20 March 2007

Context-sensitive preaching?

by Dan Phillips

I'll be brief.

Something stood out to me in my last reading of Acts 10, in the apostle Peter's ministry to Cornelius. Now, Peter's apostleship separates him from us. But he was a man of like passions, and as an apostle he was an elder, which is to say a pastor (1 Peter 5:1). These are points he has in common with many of us. There is much in what he does that we find both cautionary and instructive.

This encounter is an example, I think, of the latter. Why has Peter come to Cornelius' house? Well, it wasn't due to a mere notion or a thought; and it wasn't in response to a holy mumble or hunch. Peter comes to Cornelius in response to two bona-fide supernatural encounters: his own, and Cornelius'. Peter had direct revelation from God preparing him for the encounter (10:9-17). The encounter itself was instigated by Cornelius' vision of an angel of God (vv. 3-6).

Peter is an apostle, one who receives direct revelation and speaks the word of God.

So what does Peter do when he walks in the door? Does he say, "Glad to see you all here. I know exactly what to say, because I say exactly the same thing in exactly the same way everywhere I go. So sit down, shut up, and listen up"?

Not so much. Nota bene:

"So, may I ask: for what reason did you send for me?" (Acts 10:29b).

He offers a question, not a pronouncement. He finds out something about his audience. He inquires, and learns who they are, where they are "itching," what has provoked this encounter. Then what Peter says is aimed at them, not at some invisible, incorporeal and immutable target. He speaks to them, nor merely in front of them.

Of course Peter preaches the same Jesus, the same Gospel, the same salvation he always preaches. But there was not a set, inviolable formula—or if there was, the Holy Spirit neglected to give us consistent examples of the apostles hewing to it.

For Peter isn't the only example of this in the book of Acts. Take brother Philip, sent by the Holy Spirit to the eunuch's caravan. He doesn't say, "I see you're reading. How nice. So, anyway, there's something I have to tell you, before you get back to whatever that is there....."

Notice what Philip did, for it's golden: "...and beginning from this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus" (8:35). The eunuch was reading in Isaiah 53 (—how great was that?), and had some questions. Philip connects with those questions and that Scripture, and preaches Jesus.

Or take again the obvious example of Paul, again and again. In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul preaches Jesus straight from Torah (13:15-41). But in the next chapter, this same apostle connects with the would-be worshipers by preaching in connection with that sin (14:15-17). And then again, in Athens, confronted with the philosophers, Paul quotes from their own writers so glibly that they call him a spermologos, a "seed-picker" who can peck out a quotation here and there (v. 18).

And so, when the apostle preaches to them, what he says is absolutely and firmly based in Scripture, without even one direct allusion. Students of the Old Testament know that everything Paul says comes straight from that source, and he brings it crashing down on their hostile Weltanschauung. But he connects the unchanging message with the changing audience.

And there's the point. We preach an unchanging message to audiences with unchanging fundamental needs, but changing portals of perception. We preach about, but we also preach to.

We err, and serve neither God nor man well, if we lose sight of either truth.

Dan Phillips's signature


Peculiar Pete said...

Great point!
That was one of the things I was tought when studying homiletics. You should always know the audience in which you are preaching. Screaming about being frugal, to a bunch of homeless folks, wouldn't make much sense. A preacher needs to adapt to his audience.


Fred Greco said...

This is why the most difficult, and most rewarding thing about preaching is coming up with appropriate applications and illustrations for the sermon. It is hard work - so much easier to recycle the best anecdotes I heard, or the funniest stories, or the illustrations from a sermon website. But even the best illustrations of used by others don't cut it (most often) in sermons. They can work in other venues (like here), but in a sermon the preacher is called to impart not only the Word of God, but his very self.

Far too often today men do not take the time for this, to make sermon applications particular so that they can be pointed. The Westminster Confession says that repentance must be of "particular sins particularly" and how can a man do that if his preacher preaches generalities? No one grows, as I say to my people, in Fuzzyland.

DJP said...

Very good points, Fred. Picking illustrations that serve the sermon without overwhelming it is a challenge. When people come away remembering your story, but not your text — ouch.

LeeC said...

My pastor has a neat book on the topic. "Expository Preaching with Word Pictures
With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson"

cslewis3147 said...

good post Dan-
very encouraging as I'm preaching through the book of Acts Sunday mornings to a Jr. High group and trying to delve deep and give them the Word...but also understanding who my audience is, is a must...thanks!

FX Turk said...

I was going to post:

Oh shut up already. Don't you have a job or something? Geez...

but then I'd have to explain it was a joke, and no I don't hate Dan, and yes he's a big boy, and yes I agree wiuth him, etc etc, so I'm posting this instead.

