by: Clayton King, Founder + Author
As a pastor and evangelist, I am often questioned about preaching in the 21st Century. They usually take one of the following forms…
1. Does preaching need to sound different to a more secular culture?
2. How do pastors connect to non-believers from the pulpit?
3. What are some ways to invite people to respond to the gospel during a sermon?
These are not only good questions; they are essential to the future of the church and the eternal destinies of those who have never heard the gospel. Here's my response to these questions.
I’ve had the privilege to travel in 38 countries since 1991. Our ministry, Crossroads, has partnered with the IMB and numerous international ministries to send over 1,000 people to the nations. We all agree that a vital part of missions is preparing those who “go” to engage those to whom they are “sent.” They learn as much as they can about the language, the culture, the history, and the context of the people they are attempting to reach with the gospel.
I encourage you to adopt this missionary mindset to your preaching. If it’s necessary to understand an unreached culture in another country, it is just as important to understand the unreached culture in our own country, our own city, and our own community.
America is overwhelmingly unreached with the gospel. The good old days are gone. Our church buildings sit on top of the ruins of post-Christendom. Christianity is no longer the default civic religion of this nation. As the culture changes, there’s a greater need for Christians who “understand the times” and do all they can to reach those who are far from God with the gospel. Pastors are missionaries, too, and like every believer, we are on mission to do all that we can to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. Like missionaries who learn to “speak the language and understand the culture” of an unreached people group, ministers have the great joy (and heavy responsibility) of communicating the old story in new ways, engaging those who are ignorant or skeptical of Christianity in creative and winsome ways while holding fast to the “message that we received, passed down from the apostles.”
This is no new challenge, so don’t be afraid. The Apostle Paul is a perfect example of a preacher who understood the need to communicate the gospel in it’s own context while engaging the unreached audience in their own context. I appeal to Acts 17 as our template. Paul had a mentality that preceded his method, and they both served his message.
Paul finds himself in Athens, one of the most influential cities on earth, the planetary capitol of philosophy, education and intelligence. His goal was to proclaim Christ, crucified and resurrected, to people who had no exposure to the gospel. This should be our goal as well. He was quite literally stepping onto virgin soil with the story of Jesus, blazing a trail among the intellectual descendants of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. As a Jew, he knew that Athenians were altogether different than him, but he was smart enough to contextualize his delivery of the gospel to them, if and when the opportunity came.
Do we have a mentality to reach those who are far from God? As one who preaches the gospel, we must constantly be thinking about the outsider that we hope to reach. We must model that mentality to our church members. We must be willing to do whatever it takes, short of sin, to meet the outsider (the un-churched, the lost, the critic, the atheist, the confused) with the gospel. Like Paul was willing to set aside his Jewish-ness to reach the Greeks, we must set aside our “traditions and preferences” to speak to an audience that doesn’t understand our language, beliefs, and traditions.
This may mean:
-Losing the suit and tie on Sunday mornings
-Adding a guitar and drums to the worship service
-Shortening your message from 45 minutes to 30 minutes.
You have to discern what to do to reach a new generation, but it starts with a mentality; you really care about lost people being saved and you will work hard to create environments and messages where obstacles are removed and they are given a chance to respond. That’s a mindset that prioritizes people over preferences.
The opportunity did come. He was invited by the Areopagus (Athen’s most revered and influential men) to present his “new teaching” to their assembly. His proclamation of the gospel to an unreached culture is textbook! Paul brilliantly adjusts his presentation to his audience by doing his homework and preparing for the big moment (think of this in terms of preparing your sermon and delivery with outsiders in mind).
He respects them as men by using an honorable greeting, “Men of Athens.” He honors their city by informing them that he’d spent time walking their streets and observing their architecture and religious idols (I imagine he had to bite his tongue pretty hard as a monotheistic Jew in the presence of thousands of stone idols to false gods). He refers to their own poets and even quotes them in his public presentation of the gospel, disarming the audience that was already skeptical enough to refer to him as a “babbler.” To find common ground and connect with his audience, he says in verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “ Remember this every time you preach, as if you are addressing Athens for the first time.
For you, this may mean:
-Using current illustrations from pop culture, sports, or politics, or quoting from a scene in a movie or a lyric in a song that everyone knows
-Adjusting your sermons from six points to just two.
-Listening to sermons from other pastors and learning from their creativity and delivery
-Including video in your sermons, adding salvation testimonies to Sunday morning services, or bringing props on stage as object lessons to make your point unforgettable.
I once rode out on stage on a 4-wheeler during a series called “Redneck” and preached a sermon on John The Baptist. Over 400 people responded to the gospel that day, and we baptized almost all of them within a month. The 4-wheeler didn’t save them, but it communicated that we were willing to use different methods to reach those who had never heard.
Paul moves to the person of Jesus, the testimony of the resurrection, a warning about coming judgment, and a command to repent of sin. He didn’t compromise the message by contextualizing his delivery, and neither do you.
In the words of Muhammad Ali, he planned his work and then he worked his plan. He spoke their language, literally and figuratively. He won a hearing by treating them with honor and respect. He dignified them as humans, spoke to them in their context, and seized the small window of opportunity to preach the gospel. And guess what happened?
Some sneered. Some were curious and wanted more time to think it through. And some believed and were converted, namely Dionysius and Damaris (verse 34). He evidently extended an invitation for them to believe, and so should you.
-Don’t be afraid that outsiders won’t respond, because it’s the gospel that draws them, not our invitation.
-Be clear. Be bold. Don’t manipulate.
-Ask people to respond and tell them how to be saved.
-Trust the scripture and the Holy Spirit and invite them to believe.
The Athens of yesterday is the America of today. The methods must always change. The message must remain the same. But it’s our mentality that makes all the difference. Are we mindful of the outsider that hears us preach? Do we even want them in our church? And if so, are we willing to do whatever it takes to reach them?