Over the past several weeks, we have had an ongoing discussion about what being missional looks like in Metropolis. Last week I began a discussion of what the preaching ministry should look like in such a context. As you will remember, missional simply means that as a church and individual followers of Jesus, we view ourselves as missionaries. In other words, we see ourselves as having the same responsibilities in our community as a missionary on a foreign field would have. A missionary has to learn the language, culture, customs, and distinctive of the people he is trying to reach in order to determine the best way to present the gospel. Our goal is to present the life-changing message of Jesus to the people of our community and see them transformed by God’s grace. However, we know there are all kinds of barriers standing between the people of our community and the gospel. Some of these barriers are supernatural and only Jesus can break them down. Others, however, exist because of differences in culture and language. On the foreign mission field, these barriers are easy to spot and no one ever questions the need to overcome them. It is harder to recognize barriers that keep people from hearing the gospel here in America but they do exist and we must be willing to tear them down if we want to be effective.
Here in the American church we have developed our own way of speaking, dressing, and relating to each other that is foreign to the un-churched. In the past, these differences were much smaller and represented less of a barrier to the gospel. But today that gap has widened significantly. Today when an un-churched person walks into the average church, they are bombarded with a culture that is foreign to them. We speak in a strange language. We dress different. The songs we sing are not like anything they are used to hearing. These all can become major barriers to the presentation of the gospel.
So, you ask, what does all of this have to do with preaching? Actually a great deal more than you might think. If we agree, as we all should, that the mission of the church is to glorify God by reaching the lost with the gospel we must pay close attention to how we deal with these barriers. In fact, it would make good sense to tear down as many manmade barriers as we can as we proclaim the good news. Just consider the preaching of Paul in the books of Acts to see that there is a Biblical mandate to match our preaching to the audience. When Paul preached to the Jews, he went to the synagogue and started his proclamation with the story of Abraham. But when he went to Athens, he went to the Areopagus and started his presentation at creation. He even quoted from the pagan philosophers of his day to drive his point home. (Acts 17:16-34). Paul, like any good preacher, knew that he must speak in a manner that is relevant to the audience. Starting with the story of Abraham or the law would not make any sense to the Greeks in Athens, so Paul matched his message to the audience he was speaking to.
So how does this apply to preaching today? Preaching in a missional context requires the preacher to understand he is speaking to two different audiences- the churched and the un-churched. Too many times sermons aim at only one of these crowds and often that crowd ends up being the already churched. The goal of missional preaching must be to make sure that we speak in such a way that the un-churched can understand the message. What we would regard as the traditional sermon is really a reflection of how this concept has been applied in the past. For instance, the verse-by-verse preaching that I am most attracted to and comfortable with is largely a development of the reformation period. People during that period had been forbidden to have access to the Bible and so there was a great hunger and thirst for knowing what it said. Furthermore, the reformation was part of the larger movement known as the enlightenment, which was marked by a tremendous interest in all kinds of learning. My point here is not to bore you with a history lesson but to demonstrate to you that this kind of preaching was contextualized for the culture they were trying to reach. The same could be said for the three points and poem sermons that became popular in the early part of the twentieth century. What we now regard as traditional forms of preaching were actually developed to make the preaching of the church relevant at a specific point in history. What I would like to suggest is that rather than copying the methodology of the past we should seek to find the most effective ways to preach to our modern audience. There are three characteristics of our modern culture that I think must be reflected in the way we preach.
First, this is a culture longing for truth but has no idea where to find it. Two generations of Americans have been taught by the education system, media, and world that there is no objective truth. No one really believes this when it comes to things like banking, medicine, or their paychecks, but the majority of Americans do hold this view when it comes to morals and religion. The un-churched in America no longer trust the church as a source of authority and are skeptical of the Bible. When it comes to the Bible, what I am finding is that most un-churched people still have some respect for it but aren’t sure whether they can really trust it. Furthermore, since they have grown up in an era of pragmatism the only test of truth they really trust is whether or not something works. I saw this lived out in a Christian worldview class I recently taught at a local college. During the course of the class I presented all of the typical evidences and defenses of the Christian faith I could think of and none of them had any real impact on the non-Christians in the class. However, as we compared the worldviews of other world religions to Christianity several students began expressing interest in becoming followers of Jesus. When I asked them what had convinced them they all said, “Because it works.” This is an important insight into the mind of the un-churched. We must show them how the Bible works in real life if we expect them to be interested in it. Therefore, preaching in a missional context will require heavy doses of practical application. Thankfully, most Christians sitting in the pew will not object to this emphasis on application because they too are longing to see how it works.
Second, this culture is very skeptical of any truth claim, therefore, we must be willing to wrestle with the text more than we have in the past. There was a day when a preacher could stand in the pulpit and expect the audience to believe what he said just because he showed it to them in the Bible. That day is gone. The un-churched are skeptical, therefore, we must wrestle with their objections. As a preacher that means I must wrestle with the objections that the un-churched are going to bring up in their minds and try to head them off at the past. This is a place where I actually encounter resistance from Christians at times. Sometimes people who have been in church for years will come up to me and say, “Pastor, you don’t need to talk about all of those objections and problems. Just give us the Bible.” I know what they’re saying and appreciate their advice, however, what they don’t realize is that while they may not question or wrestle with the text, the guy sitting beside them does. What I hope will happen here at First is that we will all become sensitive to the needs of the un-churched. After-all they are the people we are trying to reach; therefore, we need to think about them in everything we do. This means that sometimes in the preaching of the Bible we need to raise the problems and difficulties of a passage. We need to be willing to wrestle with the hard things of the Bible.
Third, this is a culture longing for something real and authentic. When an un-churched person visits with us, they want to encounter real people and real life. They are immediately turned off any hint of hypocrisy and preachers that they see as fake or plastic. They are not looking for a preacher to be polished and professional, instead they are looking for someone who can understand them and who is real about who he is. This is a very big issue for many Christians who are used to having Pastors who never admit mistakes, never seem to struggle and present an unrealistic picture of what being a Christian is all about. The un-churched see right through that façade and label it hypocrisy. They want someone who is real and genuine. Someone who they can see is not detached from the real world but struggling with it just like everyone else. This means that the preaching of the church needs to be transparent and conversational. It needs to reflect real life and real struggles.