to them. Their father may have promised to be there for them or to take them on a special adventure. However, when the day came, Dad forgot or had an excuse for why he couldn’t go with their children. Perhaps it was overtime at work or a round of golf with his buddies. Didn’t matter the reason; all that mattered to the child was Dad broke another promise.

They may be going through a painfully tragic experience. Perhaps the death of a child or a parent or a marriage. Perhaps they had been diagnosed with cancer. Urgent and sincere prayers remain unanswered. They feel like God has failed to show as expected. As promised.

2. The cosmic cop

This was the God of my youth. I was a PK and hated the fish bowl routine, always being warned about what the church members might think. God’s holiness felt more like being very harsh. God was the all-knowing eye in the sky—always watching to catch me in the act. Today, I might add He was even more alarming then Artificial Intelligence, because He not only knows everything but will bring the Law down on me if the camera caught me in some misdemeanor. It’s tough to relate to or love this kind of God.

I speak from experience. One night I invited a girl to a movie at a drive-in theater. (Remember those?) Theaters were on God’s forbidden list at our church. But, I anticipated tasting forbidden fruit. Ignorant as I was, I drove into the exit. The manager, assuming I was trying to rip him off, came running with a flashlight to interrogate me. Busted! That’s what it felt like.

3. The stern taskmaster

We may say that our heavenly Father is gracious and patient and forgiving. But, there may be a person in the congregation whose father was the kind of man who proudly wore the title head of the house. Discipline was firm; no, let’s call it what it was— unfair. It felt like it didn’t matter how well you did something. It never was good enough. It never won Dad’s approval. You performed to please your father but never succeeded.

When we say “Our Father,” they hear a voice from the past: “Do it again! Do it right this time! Why can’t you be like. . .?”

4. The doting grandpa

We may preach about God’s grace and mercy and remind them of His holiness and justice that makes grace necessary. They hear “grace” and imagine a grandpa who sees them willfully disobeying. This grandfather god simply smiles and responds, “Boys will be boys.” This god would never condemn anybody to hell. He’s too kind—too gracious. So, no matter, everybody will pass the final exam and be welcomed into grandfather’s house.

5. The impersonal force

We address God as “Our Father in Heaven.” Emphasizing the word, “our” because God is a person with emotions. He delights in relationships.

On any giving Sunday, there may be someone who has bought into New Age philosophy and religion. Their god is everywhere and in everything—perhaps especially in crystals or smoldering incense. Theirs is more like the force in “May the Force be with you” of Star Wars.

Yes, I write some of the above tongue-in-cheek to make a point. What is the point? The God revealed in Scripture, the one true God, is beyond description. He is out of this world and yet has entered into our world to become one of us and live with us. He came, in the person of Jesus Christ, because we were helpless children in a heap of trouble and without hope. Like a good Father hearing the cry of his wounded or lost child, our heavenly Father comes to rescue us, and in the endgame, He will forever wipe the tears from His children’s eyes.

Preaching is a challenge. We want people to hear what we meant to say. It is our privilege to introduce our listeners, no matter where they have come from or what they have done, to our Father in heaven.

Syd Brestel is a retired pastor who served a number of congregations in his nearly fifty years of pastoral ministry. He has taught biblical classes at Kilns College in Bend, Oregon, and is passionate about creating opportunities for laypeople to receive biblical and theological training. God has given him a passion to proclaim and defend both His Grace and His holiness. Syd is the author of God in His Own Image: Loving God for Who He Is Not What We Want Him to Be (Moody Publishers, May 2019).

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