Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach in a wonderful church that has two worship services with a Sunday school class in between. As people began coming in for the second service an individual I knew said the ones in his Sunday school class who attended the first service talked about my message during their class. He said he was excited to hear the message himself due to the positive comments he had heard in class.
This individual went on to talk about how excited they were about one of the points of the message. The only problem was that what they were excited about was not mentioned in the sermon! Now, I could see how someone could draw from the message that particular point, but it was not one that I had made nor was it ever mentioned.
That's not the first time that has happened to me, and if you've been in ministry very long it has probably happened to you as well. People tend to hear different things from the same message. This becomes a problem if someone hears something negative that was not said in the sermon. A couple once stopped coming to the church I pastored, and when I finally got them to tell me why they quit coming it was because they took offense to something in one of my sermons. I never said what they heard, but I could not convince them of that. I even told them I would have been offended if someone had said that in a sermon, but I still could not get them to return.
However, in most cases I believe God speaks to people words they need to hear from our messages. We focus on a point which causes someone to begin thinking, and their thoughts lead them to apply our words somewhat differently than we might have intended. They respond positively to that application, and they are convinced that it was our words that led to the positive conclusion.
Several years ago I preached in a particular church. A couple of weeks later in a local store I met a young man who attended that church. He complimented me on my message and told me he had taken my advice. I smiled and asked what he had done. He replied he had quit his job! My jaw almost hit the floor. He went on to say that he had wanted to start his own business but had been reluctant to do so, but my message convinced him that now was the time. There was absolutely nothing in my message to insinuate to anyone that they should quit their job to start their own business, but that is what he heard, and that is what he did. The good news is that his business has been very successful, and he's doing something he really enjoys.
I always pray that God will speak through me and the message I'm about to deliver. I don't know everything going on in people's lives. I didn't as a pastor, and I certainly don't as a judicatory leader who covers a wide area of churches. People come to church with a variety of needs, and my prayer is that God can use the message to speak to those needs. His Spirit can take just one word or phrase and make it come alive in a person's heart that will address their greatest need at that time. He can take a different word or phrase from the same sermon and use it to address a different need in someone else's life.
I appreciate it when people compliment me on a message, but I know if it really spoke to them that God was at work speaking to them through that message. We're the instrument that delivers the message, but it is the Holy Spirit that causes that message to come alive in people's heart.