This is the fourth in a series of five articles from Langham Preaching, a ministry of Langham Partnership, which seeks to work in fellowship with national leaders to establish local and national preaching movements. This series highlights the five focal areas that shape the curriculum of Langham Preaching and also guide which materials are published within our imprint Langham Preaching Resources.
Spend just five minutes in any small corner of Langham Partnership’s work around the world and you will grasp how vital it is to be alert to cultural differences. In fact, it’s in our name: ‘partnership’. Partnerships always entail working with others who are a little bit, or even quite considerably, different. That could be different organisations, different countries, different regions within the same country, different language groups, different life experiences. That is always tricky, occasionally painful, and sometimes hilarious. But one thing is certain: it demands a willingness to listen to others and to walk in their shoes for a while. For the outsider, it demands a willingness to cross an invisible bridge from their own home culture to that of their new environment.
The strange thing is that the ancient scriptures make a similar demand on the reader, and in particular, on the preacher. Of course, like any other book, the Bible is a product of its time, or to be more accurate, its times. For it is a unique library drawn from around forty, all-too-human authors, several centuries, at least three languages, two continents and many different styles. There is simply no other book quite like it. This means that engaging with the Bible itself means engaging with several different ancient cultures. We can’t expect the Bible to adapt to our contexts; so we must try to enter into its contexts. More often than not, we are the outsiders.
Put together, then, we need to work hard at understanding the cultural context of every biblical text, and then do precisely the same for those to whom we will preach. For even if we have known these people for years, the mere fact that we have the preaching role, even just once, is enough to set us slightly apart from them. They have not had the chance to study and ponder. And that’s just for starters. It may be that some have attended for years but still haven’t fully accepted the reality and totality of Christ’s lordship in their lives yet.
Preaching Must Span the Chasm
For reasons now forgotten, John Stott’s seminal book, I Believe in Preaching, was given a different title in the USA: Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century.
It captures the point perfectly, however.
Reading the Bible is itself a cross-cultural experience: our world, now in the twenty-first century, of course, is so different from the Bible’s in the first century AD and before. (Incidentally, Greg Scharf, himself a former colleague of John Stott, has done a superb job in distilling the book into something more manageable, up-to-date and yet still faithful to the original: The Challenge of Preaching.) This is how he describes the task at hand:
… we need to be able to build bridges spanning the chasm between the biblical world and the modern world. Just as a bridge makes it possible for traffic to flow from one side of a river or ravine to another, so our preaching must make it possible for God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures and into the lives of men and women today. Both ends of our bridges must be firmly rooted if we are to be able to show that Christianity is still relevant today. (John Stott. The Challenge of Preaching 2011, p37)
As John himself would frequently say, we need to engage in ‘double listening’. This might be represented by having the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Because of that image, some misunderstood him to be suggesting that contemporary cultures and events carry a weight equal to the bible. That suggestion couldn’t have been further from his mind. The point is simple - if you want to speak into a culture that is not your own, you must first learn to recognise the nature of that culture – to speak its language, if you like.
This is obviously true of preaching evangelistically. In such settings, no preacher can presume to be given a hearing; that must be earned. If the message seems too alien, too ancient, or too aloof, people will stop listening. Why on earth would they want to stick around? Tuning into other voices is not so much a spiritual failing on their part, then, as it is a sign of a preacher’s failure to build bridges.
Preaching Must Communicate from Across the Chasm
You might think this point was completely obvious!
Yet stop for a moment to consider what communication actually is.
I used to think it was simply a matter of me getting up and spouting words in front of an audience. The ability to do that makes one a communicator, I thought, especially if the audience is able to stay awake and concentrate simultaneously!
Yet, strictly speaking, this only describes talking, not communicating. I don’t know if you still write bank cheques? We lived for four years in Kampala, Uganda, where credit cards were rarely accepted and cheques were practically non-existent. People simply did not trust them, so only cash would do. Back in the UK now, I see fewer and fewer cheques around, because even if you lack credit or debit cards, it’s now possible to send money in so many digital ways such as SMS, phone apps or websites. One downside (or positive, depending on your point of view!) is that it’s no longer possible to use that classic debtor’s delaying tactic, ‘Oh, the cheque’s in the post!’ It’s all well and good signing the cheque, sealing it in an envelope and taking it to a post office; what counts is the recipient holding it in his or her hands. Nothing else will do.
