I listen to a lot of preaching. I’m kind of obsessed with it, actually.
Podcasts. Online sermons. Visiting other churches. Weddings. Funerals. Steve Jobs unveiling the next iPhone.
Wherever I can hear preaching, I tune in.
Through all of this listening, I’ve come to realize I usually respond with one of two distinct feelings.
The first is a feeling of deep connection; of power. The words spoken are life to me. They lift me up. They take me to places I’ve never been, but had always wanted to go. I feel conviction. I feel empowered. I feel inspired. I feel various emotions. But the key is that I feel. Period.
Good preaching elicits feeling. Not merely an intellectual comprehension of the words being spoken, but a sense that those words hold importance for my life and the good of my own soul.
The second response is the opposite: boredom. Notice, I did not say, “confusion”. I have rarely been confused by preaching. Most is quite coherent.
The problem is not that this preaching doesn’t make sense, but that it holds no relevance to me personally.
There are several factors that go into this experience of boredom. The hardness or sensitivity of my own heart at the time of listening, for instance. And the unpredictable Spirit of God, who chooses to work with particular power at unique times without any rationale explanation as to why or how.
But there is another factor that I want to explore further, and it is one that is more predictable and concrete. It is a factor that I’ve come to realize can make all the difference between effective preaching and boring preaching.
The factor I am talking about is this: wording the message in such a way that it holds obvious relevance to your listeners.
In seminary, professors refer to this as “contextualization”. Basically, it means speaking about Jesus using language and categories of thought that your listeners understand and naturally relate to.
Jesus was a master at this. Nearly all of his parables drew from every day experiences his listeners were familiar with. Shepherds, for instance. And sheep. Everyone in Jesus’ era knew about sheep and shepherds, so Jesus could use them as a metaphor for his teaching.
But in the modern western world….shepherds…not so much. If Jesus taught in our time he would probably have drawn images from the internet, Facebook, brand-name corporations, etc. Things we are all familiar with (of course, I am obviously speaking to a younger demographic as I write that).
Now here is where this gets interesting, and very important.
One concept that is absolutely necessary to see the message of Jesus Christ as good news is the Biblical idea of sin.
But here is the catch. Most younger, millennial, modern individuals do not connect to the Biblical idea of sin.
Now, you must hear that I’m not denying the truth of sin. I’m also not denying that many people understand the idea of sin.
I am suggesting that they don’t connect with the idea.
We live in a largely secular era. Biblical categories are still around, but they are fading quickly. And many of the Biblical values that do remain are despised or found laughable. As a result of this secularized culture, telling a young person that Jesus died for their sin is kind of like telling an Iowa kid that surfing is an amazing sport they should really try sometime. It may be true; but it’s also irrelevant.
They just don’t feel it. They’d probably admit that they’ve done some things wrong. They’d also admit that they’re not perfect. But it’s not like they’ve ever killed anyone. And their sin just doesn’t feel all that bad. In addition, the idea that God is angry with them for something that seems so harmless appears quite petty on God’s part. And as for Jesus dying on the cross for their sins—yikes, doesn’t that basically make God a divine child abuser? And why is this God who is supposedly “good” so belligerently angry in the first place?
These are the questions many people ask today when “presented with the gospel”.
Now, some of us might shake our fists in frustration at secularization. You might suggest that we should simply yell louder and teach more often that, “you are a sinner and God is angry with you”.
However, this wouldn’t be the Biblical approach. We don’t need to be shy or frustrated about the fact that sometimes different words are necessary to communicate the truth of Jesus to different audiences.
The apostle Paul knew this was the case. So did Matthew and Luke, who both wrote Gospels we hold in our Bibles.
When Paul spoke to Jews, he taught about Jesus as the long awaited Messiah (Acts 17:3). But when he spoke to Greeks, he taught about Jesus as a divine Judge representing the One God who created all things (Acts 17:24-31).
Matthew wrote to Jews and spoke of, “the Kingdom of Heaven”. Jews knew this was a way of referring to the reign of God without directly using God’s most holy name. But Luke wrote to Greeks. He spoke of, “the Kingdom of God”, a more readily understandable phrase that wouldn’t offend his readers.
So if the apostles were eager to adjust their words in order to be understood, we should be eager to do so as well.
For this reason, this post marks the first of several blogs written with the purpose of explaining sin in a way that will not only be understood, but also emotionally appreciated by even the most secular of readers.
In the next blog post, I will seek to answer a foundational question we must answer before we’re able to deal with sin directly. That question is: “Is it possible for a good and loving God to also be angry?”