Preaching in a Postmodern Culture

It is the heart of every pastor to reach the lost and disciple them in the ways of Christ. But some of us will never be successful at doing this because we do not understand the postmodern culture around us.
Unless you have been asleep at the wheel for the last couple of decades, you have undoubtedly noticed the profound changes in our culture and grappled with how these changes relate to pastoring a church. The fact is, preaching effectively in today's world requires a significantly different approach from preaching in prior decades. If biblical communicators fail to perceive the significant ideological shifts affecting humanity, the church may wake up to discover that preachers are merely talking to themselves about matters only the deeply committed comprehend.

How should a pastor respond to these societal changes? How can he best connect with and challenge the postmodern listener? The following four principles provide a good starting point. They will make the difference in the efficacy of your preaching in our postmodern climate.

Rule No. 1: Don't engage listeners at the expense of the message. Methods may change, but the message has not. The Bible is clear on this: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2, NKJV).

In examining the how of preaching in a postmodern climate, and seeking to maintain both the authority and integrity of God's Word, three dangers become clear. The first is preachers could lose confidence in God's Word, or with only a Bible in hand, feel overwhelmed by postmodernity's tidal-wave-like force. Second, preachers might stoop to a type of reduced perspective that shrinks God and His truth to accommodate listeners. Third, preachers might adapt an essentially pragmatic approach.

Where does that fear behind the first danger come from? Well, the struggle to address biblical issues can be daunting when people no longer remember the questions. Regarding the second danger, if the preacher relinquishes the reliance upon the supernatural presence of the living Word, no cultural insight can fill that void. Either God has spoken and still speaks to the hearts of people, or preachers are to be pitied above all.

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The preacher's third danger of falling into pragmatism is serious. When you know the right switches to flip, you may be tempted to preach in order to garner a response. But just because something works doesn't make it right or biblical. A preacher may completely mishandle a text, close with a heart-wrenching story of a boy and his dog, and have people repenting up and down the aisles.

Effectiveness must be understood in terms of bringing the listeners to a clear appreciation of the biblical message. Our knowledge of the listeners, their biases and predispositions to and against certain ideas becomes a means, not a substitute, to leading them to a full comprehension of all God is and what He intends for their lives. With that in mind, seek the most effective approaches of bringing the postmodern heart, mind and soul to God (see tips on page 52 for practical ideas).

Rule No. 2: Follow the rules of effective communication. Because preaching involves a divine encounter, the fallacy might be drawn that basic communication principles somehow need not apply. "Just return to Bible-based preaching," some preachers might argue in a call for less attention to communication skills and techniques. Granted, the Bible is the required text, but the proper preaching of God's all-important message should likewise maintain excellence in communication.

But communication skills alone are not the clincher in speaking to postmodern people. Before we preach we should ask ourselves, Do the words and ideas here have relevance and meaning?

For many postmodern listeners the message of the Bible has no meaning, and they don't understand it. For others the message of the Bible has no relevance and bears no importance. Many listeners feel as if the Bible has nothing substantial to say to people living in our time; for them the message of the Bible has neither meaning nor relevance.

The role of the preacher is to supply both meaning and relevance to people who initially do not understand the message nor perceive its need. In addressing postmodern listeners, to assume the meaning or relevance of what is about to be preached represents a costly error in judgment.

Look at the model of communication in the story of Nathan and King David (see 2 Sam. 12). David had taken another man's wife and eliminated the husband. Imagine you're Nathan. It's easy to arrive at the various scenarios that could have resulted from this confrontation with David. The majority of these scenarios end up with you--Nathan--dead. As king, David could have lashed out at Nathan or ignored a stern rebuke and hardened his heart even more.

Nathan, however, takes the proud king off guard by stealth. Nathan returns David to his humble beginnings as a shepherd boy. He unfolds the story of the poor man possessing nothing but a little ewe lamb he had bought and raised (v. 3), adding the tender touch that the lamb slept in his arms. The message captures the heart of the fierce warrior-king as he recalls his own boyhood experiences.

