Gospel-Centered Preaching in Hard Places
I’ve been in ministry for about ten years. The first half of that decade I preached largely in chinos, a v-neck sweater, and boat shoes. The second half of that decade I’ve preached largely in tracksuit-bottoms, t-shirts, and trainers. That’s not down to a change in personal stylist, but due to a change in ministry context. I’ve moved from being on staff at a large, city-center church, to a small, local church in a housing scheme. The context change has led to a wardrobe change.
Being asked to write this article’s forced me to scrutinize what else has changed about my preaching ministry other than my outfit. It forced me to re-watch some of the videos from those first five years. And as many of you know, listening to your own voice is always misery. But listening back to sermons from your first five years in ministry? That’s absolute torture. If I believed in purgatory, I think my purifying recompense would be to have to listen to my entire back-catalogue.
But here’s what some of this suffering yielded: in some core ways there’s not that much difference.
WHAT’S THE SAME
Image of God
After all, every single human being—regardless of race, gender, class, health, age—is created in the image of God. Far more unites us than divides us. Fallen humanity has a perverted inclination to draw lines, create divisions, form cliques, and build walls in order to keep those who are different from us away from us. But God’s design in creation and redemption delights in togetherness. Gospel-centered preaching to image-bearing humans will hold the same rough shape regardless of context.
Clarity of Scripture
Because of my belief in the clarity of Scripture, my preaching in the last five years hasn’t been dumbed down. Preaching in a hard place is still Word ministry. The clarity of Scripture isn’t muddied by context, and the command to preach is not gagged by context. I’ve heard some churches in areas like ours describe their services as “short and fun,” as if “long and serious” was beyond people here. Let’s be clear: a hard place doesn’t equal a stupid place. I know stupid rich people, and I know intelligent poor people. But if being a Christian in a hard place is going to be hard, then shallow, superficial stuff on a Sunday won’t cut it. To go hard in a hard place, we’ll need to go deep in preaching.
Our conviction on the centrality of the gospel itself means that the content of my preaching has been the same over the last ten years. I’ve moved to a setting where there are a lot more social needs. But more social problems don’t require a social gospel. The greatest need of every single person I’ve met in the last ten years has been salvation from their sins. And the only hope for every person I’ve met in the last ten years has been the Lord Jesus Christ. So, regardless of context, we proclaim him. And we proclaim him from all the Scriptures.
Give me a football anywhere in the world. I’ll find some players, we’ll know the rules, and we’ll play the same game. The same thing’s true of preaching. It doesn’t matter where you plunk down a pulpit; I’ll preach to fellow image-bearers, I’ll do it from the Scriptures, and it will be about salvation in Jesus. Doesn’t matter where in the world you play it, it’s still the same beautiful game. Doesn’t matter where in the world you preach it, it’s still the same urgent ministry.
So the silhouette’s the same. Some of the details, however, are definitely different. No doubt—some of that’s simply due to my growth as a preacher. If your preaching hasn’t progressed over the course of a decade, then you’re probably an appalling preacher. Other changes, however, are specific to preaching the gospel in a hard place.
Here’s why: fundamental to any communication is the principle that who you’re speaking to impacts how you speak to them. Dialogue between different people differs. I speak differently to a toddler than I do to a colleague. I speak differently to a native English speaker than I do to someone who’s just learning English. I speak differently to my mates than I speak to a judge in court. Language changes. Tone changes. Speed changes. Words change. Sometimes, it may happen naturally. Other times, it’s painstakingly hard. But at all times it’s necessary.
Although most preaching is entirely monologue, good preaching feels like dialogue. Your preaching prep must be bi-focal. And so because whom I’m now speaking to has changed, my preaching has necessarily changed. If it didn’t, I’d be preaching in vain.
As preachers, we’re often quick to speak and slow to listen. But the key to being a preacher people will listen to in a hard place is being a preacher who listens to them about what makes life hard.
So here are the two unbelievably basic things that have changed my preaching over the last five years:
1. Listening to people’s stories
I’m from a culture where questions are a normal and critical part of any communication. In my current culture, however, too many questions make you sound like a police officer or a social worker. Instead, conversation revolves around stories being shared; the story-teller remains in control of how much they self-reveal, rather than questions assaulting them into unconsented revelation.
