Times have changed.
I've heard that statement so many times. I've especially heard that statement so many times since the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. I agree with the statement. However, I think we should be fair and add this qualification:
Times are always changing. Why? Culture changes. Culture is a mosaic of customs, traditions, ways of life, ideas—you know, basically ... people. Culture changes because people change. Trends come and go, political leaders are elected and voted out, movies become popular and become classics, laws are passed and then reinterpreted, etc. Culture always changes because people always change.
What doesn't change is the Bible. Whereas culture changes because people change, the Bible never changes, because God (the Author) never changes. When the unchanging message of the gospel hits an ever-changing culture, tension sparks. This tension is felt many places, but especially in sermons. When a message is preached to any congregation, conference, online community, or any group of people—you have a gathering of people that represent various beliefs, convictions and moral ethics.
If leading a church and communicating on a regular basis has taught me anything, it's that I need to be aware of this tension between Scripture and culture. If there was anyone who lived in a time of polarizing beliefs, worldviews, ideas, and systems, it was Paul. Yet he, like Jesus, is such a tremendous example of someone who was masterful in communicating a steadfast gospel to an ever-shifting society.
We see a glimpse of Paul's approach in communication when he shares the gospel with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Acts 17:16-34. I believe that Paul's interactions in this passage can help us as we feel the tension of communicating to an audience with differing opinions on life and culture.
Preach Out of Concern for People
Acts 17:16 says that Paul was "greatly distressed" to see Athens was full of idolatry. He was greatly "distressed" or "angered" because such a city full of idolatry was actually robbing God of the glory He deserved. I notice that the text doesn't say, "Paul was greatly moved to be proven right" or "greatly desired to show them how wrong they were."
Rather, throughout the passage, the reader easily notices Paul's care and concern for these scholars. Ultimately, Paul is burdened for these people to become followers of God, because God gets the glory when someone submits their life to Him. He had the right drive. Paul's drive to preach to them wasn't to battle with them; rather it was from a desire show them the Way.
We even notice Paul's heart at the end of the passage when he finished his sermon and the philosophers ask him to stay and teach more. Paul leaves, because his goal isn't to be right in their eyes. He is hardly concerned about trading philosophical or theological ideas. He wanted them to know the truth. Paul's immediate departure isn't rude, rather I think it is a way of showing them that he had told them the truth and cared too much for them to make them think he was interested in trading ideas (or being correct).
If our goal is to preach by using the sermon as a club, showing others we are right and they are wrong—our influence over the next few years will fade. Paul, like Jesus, was concerned for the salvation of others to the glory of God. We should be as well.
Don't Be a Cultural Hermit
A preacher can have the right meaning of a text, correct theology, good ideas from a passage, and yet it may not matter. You can't communicate to a community that you haven't studied or experienced. I don't care if it is a rural town in Kansas or the booming city of Tokyo. The communicator has to study—not only the culture and trends of state and country, but also the immediate context.
Let me acknowledge something: everything I just mentioned is not easy!
Preparing a sermon is hard work. The study of Scripture is necessary and shouldn't be rushed. The integrity of the Bible deserves to be examined and prayed through. Scripture never changes, but it is infinitely deep. We are always discovering new insights and uncovering fascinating applications from the text.
Culture is different though. Culture is always changing because people are always changing. People's ideas, trends, hot topics, focus, politics, and so on are always shifting. A person could understand culture one year and then the next year, their understanding is already somewhat out of date. It's a difficult but necessary task. It was something Paul dedicated himself to (and he was an expert at studying culture because he started several churches in different contexts).
Knowing the Athenians were fascinated with idols, Paul makes a theological and philosophical argument: because God is immaterial and timeless, idols are not an accurate representation of Him (Acts 17:24-25, 29). He then scratches the surface on one of their biggest topics (life's purpose). Paul does so by discussing God's sovereignty (v. 26-27).
Some pastors I know hide from culture. They don't study it. Every weekend they unpack the Bible to their congregation with no mention or example of how Scripture intersects with the world around their congregation. Leaders who preach this way are like cultural hermits. The people in the church aren't cultural hermits. They have to work day in and day out in the culture that some preachers fear. The preacher's job isn't to make the Bible relevant, but to reveal how the Bible is relevant to everyday life. This looks different depending on the context. Each church is set in a different culture. Whether a small farming community, a church plant in New York, a ministry in India, or wherever the Lord has placed the preacher—there is a culture to be studied and understood.
Dare I say that a refusal to engage culture in sermons is not biblical preaching? In the sermons of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, we see a good emphasis on theology, and yet an understanding of their context (without the compromise of the message). One doesn't have to include a long diatribe on culture in every sermon, but the communicator's knowledge of culture is seen in building tension in the sermon, building the theological idea, and useful application. If the greatest commandment and deepest theology is "love God and love others" then maybe our study of Scripture is part of "love God" and our study of culture is seen in "love others."
Stay tuned Thursday for part two of this article.
Caleb Kaltenbach is lead pastor at Discovery Church, Simi Valley, California. He is the author of Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction and speaks widely on faith, reconciliation, and sexual diversity to people on all sides of the LGBT issue. Caleb attended Talbot School of Theology (Biola University) and is currently finishing his D.Min. at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has been interviewed in media outlets such as The New York Times, Fox and Friends, and The Glenn Beck Program.
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