As David listens intently, readers can imagine the veins in David's neck beginning to bulge. By the time Nathan reaches the closing injustice where the little ewe lamb is callously taken away, David shouts in anger, " 'As the Lord lives, the man who has done shall surely die!'" (v. 5). Then, Nathan utters the immortal words, " 'You are the man!'" (v. 7).

In the story of the lamb, in knowing David's background, Nathan was able to pierce through David's defenses so that God's Spirit might convict him and bring him to the point of repentance: "'I have sinned against the Lord'" (v. 13). The same story might not have touched a different man, but it was perfectly tailored for David, the shepherd boy-turned-king. David was both the poor man and the rich man in the story. He viewed himself as the poor man at first. By the conclusion, he knew he stood before God as the callous, rich man.

This story illustrates the fact that it helps to know one's audience so that the message can penetrate the walls of self-deception and self-denial. Knowing one's listener makes you a more effective communicator for God.

But communication is more than just issuing words; it is the reception of words and perceptions by the listener on cognitive, intuitive and emotional levels. The message received has a lot to do with a speaker's tone, gestures and facial expressions.

Aristotle spoke of the logos (the words), the ethos (the motive of the speaker) and the pathos (the emotional appeal to the audience). Each of these elements plays a key role in the communication process. For 21st century listeners, preaching must value the ethos and pathos, not just the logos. The message's perception and feel is very important.

Tony Campolo tells the story from his own boyhood experience of attending a revival meeting. The stern evangelist vividly described the fiery torments of hell that awaited the unrepentant sinner. Closing his message, the speaker pointed a bony finger to his audience and pronounced, "If you leave this place without knowing Jesus and cross the street outside and get hit by a car, you will go straight to hell."

Campolo recalls, "The message did not make me want to know Jesus, but it did make me look both ways when I crossed the street."

Inadvertently the wrong message was communicated. The message of grace and redemption was heard as a message of judgment and condemnation. Which message are we about--grace or condemnation? The how of what is said can make a difference as to whether the what is received.

Rule No. 3: Risk getting involved with the listeners. For the logos of the Christian message to connect with the contemporary listener, the preacher must first enter the listener's sphere of postmodern understanding. Listeners become involved as they sense the speaker's involvement in their lives. This addresses the ethos, the attitude of the speaker as perceived by the listener, which weighs heavily in the postmodern perception.

Some preachers might resent the fact that the message of Christ could be evaluated upon the merits of the messenger and not upon the worth of the message itself. But in a postmodern context, where authority is suspect and people mistrust those in power, what may make the difference as to whether one listens or tunes out is the perceived attitude of the preacher.

Listeners today have their antennae up, looking for the speaker's personal agenda or angle. Is the speaker's desire to wield influence or chalk up another notch on the response list? When compassion and mercy flow from the messenger, people may walk away having listened and be unwilling to embrace the message and yet still maintain an openness because they perceived genuine concern. But if people perceive the preacher as lording it over them or as somehow speaking down to them from an exalted position, this will be an obstacle to the message.

Because personal involvement means removing obstacles that might prevent communication, we should consider carefully elements in preaching, such as the layout of the platform, pulpit, lighting and congregational seating. For instance, large pulpits might look beautiful to the eye but may be communicating an aloofness and distance between the preacher and the people.

Be aware of physical appearance, too. Does your attire obstruct or help communication? Pointing with an outstretched index finger is commonly understood to be the gesture of a superior person to an inferior one, so why do that? Why not seek to remove the obstacles that block communication?

Rule No. 4: Address the real world in which your listeners live. Sermons can fail to garner any interest because people frankly may not be interested in the Bible and can't see why they should be. Well then, what is on the mind of people living in our day? What is of value and interest to them?

The listener gets involved when the preacher addresses an area of human need. In sermon preparation this can mean addressing an area of unresolved conflict within the listener that is a common and universal need. Through connecting areas of human brokenness and apparent need to a biblical passage, the preacher draws the listener to become involved in what's said.

