“If information was the answer,” entrepreneur Derek Sivers observes, “We’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”(1) Information alone won’t bring transformation, and standing to preach doesn’t guarantee disciples are being made.
How do we effectively preach God’s Word in the culture of now? How do we move from presenting biblical information to forcefully shaping both the cultural landscape and sea of needy hearts? We can do this. You can do this. But we will fail if we don’t understand both sides of the equation when applying the Word to the World.
So how goes the world? These three cultural trends are affecting everything about your preaching. Especially if you haven’t been changing a thing.
First trend: a decrease in biblical literacy in the U.S.
So be a guide for Biblical discovery.
In 2019, Barna found: 48% of American adults are “Bible disengaged.”(2) Yet while a discouraging 5% of Americans are profiled as “Bible-Centered” — interacting with the Bible in a way that leads to life transformation (3) — the remaining middle don’t wholesale reject the Bible. 28% are “Bible friendly” or at least “Bible neutral.”
A 2016 Lifeway survey shows a similar picture: while only 22% of Americans have read the whole Bible or most or all of it, while 10% of Americans have read none of the Bible, and 13% have read just a few sentences.(4) The study found that 37% of Americans see the Bible as helpful, 35% as life changing, and 36% as true.
Less exposure doesn’t automatically lean negative. A much smaller percentage (14%) see the Bible as outdated, 7% say it’s harmful, and 8% call it bigoted.(5)
The point is that while people have a whole lot less Sunday School than they used to, they may be interested in learning. Many still respect the Bible. Gallup found that 71% of U.S. adults see the Bible as a “holy document,” and 40% consider it the inspired Word of God, although only 24% believe the Word of God should be taken literally.(6) How do we best teach Bible study given these numbers? Scott McConnell of LifeWay Research observes, “Americans treat reading the Bible a little bit like exercise. They know it’s important and helpful, but they don’t do it.”(7)
So maybe us preachers are a little like a personal trainer helping a new gym client get comfortable. Or a guide offering discoverable pieces one step at a time. Preachers must show that the Bible is both true and that it impacts life. Pastor Tim Keller explains, “Through centuries of habit most Christian speaking and preaching still assumes that listeners have the fundamental understandings of reality that they had in the past.”(8)
Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill in Act 17 gives a paradigm for taking the unchanging Word to a different cultural context. Paul begins, “Men of Athens, I see that you’re very religious.” He quotes the Old Testament when speaking to Jews, but here he quotes popular Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. And in Acts 16:17-21 he piques their curiosity. Keller has challenged us to proclaim the gospel in a way that even those who reject it say, “I don’t believe it’s true, but I wish it were.”(9)
Paul starts with creation, which I believe is critical to communication with biblically illiterate audiences. Could we begin with sights and sounds and emotions common to human experience? Could we begin with areas of common belief? Of course, Paul also carefully shows them their error — he doesn’t water down the message. Yet he starts not as an adversary — “saint verse sinner” as we often preach today — but united seeing all people under the Imago Dei — preaching all as worthy of dignity and respect.
Keller tells pastors that we need to develop a method of contextualization “to resonate with yet defy the culture around you.”(10) Do you see the tension? He cites six principles for speaking to the culture: (11)
● Use accessible or well-explained vocabulary. People are not dumb; they can understand the Bible. They may need to be shown what some religious terms mean. “There was a guy named Jesus” is too elementary — we’ve seen folks swear in movies. Yet “atonement” — or even “grace” — needs elucidation.
● Employ respected authorities to strengthen your theses. There will be Christian authorities non-Christians would know, like C. S. Lewis or Tolkien. Or the authorities might be shared ideas — if we can strongly affirm God’s image in all (culture = diversity), or strongly weep with victims of sexual misconduct (culture = #metoo), we should.
● Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections. Doubt is normal. Not all the problems we face are easily solved. Don’t be simplistic when being simplistic undermines the truth.
● Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives. Paul didn’t start at Acts 17 with an adversarial perspective. He started with common ground and let the gospel be known.
● Make gospel offers that push culture’s pressure points. One of the issues today is identity. How do we think about identity? Or busyness. Pushing against these things can bring a sense of glory to God.
● Call for gospel motivation. Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is widely used in preaching. But we also see the value in intrinsic motivation. Jesus used this with the disciples, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” It’s a powerful motivation for those outside the church who only view the church as a heavy-handed, extrinsically-driven organization.
Second trend: inconsistent church attendance.
So preach the deep love of God in a troubling world.
In 2019, Lifeway Research reported, “Six in 10 Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance and more than half saw fewer than 10 people become new Christians in the past 12 months.”(12) We ought to focus on reaching people and teaching practical ways believers can both show and share the love of Jesus.
There’s more to this story: even committed churchgoers are attending church less frequently, with many moving from weekly attendance to monthly. After years of putting up with lame excuses for skipping church only to realize his responses made no difference, pastor Eugene Peterson said, “I don’t respond anymore. I listen (with a straight face) and go home and pray that person will one day find the one sufficient reason for going to church, which is God.”(13)
So how do we preach when people are less commonly even present? Our temptation could be towards the wrong solutions. Lead Pastor Scott Slayton writes, “We think we can change people by simply appealing to their wills. Let’s show them all the reasons why attending church less is bad for them. Tell them stories to make them feel guilty”
But scoldings don’t work. “This type of approach might change people for a season, but it will not alter the love of their hearts and produce lasting change,” he writes.(14) Instead, preach to shape the heart. The gospel speaks to our deep affections and desires. (15)
If we set up our Sunday worship experience (and let’s be honest — it’s not fireworks every week) against Sunday brunch, we are already fighting a losing battle. But if we preach the rescuing love of God as a weekly rejoinder to our anger at work, our disappointment in marriage, the exhaustion at the sin of the world — this becomes really good news. We will need the refreshment of this hope again and again.
Third trend: the declining respect people have for pastors.
So lead with genuineness.
According to Gallup, only 37% of adults consider “the honest and ethical standards” of clergy as “very high.”(16) They put nurses much higher at 84%. I would wish it wasn’t so, but while many pastors labor faithfully, we regularly hear news of pastor resignations over financial issues, sexual immorality, or abusive leadership styles. No wonder.
How do you preach to people who don’t fully trust you? Preach as a person, not as a pulpit. Let the passages you preach on speak first to you. Pastor Craig Groeschel offers questions to ask yourself in preparing a sermon:
● How has the text affected you?
● How have you failed in the area the Scripture addresses?
● What about the text makes you uncomfortable?
● What do you feel about what Scripture is saying?
● How are you becoming different because of your study of God’s Word? (17)
These questions force us to confront what the Holy Spirit is doing in our own hearts, for our benefit and so we can better communicate from a deeply genuine place.
Bible Central; Times in Mind
So, how now can we preach? Let me say that these are not the only things that matter about preaching – far from it. If we take our cues only from cultural need, we will devalue engagement with the actual text of scripture. But keeping the Bible central, and keeping the times in mind, we can more effectively preach and teach.
Here are three guidelines we can follow:
First, preach on the uniqueness and authority of Scripture as a hungry learner yourself.
Preach from Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 3:16, sharing with hearers what you are learning. Be a fellow traveler or coach on their path. Preach on community, teach about church as a family instead of as an institution we hope to preserve (such as Jesus’s teaching on compassion for the broken, Paul’s “one another” passages). Share your struggles. Preach on imperfect biblical characters (Moses who stuttered, Noah the drunk, David the adulterer, and Peter the denier). I often share how as a father of teenagers it’s been both the hardest and the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.
Second, give hearers on-ramps to connect the Bible to their lives.
