If a newcomer with no church background came to our church this Sunday, how do you think they might respond to the preaching? Would they say (a) “Well, I’m sure it’s of interest for those who like that sort of thing, but I’ve got better ways to spend my Sunday morning”? Or (b) “Wow, this is really interesting. I can’t wait to come back next week”? My hope is for the latter, and that, as those people do come back to learn more, little by little the Holy Spirit will soften their hearts to put their trust in Jesus. But how can our preaching have that kind of effect?
Let me suggest two controversial principles I work with. The first may not sound controversial, but it is: I believe in starting where people are at. Why is it controversial? Because writers like Charles Campbell would disagree: he quotes with approval an author who says, “You don’t start where people are at, because they’re in the wrong place.” But I believe deeply that people are “where they are at” because God is already involved in their lives, seeking to arouse their interest and to point them to Jesus. As a result, when I preach, my hope is that my sermon will connect with where God is at work in the hearers, and help them take another step in the direction of Christian faith.
One way I do this is by preaching about things that interest people. I am currently speaking about different aspects of “The Spirituality of Lord of the Rings.” You may know that the author, J.R.R.Tolkien, was a Christian (C.S.Lewis became a Christian partly through him), and he said of Lord of the Rings that it was a “deeply religious and Catholic work.” Throughout the book (and the movies), themes of creation, sin, grace, redemption, and community are vividly portrayed. What a gift to an evangelistic preacher!
Another example: I preached recently on “The Spirituality of Jesus and How Religion can Damage your Health.” Why? Because people in our world think that spirituality is good and religion is bad. The thought that Jesus is a spiritual person, and that a preacher might joke about the dangers of religion is, well, interesting.
Some, like Campbell, would say that preaching the Gospel and preaching about what interests people are two separate things, because the Gospel does not naturally “interest” the person outside the church. Of course, if our hearers are “interested” in living a problem-free life or making as much money as possible, it is true that the Gospel will not help them (though a health-and-wealth evangelist would disagree). But it seems to me that if people love Lord of the Rings (and many do), then there is an opportunity given by God to highlight the truth of the Gospel as it appears right now on a thousand movie screens. Equally, an interest in “spirituality” may be pretty vacuous, of course, and a disdain for “religion” may be superficial. Nevertheless, it can also represent an openness which the Holy Spirit can use to point people to Jesus.
My second controversial proposal is this: while preaching to believers can and often should begin with the Biblical text and end by talking about life and the application of Biblical teaching, preaching for the benefit of unbelieving guests should start with life and end with the Biblical text. Some, I realise, would argue the opposite, that biblical exposition is the only way to honour God and the Gospel, whatever the audience. But the approach I am advocating is not the old liberal approach, which said, “TIME magazine says this, and The Globe and Mail says that, but perhaps Jesus said it best,” as though they are all authorities of more or less equal weight. Not at all. It is rather an approach that says, “Here is a question (or an issue, or a motif) in our world. Here are some of the ways I find people are responding. But you may be surprised to know that Jesus addressed this issue two thousand years ago, and that he has a radically different answer to give.” It is actually a way to foreground the unique authority of Jesus and of Scripture.
My model for this approach to evangelistic preaching is Paul at Athens in Acts 17. Why this sermon, rather than another in Acts? Because this is almost the only occasion where Paul addresses people with no Jewish or biblical background—in other words, the situation of the average unchurched person in our world. So rather than begin with Scripture (he does this in the synagogue, as in Acts 18, at Corinth, where, appropriately, he “determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified”), Paul begins with things in their culture: their altar to the unknown god, their philosophical convictions, their poets. Then, in the last of the ten verses this sermon takes up in our Bibles, he talks about Jesus. That is my model—although I don’t often have the courage to preach 90% of my sermon without reference to Jesus, as Paul does.
So how do we begin?
1. Preaching for the benefit of our guests is not the only necessary ingredient for faithful evangelism. After all, in the life of the early church in Acts 2, it is not only the preaching of the apostles which causes people to turn to Christ, but the quality of the life in the community as well. So for us, it is not enough to preach evangelistically if the life of the community in which we preach is not a healthy incubator for new spiritual life.
2. Our congregations need to be taught about the nature and the necessity of evangelism. I spoke at a series of outreach services last year (perhaps 30 services), and towards the end, a very committed member of the music group said to me, “At first, I didn’t like your preaching. I didn’t understand what you were doing. But finally I’ve worked it out: you weren’t preaching for our benefit, were you?” I realised I should have done more in the early services to explain to the regular congregation what I was about, and that indeed the preaching wasn’t (at least in the first place) for them.
3. If we are to preach on things that people are interested in, we need to find out what those things are. Conversations with non-church friends will tell us, TV and movies will tell us, the bestsellers at Chapters will tell us. It is significant that, as Paul begins his sermon at Athens, he says in passing, “As I walked around your city, I looked carefully at the objects of your worship.” It is only as we look carefully, and listen carefully for that matter, that we will know “where people are at”, and where to begin.
4. We will watch our language. I told a class recently about Harold Percy’s illustration of the sign outside a church which advertised: “1 and 3: MP (BCP), 11 am; 2 and 4: HC (BAS), 9.30 am. All welcome.” The Anglican students laughed, and I thought I’d made my point. But then the other students said, “Why’s that so funny? And what does it mean anyway?” So many things we take for granted in our language. Even something as apparently obvious as “the Gospel of Mark” might need to be explained for the biblically uneducated as “one of the first biographies of Jesus to be written, by an early disciple named Mark.” Sure, it takes longer to say, and it requires a little more thought to find a way of explaining things that is simple but not patronising. But it’s worth it.
5. We will provide suitable opportunities for follow-up. If someone is interested in Christian faith because of our efforts to preach evangelistically, what do they do next? Where do they ask their questions? Where is systematic teaching that is geared to their level of spiritual enquiry? When John Baycroft was Bishop of Ottawa, I am told that he said to his clergy on one occasion, “You don’t have to use Alpha, but if you don’t, then use something better!” Wise words. There needs to be an honoured place in our parish life where spiritual seeds, not to mention seedlings and saplings, can be nurtured over time.
Most of my models in evangelistic preaching were Anglican clergy: people like David Watson, Michael Green, John Stott, and David McInnes. But there are few available models these days. Which is a pity, because there are few greater thrills in ministry than to hear a church guest say after a sermon, “You have just described my life,” or “You have given me a lot to think about,” or, best of all, “I think I want to be a follower of Jesus.” Let’s work at it, for the sake of the Gospel and those who need to hear it, and for the sake of the glory of God.