This impacts how you preach. My tendency in preaching would be reduce everything in Scripture—from narrative to poetry—into a stereotypical, three-point, logic-driven, question-and-answer style sermon. That’s probably not helpful (or faithful!) preaching in any context, but least of all mine. It’s taught me to respect the genre, preserve the tone, and unfold the stories in a way that’s faithful to whatever text I’m preaching rather than what’s just natural to how I’ve been trained to think and communicate in my culture.
But beyond the story-telling culture at large, the story of both my community and individuals in my church have impacted how I preach. What do I mean? Well, here’s a few examples.
- Story after story revealed a matriarchal culture. This impacted how I preached through what the Bible says about headship, submission, and women in ministry.
- Story after story revealed a suspicion of people in authority. This impacted how I preached through what the Bible says about eldership and church governance.
- Story after story revealed that a large percentage of the community have suffered as victims of abuse. This impacted how I explained that all humanity are guilty rebels facing the punishment of a holy God.
- Story after story revealed fathers who were either absent or abusive. This impacted how I preached on the Fatherhood of God
- Story after story revealed endless relapses in the life of a Christian addict. This impacted how I preached on repentance and Christ’s victory over sin.
I didn’t hear stories like these in my first five years. But upon hearing them, if they don’t impact how I preach, I’m giving my community the impression that God’s not really for them. But he is. And thankfully, in the Bible, you don’t have to look far to find families and churches that fall into the same mistakes we do, and need the same powerful, saving grace we need.
Hear me right. I’m not saying the stories in our community change what we believe or what we teach. Instead, they shape how we approach these truths pastorally so that we can apply them sensitively in our preaching.
It also means the majority of my illustrations come from within the community rather than outside of it. It means the emotional range of my preaching tries to match the emotional range of my community. It means my level of vulnerability seeks to reflect how much credibility the culture places on transparency and openness.
I also endeavor to scrutinize my sermon notes to ensure that every word is in the vernacular of my community. At the heart of the Reformation was a zealous drive to get the Word of God and the preaching in the pulpits translated from Latin into the language of the people. Strangely, many people today who love the Reformation still seem to go about quoting Latin phrases (I’ll resist from ending this article with a “SDG”). But you don’t have to speak in Latin to be incomprehensible. You can speak a dialect of Christian jargon in English and you might as well be speaking Latin. The people I’ve come to know through the stories I’ve listened to are those who need to hear the gospel in a way they can understand. I’m called to preach for the people in my community that aren’t in the room yet, but if they were to walk in they’d understand every single word.
2. Listening to people’s questions
The lecturer at seminary who taught our preaching class taught us what have become two of the most important questions in my preaching prep: “What’s the biggest objection a Christian would have to this text?” and “What’s the biggest objection an unbeliever would have to this text?” The usefulness of these questions lie at the heart of why good preaching feels like dialogue, even though it’s largely a monologue. As you study a text, you try to discern what your hearers’ strongest objections to the text will be. Good preaching raises such questions, tackles them head-on, and then answers them.
A change in context often means a change in questions. In my first five years, in coming to a text like the Passover in Exodus 11–12, the predominant question in my head would probably have been something like, “How can God harden Pharaoh’s heart and still hold him accountable for his wickedness?” That’s a legitimate question, and one you’ll probably have to answer. But an unbeliever probably has more basic questions, like “How can you love a God who kills babies?” You might even get asked, “What’s an Exodus?” and “Who’s Moses?” We forget that people don’t know what we already know.
The questions people are asking in Gracemount are different to the questions I had to answer before. I was used to the theoretical, apologetic questions that largely came from an atheistic and skeptical point of view. In Gracemount, I’ve never had to convince someone of God’s existence or the reality of the afterlife. Instead, almost every question I’ve been asked has come from trauma rather than theory.
I remember caring for a mum whose son died. Her first two questions to me: “Is he in hell because he hadn’t been baptized?” and “If I commit suicide, will I go to hell too?” They reveal not only a supernatural worldview, but also cultural Catholicism.
What about the lad who’s reading the Bible with me? He asks questions like, “If I become a Christian, will I have to forgive my dad for all the ways he abused me?” Or the hyper-vigilant, paranoid addict whose main questions when we’re preaching through Exodus are about the conspiracies surrounding aliens being the builders of the pyramids. Or the Christian who questions whether or not their mental-health struggles caused by drug-use prevent them from usefulness in the church. Or the daughter who wants me to confirm that what the local Spiritualist medium told her about her Catholic mum being in heaven is true.