Tom Chantry said...

The Westminster Confession says that repentance must be of "particular sins particularly" and how can a man do that if his preacher preaches generalities? No one grows, as I say to my people, in Fuzzyland.

This is challenging to do rightly. It is so tempting to back away from what might offend the local congregation.

I am reminded of the story I heard about a young preacher in Kentucky. He was told not to preach about alcohol any more because the young men in the church all worked at the Jim Beam distillery. He wasn't supposed to preach about smoking because there were too many tobacco farmers in the church. And the church's biggest doner was a thoroughbred breader, so he couldn't preach on gambling. Eventually he decided to preach a sermon on the evil of off-shore fishing in the territorial waters of other nations.

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness, Peter and Cornelius...so many things I could write that would be out of context and deleted due to the content...so I will not mentioned the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would only anger cessationist and Third Wavers alike. Nope. I refrain. :-) BTW, loved the post.

Anonymous said...

This is a constant challenge for me. I teach adult expository Bible studies to groups from 10 to 100 people, I teach and work with guys in the discipleship program at the local rescue mission, I lead a middle school guys group and I am teaching a high school Sunday school Bible study class. Oh, and I also do Awana council time teaching with K-6th graders. A wide variety of audiences and contexts, but the same truths. In fact I have used the same material for four of these groups, but have to adapt the delivery and approach to the group. Thanks for the reminder that this is a primary task for the teacher and preacher of the Word.

Anonymous said...

But, for teenagers and middle school kids, how do you take the gospel of Christ and show it TO them? I just don't know how. I'm thinking that the Wyaofthemaster way is like for adults sometimes and the RIGHT thing is to do the what the Holy Spirit says or wants me to do in that situation.

So, how do you interact in middle and high school culture, since I am a middle schooler too. I know you don't start preaching Torah, but proably something in the lines of the cultural behaviors, like the drug problems, adultery, etc,etc. show them the love of Christ when they're depressed. Um, and show them that Christ makes the unjust just by commuicating and rpersenting the sins of that culture. or something like that.

How else do I communicate to the middle and high school culture?

Great stuff by the way. Thanks and God bless.

Peculiar Pete said...

As a response to "Sweetly Broken":

You always, 100% percent of time, give the Gospel the exact same way. Always. It is laid out in Scripture to the dot. I find ablsolutely no reason to change your methods on God's good news, just because your speaking to some 7th graders. If you're doing it the correct way, they will be able to understand it completely. God has placed it on the heart of every man.

A major problem with your "Emerging Church" gospel presentation is that it focuses on how to relate to them in a fleshly sense, not a spiritual. Don't talk about their emotions! TALK ABOUT THEIR SIN! Tell them that if they die without Christ, they will burn in Hell for all of eternity because God is just!

The basic line: First show them their sin, that God is holy, and therefore the penalty of their sin is Hell, and that Jesus took their place. That is the Gospel message the way Jesus preached it. It's good enough for me, no need to change your methods on the Gospel.

Hope that helped!


Anonymous said...

Thanks Pete.

You said "your emerging church" I don't think that's mine.??

I talk to people about their sin and the utter holiness of God and they'll perish in Hell. I do.

Just the next day, they don't care. That's what it seems when I share the gospel that way. I don't go by emotions. It's what the HOly Spirit says to do.

God bless.

Leberwurst said...

Just gotta say to Sweetly Broken and Peculiar Pete, You guys are a great encouragement to an old guy who has taught Sunday School to elementary students and Studied the Bible with adults. I have presented the Gospel to all ages, and you are exactly right, Truth don’t change, but how you communicate to a given audience does matter. I always thought that if I tried to appeal to my audience by trying to be “relevant” they would see right through me. But if I shared the truth with them based on the “talents” God had given me, and prayed and trusted the Lord for the result, His will would be done. Of course I always tried to be interesting and use applications they could identify with, but always keep the meat of the message “Gospel” and primarily scripture based. This formula honors God and keeps me from being the object and results from being the goal. You guys are on the right track. Keep asking questions, and dig deep. God will use your study and faithfulness for His glory!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike.

Check out pete's site at peculiarite.com

I also have a blog


God bless.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry spelled the site wrong

its praisehimforever.blogspot.com

Mrs Pilgrim said...

Oh, SB...

I think Pete was using an American idiom when he said "your 'Emerging Church.'"

Not yours personally. Just a way of speaking that's a little antiquated, but fun.

I always love seeing young folks pick up on old speech patterns. Collecting them was a hobby of mine, too.