Preachers should be asking, "How does the shift from modernity to a postmodern world affect a person's perception of Christianity?" For those schooled in modernity, the issue surrounding the Christian faith was, "Is it true?" As a result, many preachers and apologists sought to address the intellectual inquiries of the listener.

In postmodernity, the question of truth is not dismissed entirely--but people no longer understand "reality" as an act of reason alone. Therefore, in connecting with the needs of the listener, one should be aware that within postmodernity, the "heart," or intuitive and emotional response evoked within the listener, is oftentimes a more powerful and fruitful avenue than the "head," which is a more cognitive and rational approach. Addressing the needs of the listener will involve more than taking an intellectual approach to issues. It also means touching the emotional and intuitive areas.

Many critics of preaching to human need argue that biblical truth is like medicine. People don't need to be convinced of the medicine's effectiveness; they simply need to consume it and allow it to work. However, I would argue that the communication of God's Word is more complicated than that. Preaching that consistently connects with the listeners does so by uncovering the area of human need within a passage of Scripture and then speaking in a way that compels the listener to hear what the Bible says.

Connecting through a human need as the starting point of one's sermon is only the first half of the process. Yet, in order for communication to commence at all, there must be some level of commonality. Something must click within the heart and mind of the listener to say, "This is worthy of attention."

Far too often, sermons begin at the point of the text, at a point of meaning for the preacher, such as, "Let's see what Paul has to say in Colossians 2 for us." The assumption the speaker makes is that people care what is in Colossians 2 or that even godly people in the maelstrom of life have arrived on Sunday in a frame of mind prepared to listen to Colossians 2.

Life experiences provide a means of establishing both interest and relevance. One must imagine two spheres that represent the life of the listener and the life of the speaker. In leading off an address with a story from ancient history, the speaker is beginning at a point outside both spheres.

For example, to speak of one's own passion for rock collecting may well touch deeply within the speaker's sphere but remains outside the sphere of the average listener. If a preacher were to relate an experience of being stood up for a date in high school, just about everyone listening would identify on some level. Listeners then hang onto the speaker's words because they, too, have felt the sting of personal rejection.

The preacher then moves the listeners from their own world to the biblical world, with a bridge phrase such as, "The passage we're examining this morning addresses how we can break the heart of God." People have been moved from indifference to identification.

Postmodernity has leveled all authorities. Assumptions are critical, because it's difficult to build upon a foundation that doesn't exist in the mind of the listener; never forget listeners won't readily accept as a given that the Bible or any other source is valid for their lives.

Consequently, life experiences form an intuitive basis in attempting to understand what is real and what is not. In other words, because all authorities are tainted and subjective, all that remains is the look inward. If the preacher can connect with a real life experience, this will validate to the listener that what he or she is about to hear possesses a ring of truth.

In time, hopefully, the listener will be moved from that framework of self-reliance to a Scripturally based foundation where the Bible is taken as true at face value. But few contemporary listeners begin at this point of trust. So if the biblical communicator insists upon beginning from the authority of God's Word and not the experience of the listener, many listeners won't make a meaningful connection from the Bible to their lives.

Preachers in the past may have imparted the meaning, or what is said, and left the listener to establish relevance or what difference the information makes. This formula just doesn't wash anymore. People living in the information age will want to know the why of belief before knowing what to believe.

Preaching has, at times, suffered because it was viewed as a one-way exercise of getting the message out to people. Too many preachers, in their eagerness to present the wonderful truth gleaned from the text, have taken their message, backed up and dumped it upon listeners like a cement mixer releasing its payload.

To connect today, however, a preacher involves listeners in the learning. Preachers show more of their own process in going through the Word to uncover those gleaned truths. Preachers must think of their listeners as the math teacher who says, "Let me see your work." Creative delivery enables the listeners to discover the truth for themselves as opposed to having ideas dropped in their laps.

People today get bored when not involved and won't listen when they fail to see the meaning or importance of the message. In fact, they'll go a step farther and tune out when the message fails to connect with their interest. Preachers must think carefully as to how the material will be presented in order to create interest and involve the listener.

