Relevant Preaching (Pt 1)

There is a lot of talk these days about the need to be relevant in our preaching. On one level this is pure common sense and self evident. An irrelevant sermon can hardly be the goal of any preacher. However, the term “relevant” seems to mean many different things to many different people. Relevancy has become a mask that we wear to discuss whether or not the sermon tickled our ears. And, any student of Scripture will know to beware of such a desire (2 Tim 4:3-4). In spite of the malleability of this term, however, I have found that what most seem to mean when they say that a sermon is relevant is that it can be easily applied to their life. There seems to be a real hunger in congregational appetite for the preacher to take a biblical text and transform it into two or three imperative pseudo-laws or therapeutic comfort statements. In my own experience, this is what relevancy seems to mean to most people. But is this an acceptable understanding of relevancy? Goldsworthy challenges such thinking and I heartily agree with him:

Preaching must be relevant, I’m sure we would all agree. But what does “relevant” mean? Who determines what is relevant and on what basis?… Relevance is relative. It is relative to how we perceive a situation. Often it is based on as simple a thing as enjoyment. A sermon was deemed relevant because the preacher stimulated and even entertained us. Maybe it seemed relevant because it confirmed our already formed ideas or prejudices… In short, what is relevant is defined by the gospel; what is helpful is defined by the gospel. The first question we all need to ask in not, “Was it relevant?”; “Did I find it helpful?”; or “Were we blessed?”; but “How did the study (the sermon) testify to Christ and his gospel as the power of God for salvation?”[1]

Need we preach relevant sermons? Absolutely. What constitutes a relevant sermon? The degree to which it faithfully bears witness to the Gospel of God in the Person and Ministry of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. Anything and everything else – imperative and therapeutic application points included – is irrelevant by comparison.

Though I make this statement about relevancy with some boldness, my own ministry has not always been as confident. Many years ago I read Johnson’s preaching manual, The Glory of Preaching, during a season when I felt buried by the burden shared by so many pastors. This burden was the demand and pressure to tell people how. It felt as though nothing mattered to the congregation as much as the last two minutes of the message, when I would try to boil down a week’s worth of study and prayer – which is usually the culmination of years of study in or around a particular preaching text – into a short succinct list of one, two, or three application points. The pressure to find three common how-to’s for a congregation as diverse as snowflakes in their wants and needs, ages and stages, crises and celebrations, was too much to handle week in and week out. The burden was additionally heavy because I knew deep down that it was an impossible task. This, and my own lack of life-experience, made my preaching seem to me to be hollow and false, contrived and forced. Imagine my relief, therefore, when I read the following words:

I want now to do what I can to lift a horrible burden off of preachers. It is the burden of ‘applying the text’ to the everyday life of the hearers. Yes, we can, and we should, try to help people understand the text’s radical implications. But applying the text is not the preacher’s responsibility.[2]

This was exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. It affirmed what I had been feeling all along. Finally, I was free. If you are a preaching pastor and need a similar release, then I invite you to take it. I also encourage you to get a copy of Johnson’s book so that you can more fully learn and appreciate the wisdom he shares. If you are a church-goer and you expect or even require your preaching pastor to give you easy to understand, one size fits all, plug and play application then I challenge you to consider what kind of unfair yoke you are putting on his shoulders, both to his detriment and to yours.

[1] Goldsworthy, Whole Bible, 61-62.

[2] Johnson, Glory, 158.

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