Recently I led a group of pastors in a discussion about our preaching. When I asked the pastors, “What areas would you like help with in your preaching?” most of them responded with, “I want help in making connection with my listeners, relating the gospel to their everyday lives.”
“I want to preach sermons which really hit my people where they live.”
In sum, these pastors wanted to preach in a way that addressed their culture. There was a time when I would have agreed that this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching–to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. However, I have come to question this way of construing the task of Christian preaching.
Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like “This relates to me,” or, “I’m sorry, this is really impractical,” or, “I really can’t make sense out of that.” It was always the modern world telling the Bible what’s what.
I don’t believe that the Bible wants to “speak to the modern world.” Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.
The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone, the telegraph, and allegedly “critical thinking,” this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes which have consumed the lives of millions. Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?
Too often Christians have treated the modern world as if it is an unalterable fact, a reality to which we were obligated to adjust and adapt, rather than a point of view with which we might argue.
Fortunately, modern ways of knowing and thinking are gradually losing their privileged status in Western thought. We are realizing that modernity is only one way of describing what is going on in the world. Humanity has received many gifts from modern, scientific, technological ways of thinking. However, as we ended the twentieth century, we realized that modernity was not without its loses.
Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, I think our time as preachers is better spent inculturating Twenty First Century Americans into that culture which is called church. There is no way that I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can’t even do that with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as baseball.
Forming the church through our speech, laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices which make us disciples is our most challenging task as preachers.
The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God’s appointed means of producing change is called church. God’s typical way of producing church is called preaching.
William H. Willimon