As someone who teaches and preaches the Word of God I have often thought about the relationship between the message that is being taught and the method of communicating that message. I am not an expert on the subject but through the years I have heard, read, or participated in a number of conversations about the need to make the Bible “relevant” to classes and congregations. This debate about contextualization and relevance has permeated virtually every discussion on worship and preaching in our generation.
The Bible as God’s Word is by definition relevant. There is no message that is more important or practical in the lives of people than the Gospel. Since all have sinned there is no person for whom the message does not have immense relevance. What most people who use those terms mean, however, is that we need to capture people’s attention and get them to see that this message has direct application in their lives.
Many have argued that since conviction of sin, conversion, and repentance are the work of the Holy Spirit there is nothing any person can do to make the Bible more or less relevant. While I agree with this in an objective theological sense there is a sense in which the teacher or preacher is responsible for ensuring the “relevance” of the message. We have all suffered through teaching that was excruciatingly difficult to follow. We have all heard preachers who have droned on without ever clearly explaining the Gospel. Every preacher or teacher is responsible for communicating the truth and also for communicating it clearly.
How then should someone who has complete confidence in the inherent power of the Word prepare so that they may give a relevant message without resorting to worldly marketing, entertainment, or other inappropriate kinds of contextualization? First, the minister must study. There must be a disciplined approach to knowing what the Bible says. Through study, the teacher accumulates all of the information from the text. He observes what it says and how it says it. Second, the teacher must meditate upon the Word. This involves careful thought about the information uncovered in study. Not just a quick consideration but deep thought about what is said in a particular passage and how it relates to every other passage and how it addresses and redefines the experiences in his life and the lives of those around him. The minister must think carefully about how all those details come together into a unity of truth.
It is through this process of meditation that the pastor/teacher uncovers biblical connections and realizes the significance of various details in the text and how they connect to the fundamental categories that the scripture deals with. These categories; sin, holiness, redemption, reconciliation, etc. provide the basis for connecting the truth of the Bible to the spiritual needs (conscious or not) of the hearers. These connections also allow the teacher to highlight the relationship of difficult passages with those that are clearer. By knowing the material well and how it addresses universal themes the pastor/teacher can present a message that is relevant to any person regardless of their particular subculture or context.
Finally, after all of this it is necessary that the preacher clearly communicate the message. In order to do so the preacher must understand some basic information about the people to whom he is preaching or teaching. For example, it would not be very edifying to preach a great English sermon to a Chinese speaking congregation. The Word of God is powerful but it does not function as a magical incantation. It must be intelligibly articulated. It must be cognitively understood before it can be morally transforming.
The issues related to doing this are the same ones we repeatedly see in the scripture. There are questions of vocabulary, dress, and other side issues that we must take notice of so that the preacher himself is not a distraction drawing attention away from the message. Paul, for example shows us that our dress and approach should not be offensive. If people are to be offended let them be offended at our message not our appearance or behavior (1 Cor. 9:20-23). We see indications that there are basic things that must be taught and understood before we expect people to understand more complex doctrines (Jn. 3:12, 1 Cor. 3:2, Heb. 5:12). Obviously we must pay attention to the fundamentals of effective communication but because of the nature of the message of the Bible the best thing a teacher can do to help people see the application of the scripture in their lives is to know the material well enough to explain it clearly.
The concern about “relevant” preaching and teaching is not itself wrong. Our desire whenever we preach or teach is that people’s lives are changed. We recognize, however, that it is the Holy Spirit that works through the message to do this. Because of the universal sinfulness of humanity the message is already relevant. Our part is to prepare properly so that we are able to communicate it clearly. This may involve some of the external contextual type of things that many people focus on but the primary emphasis should not be on presentation but on the method of preparation. If a pastor/teacher wants to be relevant then the best thing they can do is to know the material so well that their explanation and application of it flows naturally from the text.
I pray every time I preach or teach that if anyone should discuss the message later on with family or friends that the conversation would be about the text. If I have done my job properly I will fade into the background and the listener will be fully engaged with the words and message of the Bible itself. If they are discussing anything about me then I have done them a disservice. As count Zinzendorf so eloquently said, the job of the preacher is to “preach the Gospel, die, and be forgotton”. If you have a faithful preacher or teacher who consistently leads you into the Word of God and helps you to see the glory of Jesus Christ in its pages I pray you would take the time to thank them and encourage them in that task this week.