Awhile back, I watched Meredith Viera interview Danny Boyle, last year’s Olympic Opening Ceremony director. Viera posed a difficult question to Boyle. She inquired how Boyle’s ceremonies could ever supersede the Opening Ceremonies from Beijing in 2008. Boyle’s answer was wise. He replied that, in essence, it was impossible to top the Beijing ceremonies, so he would simply attempt to create an Opening Ceremony that was faithful to the heritage and contribution of the United Kingdom. It was, I think, the perfect answer.
But then the Opening Ceremonies began. If you watched the Opening Ceremonies last year, you understand that Boyle’s project was hardly a model of understatement. It was a celebration of the highest order featuring Queen Elizabeth, James Bond, Mr. Bean, and a legion of Mary Poppins battling He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Perhaps Boyle believed that he could not compete with the Beijing ceremonies. But he was, at the end of the day, creating an event that can only be described as spectacle.
Of course, spectacle is the steady diet of those who exist in the 21st century. We fill our time with the most recent Internet memes, the most outlandish stunts, and the “biggest and the best” of whatever our endeavor is.
Over against the society enamored with spectacle, the church has been given something completely different. The church possesses the gospel of God become human, living and serving among us, dying a sacrificial death on a cross, being resurrected to new life, and giving the gift of His Spirit. On its own terms—God became human!—this truth supersedes any sort of spectacle we might hope to generate of our own effort. But, in practicality, even those of us in the church seem to believe that we need a bit of spectacle. The spectacle of the church focuses on service, hiddenness, the washing of feet, and self-sacrifice. This is exactly opposite of what most of us are used to.
And so we are caught in a dilemma. Pastors step into pulpits each week where both believers and non-believers sit—ready to varying degrees—to hear the good news. They want to faithfully proclaim, but they want to be relevant. They want the lost to hear the good news, but they do not want to bore or alienate the long-time disciple. Simultaneously, they want to make church palatable for those outside of the faith without boring them.
Those of us who are pastors have a very well-founded fear: How do we faithfully proclaim to these sorts of people? How do you preach to the lost and the saved simultaneously, knowing the wide gulf between them?
This is not a new problem, and many blogs, articles, and books have been written attempting to navigate these waters, but I thought I might share three principles that are currently guiding my preaching to our digitally-drenched age, particularly with regard to the rise of spectacle.
1. The gospel has universal application
The gospel is simple. In fact, sometimes it seems too simple to those of us who are too familiar with it. It is: Jesus lived, died, was buried, and was resurrected. His doing so fulfilled God’s requirements for justice, and receiving the gospel makes people in right standing with God.
Of course, this simple gospel has unlimited explanation. It can be applied to every person, from every walk of life. Those who find themselves in worship for the first time ever need to hear the gospel, for they need to know that they will not be saved by moralism or religious activity. Those who are long-time believers need to hear the gospel, as well. Personally, I struggle with achievement and recognition. I can be tempted to need the approval of others. This will often spill into my spiritual life, as I begin to attempt to “achieve for God.” So I need to preach the gospel to myself, as well. I need to be reminded that my requirements for righteousness have already been fulfilled at the cross and the empty tomb. There is no need for me to impress God. My righteousness is as filthy rags. But the cross gives grace.
On weeks when I find myself staring at a blank screen wondering how to preach the Scripture at hand, I remind myself that every passage of Scripture points back to Jesus Christ and his good news of salvation. Let me say that again: Every passage of Scripture points back to Jesus Christ and his good news of salvation. You cannot preach an irrelevant sermon if you constantly circle back to the message of Jesus through the text at hand. Even on weeks when your sermon needs to go a different direction (I preached on service last week, for example), the gospel will always be central to your method (i.e., service is possible because we have been transformed by grace).
Every person in your congregation needs to hear the gospel every single week. It may be in different contexts or situations, but we constantly need to be reminded of the fact that God’s entire message culminates in the person of Jesus.
2. People are hungry to understand the Scripture
Every week I have the privilege of spending hours reading and studying the Bible. And, every week, I learn something new. I have been preaching or teaching on church staff in some respect for the last eighteen years or so. I have three degrees from universities relating to theological and biblical studies. I attended church regularly since I was an infant. And still, I discover something new about the Bible every single time that I study in preparation for a sermon.
Isn’t that incredible? I certainly believe that it is. For several years I think I undersold the beauty and complexity of the Scripture when I preached, because I was afraid that it would be too complex. In short, I sold my church members short. Now I realize that was a terrible mistake. The people of my church love when I clearly and thoroughly exposit the Scripture. They listen intently to historical and theological backgrounds of the Bible each week. They, too, look forward to learning something new about the miraculous Word of God each week. They are hungry to know the Bible.
Most of the world has some frame of reference regarding the Bible. They may not be able to articulate it precisely, but they know that they should be more familiar with the Bible. Over the years, I have preached topically and narratively, but more often than not, I find that the most effective method of preaching is to return to the Bible and to explain it to the church. When they see how the Bible ties into God’s redemptive plan and they learn something new, they have a great experience—whether they are long-time believers or first-timers.
3. Application is not optional
I love theology. In my mind, a sermon that is light on theology is a poor sermon, indeed. One common mistake I made early in my preaching career, however, was to focus too heavily on theology. I loved the theories behind the Scriptural message, and I spent a great deal of time explaining them in my sermons. And, while theology is important, it cannot be the only linchpin of a sermon.
The best sermons will be an arch of sorts: theology will constitute one side, but application will be the other side. The gospel is the place where theology and application come together (hence its regularly recurring role in the sermon). But application cannot be neglected. The best preachers in the history of the church (Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin) were excellent theologians, but they also insistent on application. I attended a preaching conference where the keynote speaker asserted that Luther’s sermons were always at least half application. Think of your favorite preachers today. They tend to be those who have excellent theology coupled with relentless application. They have rightly discerned that if the gospel is life-changing, then it must indeed change the actions which make up our lives.
I once read an apocryphal story about Abraham Lincoln listening to a sermon one Wednesday at a church near the White House. He was asked what he thought of the sermon. His analysis was that the sermon was excellent in every respect but one. He is reported to have said: “It failed. It failed because the pastor did not ask us to do something great.”
When you conclude your sermon, you must apply the truth of the gospel to everyone in the room, be they believers or not. They must be called to act on what you have shared. Only then has the sermon been completed.
If your sermon is centered on the gospel, faithfully expositing Scripture, and demanding application, then it will rarely fail. It may not be the sort of spectacle that your listeners are accustomed to digesting, but it may—unlike that sort of spectacle—be the tool God uses to change a life.
Steve Bezner is Senior Pastor of Houston Northwest Church. He holds degrees from Hardin-Simmons University (B.A., Bible; M.A., Religion) and Baylor University (Ph.D., Religion). He is married to Joy and has two sons: Ben and Andrew. Follow him on Twitter: @Bezner.