Whether they come from biblical illiteracy, infrequent attendance, or a distrust of your position, you can still relate to them. Remind them of key concepts you want them to understand in a series, for instance. This connects hearers who missed the week before or aren’t as knowledgeable, and helps to build community.
Third, embrace vulnerability as you preach.
People don’t want to be impressed; they seek genuine authenticity. Professor Bene` Brown offers a refreshing view of vulnerability: “I believe that vulnerability, the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.”(18) She adds: “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” A record 43 million people have watched her secular TED talk and vulnerability. Pastors can learn from this.(19)
Finally, pursue holiness.
Many non-believers still see the Bible as a holy book. Preach the Bible that way, and seek to live that way as well. People can generally tell if you are a growing Christ-follower or if you just love to preach. Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne — who saw great revival at his church in the 1830s — gave this charge to those being ordained:
“Study the universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this. Your sermon on Sabbath lasts for an hour or two; your life preaches all week. Remember, shepherds are standard-bearers. Satan aims his fiery darts at them. If he can make you a covetous pastor, a lover of pleasure, or a lover of praise, or a lover of good eating, then he has ruined your ministry forever. Ah, let him preach 50 years. He will never do any harm to your brother. Dear brother, cast yourself at the feet of Christ. Implore his Spirit to make you a holy man.”(20)
Did I discourage you? Do these trends feel weighty? We might encounter cultural distrust for pastors, less frequent church attendance, and biblical illiteracy as barriers to the gospel. And indeed they are, if as preachers we choose to ignore them. But we can engage as guides to biblical discovery, preaching the love of God that restores aching hearts, and leading with genuineness.
We may not become billionaires with abs. But we can preach the Word to the World and — in the power of the Spirit — we’ll transform lives.
Ed Stetzer is Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He serves as interim Teaching Pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois and Teaching Pastor at Highpoint Church, a multisite church in the western suburbs of Chicago
1 Tim Ferris, Tools of Titans (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017), 188.
3 “State of the Bible 2019: Trends in Engagement,” Barna Research, April 18, 2019, accessed July 17, 2019. https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2019/
4 Bob Smietana, “LifeWay Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It,” April 25, 2017, accessed July 17, 2019. https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bibledont-actually-read-it/
6 Lydia Saad, “Record Few Americans Believe the Bible Is Literal Word of God,” Gallup, May 15, 2017, accessed July 17, 2019. https://news.gallup.com/poll/210704/record-few-americans-believe-bible-literal-word-god.aspx.
7 Bob Smietana, “LifeWay Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It,” April 25, 2017, Accessed July 17, 2019. https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-thebible-dont-actually-read-it/
8 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 94-95.
9 http://dailykeller.com/telling-the-christian-story/. Accessed September 16, 2019.
10 Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 99. The italicized portion is from Keller. My thoughts follow each of Keller’s points.
11 Ibid., 103.
12 Aaron Earls, “Small, Struggling Congregations Fill U.S. Church Landscape,” LifeWay Research, March 6, 2019, accessed August 14, 2019. https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/03/06/small-struggling-congregations-fill-u-schurch-landscape/.
13 Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2000), Kindle Edition, location 601. Emphasis added.
14 Scott Slayton, “How Sporadic Church Attendance Affects Preaching,” For the Church, January 6, 2016, accessed August 9, 2019. https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/how-sporadic-church-attendance-affectspreaching.
16 This is down from 67% of Americans in the mid-1980s. See: Megan Brenan, “Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics,” Gallup, December 20, 2018, accessed August 13, 2019. https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx.
17 Craig Groeschel, “Authentic Preaching: Bringing Yourself into the Message,” SermonCentral.com, April 20, 2018. accessed August 5, 2019. https://www.sermoncentral.com/pastors-preaching-articles/craig-groeschelauthentic-preaching-bringing-yourself-into-the-message-908?ref=PreachingArticleDetails
18 Brown, Brené . Rising Strong (p. xvii). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
19 Ibid., 4.
20 Shoenleber, Ordination Sermon, Kindle Location 369.