Thursday, July 16, 2009

In the postmodern era, the purpose of a sermon is to transform a life

First Steps

Many pastors who preach to postmodern people say that one of the greatest challenges is to earn the right to be heard and believed. We earn this right by being authentic, biblical, relevant and holistic.


People today crave authenticity. That's why Johnny Cash, the singer, had a great appeal among young people even in his elderly years. His video "Hurt" is linked to the right.

How can we be authentic communicators? For centuries it was taught that authentic speech entails three elements:

Logos = our words
Ethos = our character
Pathos = our conviction

In other words, authentic communication involves not just what we say, but who we are. If this was true for centuries in the past, it is especially true in the postmodern era.

Postmodern people respond best to those who are:


People want to know who we are and what we do, not just what we say and believe. They want to know the difference the living God makes in our own lives.


It is not enough just to read words from a manuscript. Do we have an honest passion as well?


Postmodern people do not like to be controlled or manipulated. They do not respond to guilt or obligation. They do not want emotionalism for its own sake.

Focused on God

Our purpose is to change lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We are followers of God, not preaching machines. We teach people to be disciples, not trained listeners.

Being Biblical

Postmodern people are non-authoritarian. They view the world in a relational, connected way in which many people contribute to leadership and knowledge, not just a few. Postmodern people will listen to others, but they also want people to listen to them!

This is why many pastors have adopted a more conversational tone in their preaching to postmodern people. The idea is to be non-authoritarian, both by sounding less threatening and by reflecting in our sermons the thoughts and words of our listeners. We do not have to force things because we know the authority lies in the text, not in ourselves.

Because the authority lies in the text, our role as preachers is to provide an explanation of the text so that people can experience its authority in their lives.

When a sermon explains a text, we call it expository preaching. This can take many forms — logical presentation, narration, drama or role playing. Whatever form we use, the important thing is that we are explaining the text so it can develop authority in the lives of our listeners.

Many people detest expository preaching. Perhaps they heard an "expository sermon" that was little more than a dry, exegetical lecture full of background material. In the modernist era, preachers who preached like this sometimes excused themselves by quoting Isaiah 55:11: “My word . . . will not return to me empty.”

But expository preaching is not an exegetical lecture. It is explaining a text until it comes alive and relevant in the lives of people.

A chef on a cooking show explains things to us to help us understand. But the chef never elevates the explanation above the meal. The goal of the show is always clearly understood. In our preaching, our true purpose is not merely to inform people; it is to transform them. We clarify things, to clear the way for God to work.

In the modern era, expository sermons were often strong in explanation and short on application. They spoke to the mind — not the heart or the will. In the postmodern era, application has grown in importance. Explanation is still essential, but application may now take up half or more of a sermon. People are that broken. The human heart is complex and hard-wired to the core. In our explanation of a text, our goal is to help that scripture break through into the depths of a person's life. That takes hard work.

Being Relevant

So, how do we do application well?

There comes a point, in the explanation of a passage, when the logic of the text begins to catch fire in the hearts of people. When this happens, they begin sensing the implications for their own lives. God begins speaking to them. You can hear the room grow very still.

That’s when the expository sermon shifts from explanation into application. Having walked people into the text, we begin to walk the text into their daily lives.

We do this — not by telling them what to do — but by borrowing pages from the playbooks of their own lives. We paint pictures from their lives. There, before them, suddenly appear their workplace, their school and the people from their lives.

How does the Word speak to the minimum wage earner with a cash-flow problem? To the aging woman who lives far from her children? To the powerful business leader? To the high school girl who already stars in her own soap opera of a life? We create the scenarios and then walk people through them.

We mention the tough decisions they face. We remind them of moments of anguish we all encounter. We mention life’s weaknesses and struggles. They imagine themselves looking their colleague in the eye, or meeting their nemesis in the grocery store. But this time, they have the Word speaking to them. As we walk the Word through their lives, God touches their hearts. We borrow pages from the playbooks of their lives so God can re-write those pages.

Good application comes by being filled with God. We are pregnant with God’s words and seek to bear those words into this world. We succeed when we help people encounter the living God in their daily lives. Doing application well is a work of art. It is not the job for a hack. It takes a special touch. We are dealing with the human heart.

Doing good application is revealing God’s character to the world. It is not an exercise in legalism. There are things in the Bible that should not exist today. Who wants to see slavery re-born, or harems? Knowing God, we sense that such monsters from the past should not be allowed to live in the present. Our knowledge of what the living God is like keeps us from being ridiculous in our application.

Knowing God also safeguards us from preaching mere morality. We preach mortality, not morality. The Bible is not a book of ethics. Nor is it a how-to-manual. Rather, it is a book of redemption. It depicts our pride, our failure, our fate and our cry for mercy. Application is not about giving pointers to people for their self-improvement. It is about pointing people to grace.

That means we must be wary of setting behavioral goals for others in our preaching. We cannot tell the Holy Spirit what to do. We can just lead a person into the presence of God and leave the two of them to talk. Someone once observed that many sermons incorrectly conclude with one of four applications: “do more, pray more, give more or love more.” But such mantras are just new words from old Pharisees. They just lay obligations on hearts, instead of allowing God to speak grace.

Sermons are grace talks. We preach grace, and then gratitude. Application is of the right kind when it enables people to encounter the living God of grace and glory.

We must allow it to unfold naturally. It should not be rushed. Haddon Robinson remarks that people feel "preached at" when we launch into the application of our message too soon. We need to give people time to understand a passage and agree to its meaning. Only then do they become open to applying it to their lives. If the application comes too soon, it sounds wrong.

