When I first entered the pastorate I told myself never to preach to any one person in the congregation, and it seems like Providence confirmed this decision time and time again. I would be in the throws of my weekly sermon preparation and as my message would develop I would begin to think, “Oh! This is a perfect message for so-and-so—they’ve been struggling with this particular problem and this is precisely what he needs to hear.” Without fail, the person would not be in church on Sunday.
After having this happen a number of times in my first two years of ministry, I picked up the phone and called a colleague to vent my frustration. He chuckled and noted that the same thing frequently happened to him. But he also told me, “Don’t think that Sunday is when people are sanctified. Be prepared for a lifetime of ministry to your congregation, one where you will see them struggle with certain sins and shortcomings for years. Be prepared to labor at great lengths and be long-suffering. Over time, you will see Christ sanctify his people. It just probably won’t happen in one day as a result of one sermon.”
My colleague’s point was not to sit idly by as people wallowed in gross sin—of course not. There are necessary steps for the minister in such circumstances, such as church discipline. However, he was telling me that people might struggle with, for example, a lack of assurance, for years. Was I prepared to preach, in season and out, and wait upon Christ? This is something that I regularly prayed for—patience. I had to ask the Lord to give me the patience I needed to wait upon him so that he would sanctify people on his time table and not my own. I noted the irony that in all of this, the Lord was sanctifying me—teaching me greater patience, long-suffering, and faith.
But the point does still stand—never preach to one person in the congregation. The needs of one person, in my opinion, never outweigh those of the congregation. Preach the text that lies before you and think of the needs of your flock as a whole. If you decide to single out one individual (I’m not suggesting that a preacher would call out a name from the pulpit!), chances are you will leave the rest of the congregation behind. There is certainly a time when you leave the ninety-nine in pursuit of the lost sheep, but such action is best left for one-on-one counseling, when you can be direct but not give the impression that you’re trying to embarrass someone publically.
Preaching can be funny in that, if you preach the text, sometimes you’ll be surprised at the results. You may think that one person needs to hear its convicting message but then be shocked at what other people will say to you after the service. In other words, never forget that the ultimate application of your message is performed by the work of the Spirit, he who moves about like the wind, and whose activity cannot be predicted. In this respect it is a great relief that the efficacy of your message rests upon the Spirit of God.