Once upon a time preachers could read the passage set for the day, decide what it meant and pass their wisdom onto the congregation. God was, of course, in there somewhere, but that was the basic strategy - God tells "me" what to say and "I" tell the congregation.
Back then (probably until the 1960s if you read Tom Long) congregations were treated as a more or less homogenous body. In some ways it was a fair assumption.
Now things are different. Looking round one particular congregation yesterday, for example, I could discern people who had been in the church all their lives, people who had recently become Christians, people who were there under duress because their partner came along; there were those who lived and worked and socialised locally, and those who worked in a variety of places around the world and socialised accordingly; there were the single, the married, the partnered, the divorced, the gay. This was no homogenous group, and I suspect it was representative of a good number of churches - particularly on a day nationally observed, such as Remembrance Sunday.
It is some time since Leonora Tubbs Tisdale wrote her book Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art . In it she said "if we as preachers are going to proclaim the gospel in ways capable of transforming congregational identity, we first need to become better acquainted with the ways in which our people already imagine God and the world." We cannot communicate with those we do not understand. And if we make no attempt to understand them, they will infer that we do not really care.
In a more recent collaborative publication A Sermon Workbook Tisdale and Thomas Troeger provide some useful tools and suggestions as to how a preacher might go about understanding the congregation to whom she is preaching. We are invited to consider the "Seven Symbols for Congregational Exegesis": narratives and stories; rituals; art and architecture; people; events; website information, history and archived materials; demographics. It's worth spending time thinking about these (actually, it's worth buying the book). Some easy "hits" in trying to understand a congregation might be to think about events - does the church promote Alpha, Christianity Explored, Pilgrim, Start ...? is most honour given to "guest" speakers or those from within the church? are service leaders and preachers expected to train, or does anything go? All of these tell you a great deal very quickly about the congregational story.
An overlapping concern for preachers should be fairly obvious. There are both men and women in the congregation. In the days when almost everyone had almost always been a part of the church that did not matter much. But research shows that, today at least, women and men come to faith differently. CS Lewis wrote of his conversion as a kind of battle with God, who would not let go: "That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." (Surprised by Joy). In research on women's faith development Nicola Slee found that women come to faith often through women's ways of knowing - intuition, metaphor, self awareness. Others (among them Guenther and Winkett) suggest that women's sins are different too - where men may need to learn to kneel, women are quite used to that kind of role. Lucy Winkett expressed this beautifully in a lecture at Gresham College: "Women need first to learn to stand, before they choose to kneel." How might a preacher take this seriously? Certainly they should, for inclusive sermons are not about preferencing women over men, but rather enriching the faith life and God-experience of each.
"Giving disciplined time and attention to the interpretation of one's listeners is critical for preaching. It in no way diminishes the importance of careful exegesis of the texts, but then neither does any amount of work in a text make a sermon apart from this understanding." (As One without Authority: Fred Craddock)