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Preaching that Connects

The preacher must connect God's Word with the real-life concerns the listeners

Topic: How to convey the Word of God in a relevant way
Big Idea: The preacher must connect God's Word with the real-life concerns of the listeners.

Preaching Today Sermons: What makes preaching relevant?

Joseph Stowell: Relevance is a many-faceted reality in preaching. Some preachers just seem have the knack to connect with their congregations. Others have to work at it, making it a concentrated point of focus. Probably the vast majority are not naturally relevant communicators. Even for those who are, honing our skills on being relevant is still very important.

What does it mean for a preacher to be relevant?

To be relevant means to connect. We normally think of relevance as being contemporary, clever, extremely creative or having a bevy of illustrations that finally bring the point home. However, those are not the criteria for relevance. The criterion is one bottom line issue: did I create a medium whereby God could connect with the real-life situations of the listeners?

The measurement is connection. Maybe I wasn't creative or contemporary. But there was a connection, and the lights came on in somebody's life so that they knew how to apply the text in their lives the rest of the week.

What are the dangers in trying to be relevant?

If our only goal is to be relevant, there are several seductions to be aware of. One is to leave the text, not keeping it central in our proclamation. In other words, the driving intent of the text gets lost somewhere in our desire to be relevant. We've all felt this temptation, where we have this marvelous application that doesn't really fit the text but it's too good to pass up. We need to guard against that. The text always governs relevance and the application.

Trying to be cute is another seduction. We are communicating the truth of an almighty God, and there's a certain weight and wonder to that. We can't present God and the Bible too lightly or we become too cute and colloquial in the process of trying to become relevant. There is a delicate balance between preserving the weight and wonder of divine truth, while bringing it up to the surface enough to be clearly understandable.

A third seduction is for the proclaimer to be too transparent. There are some struggles in my pilgrimage that are not productive to reveal in a public setting. If we're not careful, our desire to become relevant through transparency could lure us into certain arenas wherein that same transparency could destroy our credibility.

At the end of the day, relevance is not our final goal; it is to communicate the truth of God's Word. Relevance becomes a means whereby that truth is communicated. I try to keep as my ultimate goal being effective in communicating the truth of God. Then I ask myself " how can I do this in a relevant way? "

What assumptions guide you as you seek to preach in a relevant manner?

There are five assumptions I bring to the whole issue of relevance. First, relevant proclamation begins with relevance in the preacher's life. This is especially true for those of us who shepherd a flock. If my listeners say to me, " Well, that makes sense, but I don't see that in the preacher's life, " then we will not connect. It's important that I live a life that communicates what I preach to my people. God's Word must first be relevant to me, and my listeners need to see me growing and making progress in the areas I am preaching about.

The second assumption in the issue of relevant preaching is the text. The text is the power of the Holy Spirit in the message, not all the attending issues I put into the homiletical experience. It is the principle in the text that ultimately has the power to become relevant in a person's life. Have I stayed with the text? Am I clearly communicating the truth of the text?

The third issue in relevance is context. Who are these people? Haddon Robinson metaphorically invites different people from the congregation to his desk and throws the main principle at them seeking their responses a single woman, a professional, or a teenager. In doing so, he does more than exegete the text. He models John Stott's call for us to exegete the context from which we preach. Without understanding the real life situations facing the people of the congregation as I prepare the sermon, it probably will lack relevancy.

The fourth assumption I bring to the issue of relevance is clarity. Is the message clear? We need to clarify in the introduction, in the transitions, and in the conclusions. We must clarify our major points. Are my points structured in a way that speaks to the people, or are they merely technical points? Suppose I'm talking about servanthood, for example. A technical main point could be " Christ asks us to be servants. " Clarifying that might involve rephrasing it to say, " The true test of authenticity in my life is my willingness to be a servant for Christ. " That's an example of how we can make our points carry relevance instead of mere technical realities.

My fifth assumption on relevance is " crossroads. " Every proclamation should present the listener with a decision they need to make. This is usually presented in the conclusion, though it may be woven through the message in the form of key questions that bring the listener to that final crossroads.

