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Contextual Preaching:
The Key to Preaching So Your Audience Can Hear
by Ed Stetzer

At the heart of effective preaching is a solid missiological perspective.  Are you communicating in such a way that your words actually convey biblical truth to your audience?  Or does your preaching float right past your hearers because it’s not delivered “on a frequency” that they listen to?  In this respect, we can probably learn as much about good preaching from Hudson Taylor as we can from Haddon Robinson.

 

Indigenization

 

Jesus left his comfortable dwelling in heaven and took on the appearance of those he sought to reach.  He wore their clothes, ate their food, spoke their language, and understood their culture at its deepest level.  He fully identified with his hearers.

 

The idea behind indigenization for us today is that a church should spring forth out of the soil in which it is planted. It is indigenous in that its leadership, expressions, forms, and functions reflect a biblical expression in a certain context.

 

What we have found is that when the pastoral leadership, core of the church, and community all line up, the potential for the church to take on an indigenous or contextual form is significant. This combination seems to provide a greenhouse for explosive growth.  Preaching is a central part of that process.

 

Contextualization

 

If the church is to become an indigenous expression of its context, then contextualization comes into play. When it comes to contextualization, reality suggests that the eternal, universal truth of God’s Word is understood and appropriated by people through a cultural grid or framework. Though we understand and appropriate the truth as conditioned by culture, biblical truth is eternal.  However, we (and the hearers) are not!

 

The Way the Message Is Communicated

 

By far, the most controversial point of this whole discussion is the way the message is communicated. Many in the Christian church suggest that the only way to communicate the gospel is through verse-by-verse expository preaching. Others like Rick Warren have adopted what he calls a topical exposition approach. Still others like Dan Kimball, in The Emerging Church, talk about a theotopical approach. I’ve written more about types of preaching elsewhere.   But, the issue here is not whether you approach Scripture from an expository perspective or a topical one; it has more to do with your starting point so you can be understood by your hearers.

 

Most Christians prefer to begin at the point of biblical revelation—“Thus saith the Word of God!” For us, a simple reference to John 3 or Psalm 32 means that we are about to hear something important and relevant to our lives. From biblical revelation, we move toward application or relevance. Based on what God’s Word says, here is how we need to apply it to our lives. For those who are disconnected from Christ and the church or even new believers, their beginning point can be very different. They are often ignorant regarding any expression of Scripture and, at the very least, neutral toward it if not hostile.

 

As one person in our church asked: “How many books do Christians use? I hear you talking about the Old Testament and the New Testament. The other day it was the book of John and then it was the book of Luke. How many books do you use?” This is not uncommon in our culture today. For those with no biblical reverence point, the beginning point is often that of relevance. They are asking, “Does this have anything to do with my life?” Or “Is it relevant?”

 

Since we know it is true and we know it is relevant we have to help them see that it is both. 

 

After you have done the most important part of working through the Scriptures to understand and convey them accurately, then help your hearer understand why they should pay attention.  So, we would encourage you to start like this:

 

  1. Why is this important and how does it relate to me?
  2. What does the Bible say about it?
  3. What am I going to do with what the Bible says about it?

 

Instead of:

  1. The Bible says this.
  2. It is important.
  3. You should do it.

 

Paul demonstrated this when he was invited to speak to a completely Jewish audience after entering a synagogue in Pisdian Antioch; he began with the Old Testament. He did not quote directly from the Old Testament, but began by summarizing its historical account. “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country, he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert, he overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years” (Acts 13:16-20).

 

When communicating to the less educated at Lystra (Acts 14), he used examples of nature, sea, and crops.  He spoke to an agrarian people with agrarian metaphors.

 

On the other hand, when Paul was in front of a very different audience in Athens, his starting point was different. We read in Acts 17, “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way, you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).

