Preaching when people knew the Bible stories and Christian language was one thing. Preaching today has to start further back and take less for granted in the minds of our hearers. How does one connect with people who come to church to “explore their spirituality” but knowing nothing of Christian tradition?
Where we are now
I recently read that Google is scrambling to hire the most talented math and science graduates, in a bid to secure its global dominance as a search engine provider. Google now uses billboards bearing a mathematical problem: solve it for the telephone number to call for a job interview. With that exclusive entry way, Google is assured of only the cleverest job applicants.
Sometimes I think that modern preaching is like a Google billboard: if you can decipher what I am saying, then you are welcome in our exclusive club. In our post-Christian culture, sermons are increasingly incomprehensible for people who are exploring Christian faith for the first time. I was recently given an orchid by a young man as a thank you present. Growing up, he had been taught that Jesus was rather like Santa Claus, not an historical figure but harmless enough. “Thank you” he said, “for showing me that Jesus is a real person. I had no idea.” This young man is not the exception to the rule: he represents the mission field in which we now serve.
What does it mean to preach when our congregations will have even just one person present who is like that young man? Since this is the place we now find ourselves in, I would argue that all preaching must be evangelistic preaching. The congregations in which we all serve have a mix of believers, seekers, church members who may not necessarily believe, and everyone in between. This is where preaching evangelistically becomes both a challenge and an opportunity.
Where we would like to be
In the congregation where I serve, I have a clear sense each Sunday morning that God is passing us the ball and saying, “Here they are: these people have come to church. Make sure you tell them about me!” Research suggests that when a “seeker” comes to church and is genuinely searching for God, they are likely to give church one try and one try only. That being the case, our preaching has to create a space for them in which they can encounter the truth about God. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, has determined that every time he preaches he will encapsulate the Gospel in some form, no matter how brief, so that everyone who has come that day can say, “Yes, I have heard about God’s love and what Jesus has done for me.”
It would be wonderful if our preaching could not only nourish faithful followers of Christ, but also pique the interest of seekers and show them glimpses of what a relationship with God in Christ could mean for their lives. Some will say that evangelistic preaching on Sunday mornings does not spiritually nourish the Christians in the congregation. But this need not be the case. A sermon that is sensitive to the seeker will, by its very focus on who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus, nourish a faithful believer. In any case, a Christian also has the opportunity for spiritual nourishment in small group settings and through personal prayer and Bible study. These opportunities are not likely to exist yet for the seeker who has shown up on Sunday.
How we might get there
Preaching with the seeker in mind is a wonderful opportunity and here are a few simple things to remember.
1) It is helpful to start where the seeker is in their life and then bring them to the truth about God revealed in the Bible. At a parish that I used to serve in, each week the rector would take his video recorder into the local pub and interview people about the sermon topic that would be coming up. He would then use clips of these interviews on Sunday mornings as a way of letting people speak for themselves, of bringing the thoughts, doubts, beliefs and fears of the average seeker into the service. He would then use these clips as jumping off points to look at the Biblical text for the week. This approach is similar to that of Paul at Athens in Acts 17. Rather than starting with scripture, Paul begins with things in their culture: their altar to an unknown God and their poets. Then, at the end of his sermon, he takes them to Jesus.
2) If we are to preach on things that people are actually interested in, then we will need to be students of our culture. That means we need to know what the current top movies are (and preferably have seen them), what are the most popular books (and have at least glanced at them), who is at the top of the billboards (and be able to pronounce their names). Knowing what was current ten or even five years ago simply won’t do. It is not by chance that as Paul begins his sermon in Athens, he says, “As I walked around your city, I looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”
3) We need to be aware of the depth of Biblical illiteracy in our culture. Remember that young man I mentioned who was unaware that Jesus was an historical figure. We will therefore watch our language when we preach and take very little for granted. It takes longer to explain that Pontius Pilate was a Roman governor, or that the word gospel means “good news”, but it is worth it.
4) Our congregations need to know that modern preaching also needs to be evangelistic. They need to be shown why and how an effective sermon will be sensitive to the seekers present, and that preaching is not only for their benefit. The good shepherd left the ninety nine sheep to go and look for the one that was lost.
5) I find it helpful to write and pray through my sermon with one specific seeker in mind. It may be a friend or a family member, or a person who actually came to your church recently. So as I am writing and praying, I will be thinking, “Will Terry understand this? What would he make of this?”
I am only beginning to grasp the complexities of evangelistic preaching myself, and so have much to learn, but I do know that there is no greater thrill in ministry than finding out that your sermon brought someone closer to the fullness of Christian faith.