Understanding postmodern people and their struggles is merely a prerequisite to connecting with them. It's about creating an atmosphere of trust, vulnerability and commonality from which people might hear what God's Spirit would say to them.

Preach With Pizzazz

These seven tips can help you become a more effective communicator in today's cultural setting.

Do you know how you're affecting your listeners? Here are a few guidelines that can increase the impact of your message:

1. Take a dialogical approach. The philosopher Socrates used question-and-answer dialogue as a method of engaging his pupils in a learning exercise; this kind of give-and-take can help the typical Sunday message. This entails anticipating objections and doubts, then surfacing these points in the flow of the message. It's easily done by simply commenting, "Now, you may be saying to yourself..." Your sermon will take on a conversational flavor that's inviting to the listener.

2. Use inductive preaching. Another way of dealing with the suspicions of the 21st-century listener is to use inductive, rather than deductive, preaching. The deductive approach, practiced widely over the last hundred years of modernity, involves stating, up front, the central or big idea as a declarative proposition, then proceeding to justify the claim. Inductive preaching, on the other hand, postpones the declaration of the big idea to a point later in the sermon so that the listener has the opportunity to arrive mentally at the same conclusion.

3. Use storytelling. Stories breathe life into stale facts. People can identify with the characters in a good story. Reframing the gospel message in a contemporary story or by a striking analogy can shine new light on the significance of God's Word to dull or resistant listeners.

4. Use audiovisuals, drama and art. Based on the sheer weight of a lifetime of screen watching, researchers now argue that postmodern folks' brains actually process information differently. The average postmodern listener will readily connect with high-tech communication.

On one Sunday morning I played the scene from the movie Schindler's List in which Schindler realizes, at the end of the war, that his lifelong pursuit of wealth and possessions pales in the light of his compassion toward these Jewish survivors. After showing this scene, I read from 2 Peter 3. The point was clear to the congregation, since they were familiar with the movie and thus could identify with the message.

Many preachers may decry the use of alternative forms of communication such as video and art, arguing that for centuries God has divinely anointed the proclamation of His Word. Yet the Bible is replete with examples of God's prophets dramatizing God's message to His people.

5. Use humor. But instead of going for the roof-lifting howls, go for something more modest. Aim to bring a smile to someone's face and ease some seriousness of the sermon. Just about everyone has some naturally humorous inclination, whether it be a dry wit, a knack for impersonations, a way with words or a keen observation of human idiosyncrasies. Whatever the case for you, be intentional in discovering your personal strength and allow it to shine through from the pulpit.

6. Become a good listener. Adopt some structure of receiving feedback other than the perfunctory, "Good word, pastor," at the door. Feedback, as a form of listening, will enable you to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of your unique style and presentation, especially if you increasingly ask, "How can I foster some genuine dialogue in this message?"

7. Make your delivery crisp and clear. When sitting down to watch a video, my kids fast-forward through the first couple of minutes so they can skip the opening credits, a ritual that viewers like me endured years ago. Preachers could take a cue from the movies in this regard and hit the ground running with their sermons. You're sadly mistaken if you think most people will listen patiently while you roll some opening credits. People nowadays demand immediacy.

The first minute of your message is the most critical, requiring you to be both concise and arresting. I don't apologize for spending more time preparing the message's opening than any other part.

One common sermonic flaw is the preacher's failure to clearly define the thrust of the message. Without some definition, some clarity on the issue tackled, the sermon rambles from one idea to the next like a bumper car with an 8-year-old behind the wheel. What will hold together your sermon for postmoderns is what holds together any motion picture or play--various acts blending to form one overall assertion. Try this test: If you can't identify what you're saying in one, clear sentence, it means that you probably aren't clear yourself.

Graham Johnston is senior pastor of Subiaco Church of Christ in western Australia and an adjunct lecturer in homiletics with the Australian College of Ministries. He holds degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary.

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