Preaching requires us to apply the timeless Word of God to the shifting sands of our present culture. We want to boldly preach the gospel with conviction and present the gospel with clarity, but it isn’t always easy, especially in this time of rapid change. So I want to share some of the ways I’ve adapted my preaching style for the world today.
Biblical Literacy Today
Regardless of your church style and the profile of your average attendee, you need to consider issues facing contemporary preaching today. Probably one of the most obvious—and the first issue I want to address—is biblical illiteracy. The American Bible Society has studied biblical literacy for years in collaboration with the Barna Group. Using an in-depth “Scripture Engagement Scale,” ABS rates levels of biblical literacy across a spectrum from more to less engaged: Bible Centered, Bible Engaged, Bible Friendly, Bible Neutral, Bible Disengaged.
The 2021 ABS report found that 27% of American women and 24% of men consider themselves Bible Engaged, defined as interacting with the Bible frequently in a way that ultimately leads to some life transformation. The report notes that those considered Bible Disengaged has dropped from 54% in 2018 to 39% in 2021, indicating “hearts are being softened to the Bible.” It adds, “Those who once were disengaged have moved to what we are now calling the 'Movable Middle' [which] has jumped up since 2020, from one-quarter of the population (26%) to over one-third (37%).”
Even with that hopeful news, far too few people still read or understand the Bible. A 2016 LifeWay Research survey revealed that only 11% of Americans have read the whole Bible, and 12% read most or all of it. At the same time, 10% of Americans have read none of the Bible and 13% have read just a few sentences. So on the one hand, biblical literacy statistics are not as high as we as pastors wish it would be, but on the other hand increasing numbers of Americans are open to exploring and learning about the Bible in some capacity.
Preaching in Light of Biblical Illiteracy
What then does this mean for preaching?
First, understand that the people we talk to do not necessarily understand the Bible. Almost every week, I preach somewhere different: for instance, recently I’ve been the interim teaching pastor at the more traditional Moody Church, and I have filled in a few times this year at the more contemporary Saddleback Church.
When I preach at Moody Church, which is known for verse-by-verse exposition, I recognize that there are a lot of people who are familiar with or educated in Scripture in the room. At churches like Saddleback, which are known for intentionally engaging seekers, I tend to adopt a different approach, not assuming the same biblical awareness in the weekend attendees. We must become familiar with where our churches stand in biblical literacy and what it lacks. Even those with high familiarity with the Bible may not be able to tell you the overall story, draw meaning from the text, or identify important themes within its message.
Second, recognize assumptions many make about the Bible. Too many people see the Bible as a book of morality, emphasizing behavior modification or showcasing heroes. This assumption ranges from seeing the Bible simply as self-help to seeing the Bible as a catalog of rules required for salvation. In order to combat this, I remind the congregations that the gospel is not “you do,” but “Jesus did.” Another assumption is that the Bible is a book of religious tradition to help undergird self-styled spiritual preferences. For some in the prosperous West, the Bible is a book of prosperity and it is treated like a magical book that brings prosperity or good health with enough faith. Understanding these assumptions helps us target and address where our congregations may go astray in their faith and explain how the gospel is greater.
The Bible is ultimately a book of reality: it reveals God’s character and purposes in the world to us. It tells us who we are and our greatest need. Good preaching helps people earn to understand the Bible this way. We should show that the Bible is not just a collection of a thousand stories; it’s a collection of stories about the story of redemption which began at the creation of the world and continues until the new creation.
Third, explain how the Bible is a different kind of writing, which is inspired by God. A LifeWay survey concerning attitudes toward the Bible found that 37% of Americans see it as helpful for today and 35% see it as life changing. Also, 36% see it as true; that’s a minority, but it's still a significant number. A much smaller percentage (14%) consider the Bible outdated, while 7% say it’s harmful, and 8% call it bigoted. These numbers are significant, considering views clearly taught in the Bible such as the uniqueness of Christ and views of morality and marriage could cause many people to see Christians as bigoted, outdated, and harmful. But most don't see the Bible that way. The Bible has a better reputation than evangelicals, so we have an opportunity to champion God’s message in the Bible rather than toot our own horn as Christians.
The Bible still captivates and transforms the lives of our congregants, even despite our deficiencies in preaching. In an 1886 sermon "Christ and His Coworkers," Charles Spurgeon reminded his hearers:
Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best 'apology' for the gospel is to let the gospel out.
God has given us a sure and powerful message in Scripture. While we can't assume people love and know the Word, we can be clear in communicating its message and confident in its power to change lives.
In the next article we will look at specific ways to communicate this message well.
(Auburn Powell contributed to this article and throughout this series.)
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