How intentional are you about being relevant? What do you do intentionally?

We need to be intentional about relevance. I try to be intentional about exegeting the audience and making sure that I know whom I'm preaching to. My applications, illustrations, metaphors, and word pictures must connect to the audience.

The second thing I do intentionally is to maximize the principle of the text, rather than the application. Though this sounds confusing, it is the principle of the text that is universally relevant. Again, if we're talking about servanthood, we need to exegete, illustrate, and clarify the principle of servanthood. If I spend all my time applying the principle of servanthood to the professional person, then I'm going to have a blue-collar worker, a teenager, or a retired person saying, " Well, this doesn't apply to me. " So I'm committed to preaching the principle that has the most universal application to everybody's lives.

Another intentional effort I make is to be transparent in my preaching. What kind of struggles do I deal with in relationship to this topic? When we admit to people that we are co-pilgrims with them, and in a sense co-strugglers, we are being relevant. People want " real " people as their teachers. When they say, " Ah, he's processing this, " that usually leads them to also say " I'll process this in my own life as well. "

Relevance in preaching also involves an intentional movement from a product-oriented sermon to a process-oriented sermon. It's easy for us to preach, " This is what we must doour lives must be like this! " However, the Bible is never simply product-oriented. It's always process-oriented. It gives us the process whereby we might produce the product. Galatians 5 is a simple illustration of this concept. You could preach 'till you're blue in the face about how authentic believers need to be people of love, joy, peace, etc. However, that's not a stand-alone text. The process through which we learn to walk by the Spirit precedes this passage-a process that normally results in the product: the fruit of the Spirit. When we simply preach product, and don't tell our people how to get there, we fail to connect. Most biblical texts have a process somewhere in the text or context that leads us to the product. People will be far more encouraged if we say, " Here's the product that pleases Christ. Now, here's how we get there! "

What media do you regularly troll through? And what are you fishing for?

I read the newspaper almost every day, to see what other people are saying about what's going on. I love the editorial page. Usually the news stories don't bring me a lot of what people are thinking about, though they do provide headlines I might refer to in a message. I think going to the New York Times best-seller list is beneficial as well. I recommend becoming acquainted with the top two or three books. I find the book review section in the New York Times Sunday edition to be extremely helpful in allowing me to see what Americans are reading.

Unfortunately, I don't have time to watch a lot of sitcoms. However, I think it would be helpful to know what your people watch and listen to, simply to note the immoral content that they are being exposed to, in hopes that relevant preaching could counteract that. Relevant preaching needs to elevate kingdom values over values in Satan's domain, that are constantly penetrating our minds, spirits, and worldview. So I think that if you have time to periodically tune into the top three to five sitcoms it can be helpful.

I also love to watch people, and how they interact. Some of my best illustrations come from my experiences in public places with people. Everyone likes to see themselves mirrored in the lives of others.

Music is another significant media, certainly for the under-35 crowd that you may be preaching to. The ability to quote a song lyric in making a point or surfacing an anti-Christian value is tremendously powerful when trying to connect with somebody from a particular sub-culture in your congregation. It lets them see you understand their world.

What's the next step for the average preacher who wants to become more relevant?

If I were starting on the pilgrimage of becoming a more relevant preacher, I would want to go back to some of the points we've discussed and highlight those I desired to capitalize on.

At the end of the day, I think the greatest compliment a relevant preacher could receive would be one I heard regarding Bill Hybels. People were standing up talking about the previous Sunday and thanking the Lord for what He had done. One man said, " Bill, 10 minutes into your sermon you disappeared and I heard from God. " That, I thought to myself, is the ultimate goal of connection, that people will feel personally confronted, comforted, challenged, and convicted by the God of the text that's being proclaimed. That would be my prayer goal: " Lord, make me the kind of a preacher that would cause people to say, 'Today I have heard from God in a significant way.' "

Joseph Stowell is president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and author of numerous books, including Jesus Nation (Tyndale).

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