Chapter 86

Connecting Biblical Content with Contemporary Audiences

An interview with Mike Yearley

Any biblical truth has implications on how life is to be lived, and the task of the preacher is to find those implications and to clearly explain them in the language of today. Today we want to talk about how to connect the Bible to today's culture. Every preacher wants to do that, but it's increasingly challenging. You minister at North Coast Evangelical Free Church, which is north of San Diego, and it's an epitome of contemporary American culture, with all the goods and bads of that. How do you make your sermons connect with the culture and yet remain thoroughly biblical?

Mike Yearley: The model we've developed over the years is basically two-fold. We aim our teaching at Christians but work hard to take out the Christianese jargon that we who have been longtime Christians sometimes use, and to make it user-friendly for what we call window-shoppers, the non-believers who often come to our church. We work hard to put it in their language. We start by walking through the passage. That might take 10 or 15 minutes; that connects hearers to the text and to the Bible. Then we talk about the life lessons that we can pull from the text. At that point it gets practical. The points come primarily from the text itself, but they're about how to live the Christian life.

We made one switch years ago that's been helpful to us. In our early years as pastors we saw our goal as to teach the Bible, so we spent a lot more time explaining nuances in the text. But as the years went on, we changed, and now our goal is to teach people how to live the Christian life with the Bible as our authority. Whenever we're preparing a message, we ask ourselves, Am I really explaining to people how to live the Christian life on this particular topic?

How would a message come across differently with this approach?

As we go through a passage, our main goal is to make sure people can follow the author's train of thought. In a traditional approach you might spend more time talking about the original language or noticing the way conjunctions connect different parts of a verse together. Our goal is less technical. It's to get people in the text so they can understand it, to make it colloquial as we go through. We spend 10 or 15 minutes doing that, and then we get practical.

So in most of our messages, you feel that shift. We look at a passage and then apply the life principles. There might be three, five, or six life principles. Those points will be application oriented. Instead of making some comment about the text, we would make a comment about our lives. It would be as if you and I were having a cup of coffee together and talking about that topic of the day, and I had five things I thought were important for you to understand about how to live your life in that area. Each of those points would be put in user-friendly language that anyone, regardless if they're a Christian or not a Christian, could understand and appropriate.

After spending the first 10 to 15 minutes of your message in a biblical passage, how many minutes do you spend on these principles for life application?

A message at our place will be 40 to 45 minutes long. So you'd have, say, 25 minutes to talk about the life principles.

Some preachers might wonder how you keep people with you when you're focusing on the text for 15 minutes without being overtly relevant to the hearer's felt needs and challenges.

We haven't experienced that as a hardship. We often start with a couple of sentences about the topic for the day and why it's important, so there is a hook there at the beginning. As we go through the text, too, we often make practical applications, sidebar comments here and there. So it's not as if we're doing a super-deep exegesis of the text.

We might start out by saying, " Today we're going to be looking at a passage that helps us understand five principles of how to live this concept out in our lives. " So people are with us from the start; it isn't as if during the expositional part people are bored and looking asleep and then all of a sudden when we get to the practical part — boom — they're with us again. They are with us the whole time.

Do you go out of your way to make contemporary analogies with the text?

Yes, definitely. For example, I was speaking a couple of weeks ago on Luke 24. We're doing a series right now on unforgettable encounters with God. I was speaking on " The Road to Aha's, " those moments when the light turns on for us in a certain area of our life.

As we went through the text, I talked about how the disciples were depressed. Their world had fallen apart. They had believed in Jesus. They thought he was the coming Messiah, and now he'd been crucified. It was late in the afternoon on Easter Sunday, and they felt maybe like some of us felt after the September 11th tragedy, when we wondered where life is going. And they're taking a seven-mile trip to — and instead of saying Emmaus, I said the town of Bonsall. In our area the town of Bonsall is about seven miles from us. It's a small town of five hundred or a thousand people. It's the sort of place you just drive through. So the moment I said Bonsall that took them by surprise. There was a moment of humor there. We laughed together. So going through a passage is not like sitting in a seminary class going line by line. It's more a colloquial storytelling. We're interspersing humor and application as we go.

