Note: This is the second in a two-part series. For part one, click here.
When preaching, a pastor might have great theological content and understanding of culture, but will fall short in how it is heard.
I've heard some of my fellow communicators say the following: "Well, I'm not responsible for how my listeners interpret my words." That may be true to a degree, but sometimes I think preachers who make such statements might be lazy. The preacher can make it easier for the audience to interpret their words correctly by being intentional in words said, illustrations given, etc.
Throughout Acts 17:16-34 Paul structured his message with his audience (academic scholars and philosophers) in mind. Paul calls attention to their "altar of the unknown god" (v. 23) and surprises these philosophers by calling them "ignorant." I doubt Paul called them "ignorant" to offend them, rather he knew they distained ignorance and in v. 19-21 they actually invited him to educate them. If I had to guess, I bet this was the hook that Paul knew would make them lean in and say, "tell me more." At another point in his message, he quotes two of their poets/entertainers (v. 28) showing that he was current with their culture.
Paul reminds us that intentionality of words prepares ears to hear. The word "intentionality" doesn't mean to water-down or make the truth of God palatable. Intentionality is all about knowing whom you are preaching to and how to best deliver the gospel in a way that the audience can best hear. Intentionality in what we communicate doesn't mean that we are compromising the message. I'm sure there were further elements of theology that could've been touched on in Paul's message, but he didn't address them. His end goal was to get the Athenians to follow the true God (mission accomplished according to v. 32-34).
Today, when the preacher has to tackle tough subjects or communicate to a room of diverse views, intentionality of words is paramount to the message. We can talk about a "recent event" in society in a way offends people (while we didn't mean to).
For example, I remember a conference I went to in Florida a few years ago. It started on Sunday night, so I flew there on Saturday and chose a church to attend on Sunday morning. I had wanted to attend this church for some time now and there was a guest preacher that particular day. His sermon was pretty solid, until he got to the middle. A certain unnamed celebrity had just decided to divorce their spouse, the news hit the tabloids, and the celebrity responded with some unwise words. That day the guest preacher decided to use the situation as an example of the consequences of not living a holy life. Not only did the guest preacher completely bash the celebrity, their spouse, and the rest of Hollywood, but he also had no idea that family members of the celebrity attended this church. The family took offense at how he described the celebrity.
Was the preacher right in what he said about holy living? I think so. Was the preacher wrong in how he handled it? Yes—100 percent wrong. Should he have even mentioned it? He could've mentioned it with more love and concern, rather than use the celebrity as a "sermon tackling dummy." Did the pastor present the celebrity and others in the story with compassion or those whom God created and Jesus died for? Nope. His lack of intentionality showed that day, and did damage to some good people.
Now, am I saying that communicators should never address people or the latest events in sermons? Not at all—they should, especially because both Jesus and Paul did that too. What I am suggesting is that when the pastor addresses a situation or person in a sermon—intentionality is required. The issue or person could be referred to in a gracious way while they are discussed in the sermon. The preacher does not have to sugarcoat anything in their description, but they should realize that how we describe relevant events matters because their listeners already have differing views on that event.
Intentionality with words begins by knowing the audience you're preaching to. Perhaps start with questions like these: What kind of words, names, or cultural references might offend someone to the degree that they don't listen to much after that reference?
When I am preaching on an act that I might see as sin and others might not, how can I still promote the truth with grace in the midst of a tough subject? What are some recent stories of redemption in today's culture? Instead of spending a whole sermon preaching against a sin (because people are so tied with their sin), how can I preach the text and show that God is FOR people?
Preaching Should be Countercultural and Appealing
Every sermon that's preached is countercultural (because the gospel is countercultural). However, a sermon should never be anti-cultural. If a sermon is anti-cultural, it is combative in approach and usually has no glimpse of grace, redemption, or God's present love for people. A countercultural sermon doesn't embrace or embattle culture, but engages culture in grace and truth.
Both Paul and Jesus were countercultural to both the religious community and their society. In a similar way, the church has always been countercultural, as has been the gospel. However, Jesus was countercultural and intriguing to those far from God. Paul was too.
In Acts 17:19, Paul is taken to a meeting of the Aeropagus after talking with some philosophers. In verse 32, the people listening to Paul want him to stay and keep "lecturing." I doubt they would've done this if he had been rude or uncaring. For the Athenians, there was something that was appealing about Paul. Obviously, it was the message of truth, but I believe that part of the appeal was his concern for them by understanding where they were. Again, this is nothing that Jesus didn't do during His earthly ministry.
Even though every sermon is countercultural, some will deal with difficult issues that will be lightening rods to the congregation. One can't go extremely long in a sermon calendar without hitting a subject that will get some people upset. There will always be contexts that are tough to communicate in. There will always be Christians that want a sermon so deep that there is no room for application involving cultural context. There will always be the preacher who will struggle on how to best engage the Word and culture.
All of this completely fine ... While Jesus was loving in His earthly ministry, He also preached many a sermons that caused some people to leave. I do notice, however, that Jesus never shamed an unbeliever and He always reminded them of love.
The pastor can preach in a polarizing environment and still have a maximum impact. Every sermon can use the pastor's knowledge of culture so as to engage an audience to the point where their ears are primed for the gospel.
Paul saw engagement of culture as a necessity—and so should we.
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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