Most preachers are familiar with the diagnostic question: Could your sermon have been preached in a mosque or a synagogue?
It’s a helpful question that pinpoints whether or not we have been remotely Christ-centred in our preaching—is it in actual fact a Christ-ian sermon?
I want to propose another diagnostic question (albeit of a secondary nature):
Could your sermon have been preached 100 years ago?
What do I mean by that?
I’m not referring to the language the sermon is couched in, or the version of scripture which is read.
I’m not referring to inserting a host of TV or movie illustrations or pop culture references in an attempt to seem relevant.
Nor am I referring to adopting the modus-operandi of the communicators of any given age—whether it be comedians or orators.
I am referring the fact that the world was a very different place 100 years ago. Then there was a shared Christian worldview even amongst non-Christians which could be presumed on; now that is gone. Then there was an assumption of external values; now there is a priority of internal preference—feelings have come to rule reality.
Add to that the colossal pressure to get your significance from the ephemeral world of digital performance. And further, the demolishing of the foundations and a removing of the mooring points for life which have left people adrift in an ocean of meaningless uncertainty.
Of course Scripture hasn’t changed, and so our exegesis of the text should sound similar to that of Calvin or Spurgeon (in places!). And the heart of man hasn’t changed that much, and so similar applications will be made. So sometimes the answer to that question will be a shameless “Yes, it could have been preached 100 years ago, or even 200!”
It may well be that a particular church’s location or demographic makeup means that not much of exegeting the current worldview is required—and that is part of a preacher’s wisdom in knowing his own congregation.
But without a shadow of a doubt the entire thought-world of the majority of 21st century western Christians has changed—and for many of us we need to reflect that in our preaching. If we are faithfully to equip people to live for Christ in this world our sermons must be different from those of 100 years ago.
Our young people need us to show that we understand the questions they are asking, or even the questions they don’t know to ask, but are grappling towards. They need to know that we understand the world they are living in. Others need to see that the reasons their arguments aren’t working is because they aren’t connecting with where people are actually at in their thinking. We can be busy trying to put Christian leaves on a tree that has changed its roots, trunk and branches—the very ideas and worldview which support Christian ethical values have been stripped away.
And yes, the old truths are exactly what they need—but they need to see those old truths connected to where they are at.
That means our application in preaching will do at least two things
• Seek to understand the actual worlds that people inhabit so that we aren’t giving tired, old, outdated and predictable applications.
• Seek to understand the worldview which predominates the world they inhabit, equipping them to live well in their world and to present truths in an increasingly Acts 17 manner.
It is primarily the second that is my concern. We need to equip our people to understand not just the rights and wrongs of the present world, but to some degree, how our world got here, and more particularly how to speak the rich multi-faceted, soul-saving, soul-renovating truth of God’s word into it.
We need to help them exegete the world in which they live, so that they can make sense of it for themselves, and so they can see the enduring relevance of God’s word. It will help them deepen their faith, and equip them in their witness so that they aren’t merely giving an answer to a surface question, but are able to answer the ache that lies behind it.
So preachers—what books are you reading, or what podcasts are you listening to, to help you understand the world in which we live?
And as we ready ourselves to preach—could your sermon have been preached 100 years ago?
A couple of recommendations
Here are a couple of books I’ve found helpful or insightful in recent years.
- The Other Worldview – Peter Jones
- The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self – Carl Trueman
- Love thy Body – Nancy Pearcey
- Selfie – Will Storr (on our fixation with self-esteem)
- The Tyranny of Merit – Michael Sandel (on our attitudes to success)
- The Shallows – Nicholas Carr (on technology)
Needless to say there are some analyses in the secular ones which I disagree with, and some content in ‘Selfie’ which is unwholesome since it deals with sinful trends from a secular perspective.