This is why postmodern sermons are not necessarily short. It takes time to do both explanation and application well. If we short-change the explanation, or relegate the application to the edges, the transformative power of our sermon will become diminished. What will hold people as they listen? It will be the transformation they feel is happening within them. People have all the time in the world for what is important for them.

In the modernist era, the purpose of many sermons was to inform the mind. This is why we were told to have a strong introduction — to capture the attention of our listeners. And we were encouraged to keep our sermons short, because "people have a short attention-span." The conclusion, or application, of a sermon was often no more than an after-thought.

In the postmodern era, the purpose of a sermon is to transform a life. Introductions are still important and we still need to be aware of our sermon's length. But when a sermon has caught fire, why should it end after 20 minutes? Once a sermon starts burning on its own, let it. Argue the case convincingly. Appeal to the mind. Speak to the emotions. Create the desire within people to respond. Give people what they need to have God change their lives.

In our preaching, we are arguing for God. As Paul wrote, "we are Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Cor 5:20). If this is so, then we need to argue convincingly.

Some are saying we should not argue to convince. We should end our sermons in a postmodern way with something like, "Now, this is what I think. What do you think?" The idea is to show respect to everyone's opinions.

But would you hire a lawyer who argued your case for you like that before a jury? Wouldn't you hire the most convincing lawyer you could find? Paul writes, "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor 10:5).

The most effective preaching will be both convincing and respectful. To do both well, we need to conceive of a sermon as a two-directional form of communication. As someone has put it, it is like a dialogue in which we represent the voice of our people to God and have God speak to the people from the text.

Being Holistic

In the modern era, people often tried to understand something by breaking it down into its component parts. Postmodern people are different. They like to understand something in terms of its whole. This means that our preaching needs to be holistic. Here are several ways to help sermons to be more holistic:

Preaching a holistic discipleship
Many modernist sermons perpetuated a false dichotomy between social action and spirituality/evangelism. Postmodern people see no such dichotomy. For them, both are just different aspects of loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving God. Today, holistic preaching is not afraid to call people to draw closer to God in their hearts and to serve God in the thick of the world.

Preaching to create a people for God
The modernist era was highly individualistic. Many of the sermons were directed to an individual's need for salvation or to our personal struggles in our lives of discipleship.

But a closer study of the New Testament reveals three aspects to the Gospel: (1) individual salvation, (2) being formed into a people for God and (3) working together as the people of God to transform the world. Our preaching should reflect the same. We should bring people to Christ, create a people for God, and inspire the people of God to serve God in the world. Our emphases should be on redemption, reconciliation and world transformation.

This meshes with the needs of postmodern people. Many postmodern people keenly sense the need for community and the necessity to live out discipleship together as a people for God. This is especially true if someone comes from a broken life and needs personal healing.

When we preach with all three emphases — redemption, reconciliation and world transformation — we present people with the need to know and be known, to forgive and be forgiven and to love and be loved. Such preaching also contrasts the empty promises of this run-down world with the Gospel, so we will be grateful to know Christ, to be a part of God's people, and to be empowered to serve God in the world.

Preparing messages in community
Since the time of Descartes, modernists considered research to be "a thinking subject who observes an object." Many preachers still follow this modernist approach in how they prepare their sermons. They study their text and draw their conclusions about their audience at a distance.

One of the positive things about postmodernism is that it has reminded us of the value of preparing our sermons in community. When we observe and think apart, stuck in an office alone, we might conclude that we are the source of all truth. But when we prepare our sermons in community, we realize how our sermons can be shaped by the Holy Spirit working through that community.

Preparing messages in community begins with our own attitude. Is yours a "top-down ministry," in which all wisdom has to flow from you? Or are you receptive to the Spirit of God speaking from the people you serve?

Do you have a pastoral heart that is open to people and that opens people up? Do people feel free to talk with you? Or do they become cautious when you are around? Do you make it safe for them to be honest with you about their real doubts and struggles?

As pastors, do we honestly seek feedback from the people we serve? When I did some work for a magazine publisher, it struck me how eagerly the "mag team" sought feedback from their target audience. They did not mind if someone criticized their ideas — they wanted an effective product. Their jobs depended on a successful magazine. In a sense, they were creating their magazine in community with those who would read it.

I visited a postmodern church called H20, in Orlando, Florida. The topic that day was on lust. The pastor did a tremendous job on this difficult subject. He spoke forthrightly, but also with great pastoral sensitivity. It was because he and his pastoral team prepared the message in community with their congregation. The staff spent a lot of time with various individuals, interacting with them as people and understanding what they were thinking and struggling with.

There are other ways that help us to prepare messages in community. Some pastors go on a yearly retreat with a group to pray and think through future messages. Other pastors host a focus group on the next week's text. I have heard of one pastor who asks different individuals to compile clippings for future topics to be preached. Many pastors work with creative worship teams to integrate a whole worship experience around a theme. Often, pastors will make a point of visiting people at home or where they work. Other pastors actively encourage dialogue after a sermon. One of my friends places a card by every seat that reads, "Want to talk together about what you heard today? Let's have coffee this week."

When we prepare our sermons in community, it gives us a renewed respect for those we serve and a greater awareness of their struggles. We will serve as one of them rather than as a distant, isolated figure.

For Further Reading

A good beginning place for learning about relevant, expository preaching is Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching and Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching.

Start with Robinson, then study Chapell, who goes deeper. No one should preach without reading Chapell's thoughts on redemptive sermons in chapters 10-11.

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