During that time we'll also point out key verses. I might say, " This verse is important. I want you to underline that because we're going to come back to that later. "

Let's follow up on that example. We're now 15 minutes into your message on " The Road to Emmaus, " or Bonsall. Now you're ready to apply that. Walk us through what kind of applications you made from that text.

In the expositional time we highlighted how God had hidden from their eyes who Jesus was. We talked about how there are times when God hides certain truths from us because we're not ready for them. There are other times when he reveals certain truths, as when the two disciples had realized who Jesus was during the breaking of the bread, and also when Jesus appeared in the upper room and opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

Then we transitioned. I said, " We've seen how aha's worked in their lives, but now we want to talk about how God uses these aha's in our lives to make us like Christ. "

We had three points in that particular message. The first one was that it takes aha's to become a follower of Christ. We talked specifically to the window-shoppers there about how, as we're investigating Christianity, oftentimes we look at it as if we can turn on the light ourselves and make that decision. But in reality every time a person comes to Christ, God is opening their eyes to spiritual truths.

The second point was that it takes aha's to become like Christ. Not only do we need God to turn on the light switch when we first come to Christ, but this is to be an ongoing part of our Christian experience. It's not something that happens two or three times in our life. And at that point I connected with the congregation, because I know that one thing they often say is, " Boy, during that message I felt like you were talking just to me. " So I said, " Sometimes you're in a service and you feel like the pastor is talking right to you. What's that? That's the Holy Spirit giving you an aha moment. There are times when you're reading the Bible. You come across a passage of Scripture that you may have read many times before, but suddenly it comes to life. It's almost highlighted on the page. " So I gave several illustrations about how this is a normal part of the Christian life.

The final point of that message was that we need to act on our aha's. Basically when it comes to aha's, you either use them or lose them. That was a sound bite I used. We talked about how, when God gives us an aha in a certain area of our life, we have to then act on it, and if we do, God will give us more aha's and we will get more enlightenment. But if we don't act on our aha's, we will lose even the aha that we have.

Let me summarize what you've said about your two-part model. In the first 15 minutes you walk people through the basic line of the story from Luke about the road to Emmaus. Then in the concluding minutes of the sermon, you drew out three life principles that apply the message of illumination to people's lives. So, in a sense, it's a textual-based message, and then it becomes topical in the second half.

I think that's an excellent way of putting it. There are many different ways you could develop any given text. The most powerful preaching comes out of personal preaching, something God has been showing you in your own life. So if I decide to preach on Luke 24, I think about what God is showing me at this particular time. Once the text is defined and I decide on the topic of the day, it becomes almost a topical message. But if I were to start off with a topical approach, I would start off by saying, " We're going to talk today about aha's in the Christian life. " Then I would start jumping around to all kinds of Scriptures to support certain points I want to make. But we would never spend any extended amount of time in any one text. But yes, in one sense, it's a textual method that goes to a topical method once the topic has been raised from the text.

What do you do with a text that doesn't have an obvious application of something that a Christian can do? Maybe it simply holds up an attribute of God. How would you handle a text like that?

The passage itself can be developed a lot of different ways. Some passages we would not develop because they're not where God is hitting us right now, or we don't feel like we have anything to say on that particular message. As young pastors we used to write on the top of our sermon notes, " So what? " Our feeling is that any Scripture has a " so what " ; it's just a question of whether we can see it or not. I wouldn't assume that a passage doesn't have one just because it's not obvious on the surface.

When I talk about teaching people how to live the Christian life, I mean that in a broad sense. We're not just talking about how to be a better husband or a better employee. We're also talking about knowledge issues, like who God is, who we are, and how we're to relate to one another. All those theological concepts are critical in talking about how we're to live the Christian life.