If I fail to address these questions, or if I somehow communicate that they’re “weird,” I’m giving my community the impression that God’s not really for them. But he is. And so they’re the questions I must dialogue with in my preaching.
Here’s my task as a preacher in a hard place: to preach the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to those asking these questions, and living these stories. So my preaching in my hard place may not even work in your pulpit in your hard place, because the stories and how they’re told will be different, and the questions and why they’re asked will be different. Sermons preached in hard places will probably be sermons whose usefulness is limited to their postcode.
See, it’s not my job merely to preach the gospel. The task of a preacher isn’t simply to place raw ingredients in front of his hearers and expect them to cook the meal from scratch. It’s to provide a fully cooked meal for the hearers to feast. A sermon devoid of application is like the church at Sardis in Revelation 3. It gives the appearance of life, but it’s dead.
Many people in our community feel forgotten by those in authority. They feel like the government is miles out of touch. They feel like no-one listens to them. The feel like no decisions made in parliament are ever going to make any difference where they are. That attitude filters its way into the church, which I partly understand. Many churches have abandoned our communities, and so it does seem like that.
So here’s some practical ways that we as elders have sought to ensure that our preaching lands on our hearers.
We’ve adopted an order of service where the preaching happens near the beginning. We have a call to worship. We sing. We pray. And then we preach. Part of the reason for that is that we want people to feel in the weekly rhythm of our gathering that God is God, and as such he has the authority and right to speak first. And then everything we do is in response to that. We think that’s a helpful model for our people to then mimic in their daily devotions: hear God speak in the pages of the Bible first, and then worship and pray in response to that.
But the other reason for front-loading the sermon is to model and further explain how these truths are then applied. We don’t want to just preach, sing, and then leave. We want to preach, dwell, and further apply. So following the sermon we sing songs that directly respond to what’s been preached. Following the songs, we read from another passage of Scripture that draws out specific applications. Following the reading we usually have some kind of related corporate response to read together; that may be the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, or a confession of sin. Following this, we’ll pray through these applications of the sermon. The revelation of God in the preaching directs and schools our prayers, and so models, especially to new believers, how we ought to pray.
This is just another way of saying that the liturgy of our Sunday gatherings all aims at dialoguing with our own specific congregation about how the specific text we’ve looked at today answers our specific questions and can transform our specific stories. So we preach first, in order to allow time to show how God’s authority is not only for our good, but it’s for us personally.
We provide a handout for our sermons each Sunday, which on one side simply has some of the main headlines from the sermon to aid engagement and memory. On the reverse side, we list devotions for Monday to Saturday that again flow from the sermon. There may be other passages to read and pray through, or songs to sing and reflect on, or verses to memorize and employ, or prompts to encourage other members, or specific items of local or international interest to pray for. But they all relate to the sermon. We want to help people drill deep into the Scriptures and meditate on their relevance to their everyday lives. And there’s not many off-the-shelf devotional materials written for our context. So we write them ourselves.
We encourage those in our congregation who are in one-to-one discipling relationships to use these devotions when they meet. We’ve started using our mid-week Bible studies to continue to study the passages and truths preached on Sunday.
The purpose of a sermon isn’t complete until its truths are believed and applied. And so the job of the preacher isn’t complete when he shuts his Bible and steps out of the pulpit.
So, if I had to say all this in a tweet: Make your sermon monologues feel like dialogues, by listening hard to people’s stories and questions, and then laboring hard to connect the living Word to your specific hard place.
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If I could recommend one book for you to read, I’d check out Charles Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom [or Plain Advice for Plain People] published by the Banner of Truth. In the preface Spurgeon writes, “I have written for ploughmen and common people. Hence refined taste and dainty words have been disregarded for strong proverbial expressions and homely phrases. I have aimed my blows at the vices of the many, and tried to inculcate those moral virtues without which men are degraded. Much that needs to be said to the toiling masses would not well suit the pulpit and the Sabbath; these lowly pages may teach thrift and industry all the days of the week in the cottage and the workshop; and if some learn these lessons I shall not repent the adoption of a rustic style.”
We need more present-day pastors and authors to adapt their style for those in the hardest places. And if I can disagree with Spurgeon for a second, we need it in the pulpit and on the Sabbath as well.