 

The Apostle Paul began where the people he was speaking to were. For the Jews, the starting point was their ancient history rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. On the other hand, Paul connected with the Greeks at their point of relevance. Notice that he presented Christ in both cases. For us, we may start in a different place, but the context of the message needs to be Christ and the fullness of Scripture. The key is where the communication begins. Scripture sets the agenda and shape of the message, but every message must answer the question, “Why is this important to me/us?” If there is no point of connection, the message is simply meaningless facts rather than life-changing truth.

 

Redemptive Analogies

 

When we begin at the point of relevance, it does not in any way nullify the importance of rightly dividing the Word of God. We think that a common mistake many seeker-driven churches made early on was trying to communicate relevant messages that had little or no biblical content. It seemed that the sermons were basically explanations of common-sense wisdom or perhaps biblical principals, but the Bible did not set the shape or agenda of the message.

 

We must always remember that “consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17) and “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible is not simply a tool for scriptural footnoting or common-sense wisdom.

 

One of the cultural shifts that we are experiencing is the shift from the secular to the spiritual. This shift lends itself to biblical preaching and teaching. People are looking for a higher power, a sense of mystery, revelation, and spiritual authority for their lives. Scripture was given to reveal Jesus; therefore, all of our preaching should be Christ-centered. With this in mind, we must ask, “How do we communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that the story of redemption is heard and experienced?”

 

In our highly spiritual world, we must look for cultural bridges that we can cross in order to carry the good news to a spiritually hungry people. Don Richardson gives us great insight regarding this in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts. Using the concept of redemptive analogy, he describes the importance of finding a common cultural understanding as a tool for sharing the gospel with the Sawi or other groups. In an interview with Dick Staub, Don gives the following account of this concept:

 

"When Caroline and I lived among the Sawi and learned their language, we found that they honored treachery as a virtue. This came to light when I told them the story of Judas betraying Jesus to death after three years of friendship. They acclaimed Judas as the hero of the story. It seemed as if it would not be easy for such people to understand God’s redemption in Jesus. But lo and behold, their way of making peace required a father in one of two warring villages to make an incredible sacrifice. He had to be willing to give one of his children as a peace child to his enemies. Caroline and I saw this happen, and we saw the peace that resulted from a man’s sorrowful sacrifice of his own son. That enabled me to proclaim Jesus as the greatest peace child given by the greatest father."

In Lords of the Earth, the Yali tribe had places of refuge. That was their special redemptive analogy. In other words, there’s something that serves as a cultural compass to point men and women toward Jesus, something that is in their own background, part of their own culture.

 

We must look for those cultural bridges to every people group, population segment, and cultural environment. Obviously, this may look very different from one group to another.

 

Redemptive analogies are 21st-century parables. They are like the stories Jesus told. They are examples and stories that bring truth about the kingdom of God to life in the common language, stories, and symbols of the day. They are like the trilogy that Jesus spoke of in Luke 15, where he talked about “lostness” by using the example of a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son. All three of these analogies related to the culture of his day, and the common person could place himself into the reality of any of these stories. The stories illustrate the demonstrable love the Father has for us.

 

Summary

 

In our current environment, contextualized preaching has its origin in God’s heart, but it is first expressed when we connect with hearers.  He already had given us the message and the Scripture.  It is relevant in this and every culture.

 

Too often we say, “I want to make the Bible relevant.”  No need.  It already is.  Our job is to present it in ways that help the hearer see that it is relevant—in this and in every culture.  We do so by starting at their understanding and taking them to Scripture for the whole answer.

 

Simply put:

 

But, if we are to preach like Jesus and Paul, we must learn to do so.  Just as Jesus did, we must preach in a way so that people can best understand and respond to the gospel message.

 

Ed Stetzer is discussing this article at www.edstetzer.com.


Ed Stetzer (Ph.D.) is author of Breaking the Missional Code, Comeback Churches and Planting Missional Churches.  He currently serves as the Director of LifeWay Research.  This article is adapted from the book, “Breaking the Missional Code” by Ed Stetzer and David Putnam.  You can interact concerning this article at www.edstetzer.com.