“If information was the answer,” entrepreneur Derek Sivers observes, “Then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” In our context we could say if preaching was the answer, our churches would be filled with hungry disciples. But information doesn’t magically bring transformation any more than the act of preaching mystically creates mature disciples. Yet we know that faithful and effective preaching of God’s Word prompts a hunger to better know God and a desire to serve him more faithfully. Preaching aims to close this gap between knowing and doing. So how do we preach in a way people today can understand?
In the second article of this series, we discussed principles to help us contextualize our sermons. In this article I want to take us back to the first century church. By studying how Paul preached to the premodern, pre-Christian world in Acts, we can learn how to communicate with our postmodern, post-Christian world. When Paul preached at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52), he preached to mostly Jews and God-fearing Gentiles: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.” But when he arrives in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), he appeals to creation, the harvest, and the sun and the sea instead to reveal God’s truth. Here, it seems like he’s speaking to an animistic culture. And when we get to Act 17, we see even more contextual details about his audience that provide an excellent paradigm for preaching an unchanging message to our context. Let’s look at some lessons from Paul's preaching in Acts 17.
First, he understands and starts his message in their context. We see Paul doing this differently in Thessalonica and in Athens. In Acts 17:1-9, Paul comes to Thessalonica, enters the synagogue, and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures,explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ'” (Acts 17:2-3). He started with the Scriptures because he was addressing devout Jews—he was speaking in their terms.
But when he arrives in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Paul starts with creation and an unknown god. He does not focus on the Old Testament Scriptures as he did in the synagogue. Mars Hill is a rock outcropping where philosophers would gather to speak and hear new ideas. That's the world Paul stepped into and participated in when he came to Athens. You can still see Mars Hill today; perhaps it stands as a reminder that the world of Athens is not so far gone. When we step into those contexts today, Paul demonstrates that we can engage them without compromising the gospel.
Next, Paul begins with an interest in their beliefs rather than condemnation of their idolatry. When Paul comes to Athens, he doesn’t begin with “You who fear God,” but “Men of Athens, I see you're very religious.” Most of the sermons in Acts were to biblically literate Jews and relied on a past knowledge for Old Testament references. But at Mars Hill, Paul speaks to Gentiles. He never quotes the Old Testament; he quotes Epicurean and Stoic poets and philosophers who could witness––though imperfectly–– to the truth of the gospel. It is in this way that he effectively communicates the gospel to this unique audience. In Acts 17:18-21, we see that Paul was successful at Mars Hill because he piques their curiosity: "We want to know more," they said. We should share Christ so that even those who reject it would say, “‘I wish it were [true].’
Last, Paul anchors his message in the biblical storyline. While we don't have details on his message at Thessalonica, we know Paul demonstrates how Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the from the Scriptures. In other words, he ties the Old Testament narrative to Jesus. But while preaching in Athens, Paul talks about creation and how God created them at their time and place in history. He goes on to show how humanity is fallen and needs a redeemer.
This method is helpful today with biblically illiterate audiences. Rather than a “saint versus sinner” framework we often hear in today’s preaching, Paul begins with the imago Dei, seeing everyone as bearing the image of God and worthy of respect. He affirms them and then shows them the error of their misplaced worship. Paul targets the error of their idolatry—he just doesn’t start there. Paul ultimately and unapologetically calls them to repent and warns of judgment. We can see creation, fall, and redemption in his message very clearly. As we see from Paul’s example, contextualizing the gospel doesn't mean watering down the message. It means communicating in such a way that people can understand.
Two Points of Application
Drawing from Paul, I want to suggest two things. First, we must avoid using insider language when preaching to biblically illiterate people. We encounter more and more people today who are like Paul's audience in Athens. As we preach, we should try to find ways to connect and engage the culture so they understand what we mean and do not feel excluded, like they’ve been left out of a joke. If we reference other Scripture in our sermons, we should not assume everyone knows what the reference is to! So we must briefly explain what we’re talking about. Another example here would be abbreviations or names of theological positions; people may not know what “T.U.L.I.P.” or “complementarian” mean, so explain as you go.
Second, we don’t have prove that the Bible is relevant. It is! We should, however, show how it's relevant; that's the job of the preacher. A biblically illiterate culture has particular difficulty connecting biblical truths with ethics and behaviors for today. We should pay extra attention to explain why a certain text should shape how Christians think, act, and believe.
A Good Place to Start
So where do we start when we want to preach the wonder of the Word of God to a biblically illiterate culture? One of my favorite places to begin is Psalm 119 because it is all about loving and following God’s Word. This single chapter is long enough for a series of messages focusing on how God’s Word endures through various challenges to the faith or seasons of life. Another good passage to begin with is 2 Timothy 3:16. From there, we can show how different genres and stories in Scripture inform how we live today.
We can also preach sermons on why we trust the Bible. Another way to begin is to preach an overview of the biblical storyline: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. Sermons like these would make helpful launching pads for biblically illiterate people to begin exploring, trusting, and understanding the Bible.
(Auburn Powell contributed to this article and throughout this series.)
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