Likewise, the preacher has something to convey to an audience—the cheque, if you like—but if the audience has no clue as to what that preacher is going on about—the cheque gets lost in the mail—the original message has not been communicated.
In fact, something worse than mere confusion may have resulted. The listener receives what he or she thinks was said, rather than what has been said (and this can, of course, lead to all kinds of problems). This is one reason why a preacher’s clarity is so crucial. But it is also why a sermon being rooted in listeners’ daily reality is so crucial as well. We long for them to receive a God-given message rooted in the unchanging scriptures, but that speaks into the constantly shifting realities of our lives and societies.
Or, to put it in Paul’s words in Romans:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Rom 10:14)
True communication has only taken place if they truly hear the gospel.
Which brings us to our next point.
Preaching Must Seek Divinely-Given Transformation
This is crucial. When it comes to the relevance and application of preaching, three fundamental errors get made too often.
Sermons not Lectures
When a sermon is so full of the ancient world and text that it gives little help for how that text might make a difference today, then it does not actually qualify as a sermon. It is a lecture! That may be helpful and necessary; I remember some really significant lectures that helped my understanding immensely. They were unforgettable. But they weren’t trying to transform me, or if they were, it was only indirectly. They were seeking to inform, and they did that job brilliantly.
Divine Words not Rabble-Rousing
The other extreme is to be so dislocated from the ancient text that the message is entirely contemporary. The message (and quite probably the way it is formed) is drawn from the surrounding culture, which explains why it goes down well with listeners. But this is precisely what Paul warned Timothy about.
… to suit their own desires, (audiences) will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. (2 Tim 4:3.)
That’s not preaching God’s eternal word. That is rousing the rabble for one’s own ends, whether it be for power and influence, wealth and popularity, or even votes.
Whole-Life Discipleship, not Spiritualised Individualism
Paul was adamant that the gospel, as he unpacked it in Romans 1-11, demanded nothing less than everything. In the light of that gospel (God’s mercy), he instructs his readers “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Ro 12:1) This is clearly not referring to an hour or two on Sundays and perhaps the odd weekday evening. This is about life; it is thoughts, words, deeds, together and alone, in work hours, leisure hours, home hours, even sleep hours; it is about everything from the spiritual state of our hearts to the spiritual issues at stake in nations and on the planet.
There is nothing that is ruled inadmissible within a Christ-shaped word. As Abraham Kuyper, that unique Dutch theologian (and journalist, and academic, and university founder, and politician and even Prime Minister!!) once said:
no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!’ (1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam)
This is an enormous task and is beyond the abilities of any one individual, including a single preacher. But God raises up people to feed the church through setting them apart for study and learning from many different sources of wisdom and experience. And where a preacher has gaps of knowledge or understanding, the responsibility to fill them remains.
It was for this reason that in the 1970s (a decade of deep division, political and economic turmoil and social decline in the UK) John Stott might preach a sermon on whether a Christian can and should go on strike. Or he might write about the ethics of nuclear weapons, or beginnings and ends of human life. He never moved away from his biblical moorings in the simple gospel. It was never a case of being distracted from the main things. But he never shied away from previously unexplored, ethical complexities demanded for a gospel lifestyle.
One reason he was so committed to the gospel like this is crucial: he knew that human words or logic, or even inspirational models, are useless for changing lives (see the futility of human rule-keeping in Col 2:22-23). For that to happen, there needs to be a change of heart (see Ezek 18:31 and 36:26). Nobody can perform a heart transplant on themselves! Nor, in fact, can anybody perform a spiritual heart transplant on anybody else. This can only be the Lord’s work. But once he has done that, it is no holds barred for how this impacts us. Again, it is never to earn anything; it is always ‘in view of God’s mercy.’
That is why we need preachers! We all need help in this as we seek to follow Christ with the whole of our lives. But if our people, starting with us – the preachers and pastors – began to live more like Christ did, there is no stopping how this will make a difference to the contexts in which God has placed us. And that, in the end, is why God raises up a people in this world: to be a light-giving city on a hill.