Most any truth about life has implications on how life is to be lived, and the task of the preacher is to find those implications and to clearly explain them in a way that people can grab, in the language of today.

Why should I adopt your two-stage preaching model? What are the benefits?

Number one, it gets people in the Bible. One of the challenges we have today is we're trying to connect with people who are biblically illiterate, and yet we all believe the Bible holds the path to life for us. So one huge value of this method is it gets people into the Bible. It teaches them how to read the Bible.

Secondly, it's practical and relevant. Especially in our culture today, people are not tolerant of something that is not relevant in the near future. They don't want knowledge just for knowledge's sake.

A third benefit is we spend more time teaching through the Bible. For example, we recently finished a series on 1 Corinthians. It was 31 messages long. Often after we do a Book study like that, we'll follow up with a topical study. But even then it's usually not topical in the sense of " let's talk about marriage. " It's topical in the sense that we might talk about great psalms. Or, for example, we looked at men and women from the Old Testament who are great examples or bad examples. We called it " Heroes and Bums. "

One other benefit is you can't always go back to your pet topics, your eight things that you love to talk about. It forces you to look for relevance in Scripture in ways that you perhaps would not have looked before. So it feeds people a much more balanced diet because you're not just picking out your topics ahead of time and then speaking on those. The text itself is dictating topics to you.

I imagine some of our listeners use an approach whereby if I'm teaching on Luke 24 I start by explaining verse 1, and then I provide some application or commentary on verse 1. Then I explain verse 2, and then I give application or commentary on verse 2. So I'm weaving exposition and application verse by verse throughout the passage. In what ways would you say your model offers advantages over that approach?

That approach can be done well, obviously. Many have used it successfully. But one of the disadvantages is you can try to cover too many topics in a given message. You talk about verse 1, and it suggests some practical application. And verse 2 suggests something else to you. So you end up talking about 17 different topics in a message, and you've only gone a minute or two deep into each one of them. The advantage of the method we use is that it helps you to develop a topic in some depth. And yet it gives you the ability to talk about five or six different kinds of life applications that can hit a variety of people in the congregation.

You have a luxury of an extended teaching time — 40 or 45 minutes — but at many churches the time for the message is going to be 20 minutes, perhaps 25. How would you adapt your model to a much shorter time period?

You just have to limit the number of points, which is something we do anyway. For example, in that aha sermon I had five or six points initially, but after going through them I felt I only had time for three of them because of the way I needed to develop those three. A person with a shorter time might have to include one or two. I went through most of Luke 24 in my exposition. With less time, maybe I would just go through 12 verses.

Let me ask you about the particular skills required in this two-stage model of connecting the Bible to culture. It seems like this model does not require extensive familiarity with the ancient languages, but it does seem to require the skill of making the Bible text contemporary as you're explaining it; the skill of drawing out the line of thought through the entire passage; and the ability to abstract from a larger passage of Scripture two to four application principles.

Yes, but in addition to the skill sets you described, we have to develop a passion to communicate in the language of the people. We try to look through our messages and take out anything that sounds " stained glass " or churchy. We would normally not use words like sanctification or illumination. Part of this is a discipline and a skill. When you're planning your sermon, ask yourself, If I were to explain this to the man on the street, would he understand it?

This is something that takes work to develop. It involves being up with the culture. I'm always looking for ways to say spiritual truths in the language and sound bites of our culture. Earlier I talked about " use it or lose it. " That's a common phrase. We work hard to take a spiritual truth and find a colloquialism that can express that truth.

We want to stay away from oratory. We want to stay away from the feeling of a sermon. We want it to feel like we're having a conversation, even though we can be directive. If our goal is to have a message that's culturally relevant, then our language and illustrations have to be culturally relevant too.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today Audio #222 workshop. To order this Preaching Today Audio tape, e-mail your request to