Relevant. What an intimidating word! It is the non-negotiable demand of our impatient age. ‘What is the point? What has this to do with me?’ These are the questions asked by a society in a hurry. Bombarded by information on every side, the average attention span can be measured in seconds. Communicators in politics, commerce and culture know that they must tap instantly into the concerns of their audience. If not, they will be ignored. People are interested only in what they perceive to be of immediate practical benefit. They have no time for abstractions or theorising. To appear irrelevant is the kiss of death.
The church, considered antiquated to begin with, faces this pressure in an intensified form. It is dismissed as hopelessly remote from real life, with the quaint ordinance of preaching specially redundant. A preacher, therefore, feels that, if he is to be heard at all, he must be seen to be incisively up to date. His sermons should be at the cutting edge of culture, reflecting issues as current as those in the morning’s newscast. If Christians want the privilege of the world’s attention, we are told, our preaching must deal with the issues of today. If we do not speak to the interests of the man in the street, we will neither receive nor deserve a hearing, because we have nothing relevant to say.
Two pitfalls to avoid
Some evangelicals have capitulated to this demand and become obsessed with relevance. They do not abandon the gospel. Indeed, they often show commendable enthusiasm for reaching the lost with the message of salvation. But they have been influenced by the ethics of consumerism, where the customer is always right. They describe themselves, with some satisfaction as ‘seeker-centred’. In other words, their ministry is shaped by the felt needs and interests of the audience. The pew is allowed to dictate what message comes from the pulpit. They are saying, in effect, to unconverted people: ‘Tell us where you hurt or what you hope for and we will show how Christ can satisfy your needs.’ In this way, they believe, the gospel will be seen to be relevant and will attract an ever-wider hearing. There is more than a grain of truth in this, but the price of such accommodation to market forces is appallingly high.
Other Christians are disgusted by this because they see it as a pandering to the wishes of the world. Unbelievers are dead in sin and can neither understand nor take an interest in the gospel. Until they are given new life by the Holy Spirit nothing from the Bible will make sense to them. When the Spirit does work, they will inevitably repent and believe. What point, then, is there in bending over backwards to win a hearing? Why should we take trouble to speak in a contemporary idiom to those outside? All that is necessary for the salvation of the elect is that we proclaim the truth and rely upon the power of God.
This approach is based on some elements of a sound theology. But it is also an over-reaction. There is no merit in deliberate obscurity. Pride in being incomprehensible is almost as bad as an addiction to modernity. When remoteness from every-day concerns becomes a badge of faithfulness, something is far wrong. A preacher who begins his sermon with the words, ‘Today we continue our study of the doctrine of the atonement’ still has a lot to learn about communicating.
Where can we find a scriptural balance between trendy, shallow preaching and preaching which is out of touch with the interests of ordinary people? Peter provides a perfect example. His ministry is as relevant as it is faithful, and vice versa.
Peter’s preaching in Acts is an example to follow
What strikes us at once in his four evangelistic sermons is that, in every case, he begins with what is of immediate interest to his hearers. The Pentecost crowd in Jerusalem is fascinated and perplexed by the spectacle of Palestinian Jews speaking in foreign languages. ‘Whatever could this mean?’ they ask (Acts 2:12). Some sarcastically suggest that the speakers are full of new wine (2:13). Here is the point of contact upon which Peter seizes with unerring timing and a possible touch of humour: ‘These are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day’ (2:15).
A beggar, lame from birth, has been a regular fixture at one of the temple gates. His miraculous healing causes a sensation and provides an opportunity for evangelism. How does Peter begin? ‘Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this, as though by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?’ (3:12). When brought before the Sanhedrin, his starting-point is identical: ‘If we this day are judged for a good deed done to the helpless man, by what means he has been made well…’ (4:9).
Peter’s acceptance of an invitation to the home of the Roman Cornelius is an epoch-making event. Centuries of racial separation are being swept away. Both Jews and Gentiles in that house must have been conscious of the novelty of their meeting together. How is it possible for the chosen people to associate so closely with ‘dogs’ from the nations? So the apostle, when invited to speak, does not begin with sin or guilt, grace or salvation. ‘Then Peter opened his mouth and said: In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality’ (10:34).
There can be no doubt that, in every instance, Peter has captured the attention of his audience. He is speaking about the very topics in which they are currently interested. They do not have to make an effort to tune in to the preacher’s wavelength. His words are in immediate accord with what they have been thinking about. ‘Here is a really relevant speaker’, they would have said to themselves. ‘He is going to tell us exactly what we want to know.’ They are gripped, compelled to listen. A good beginning for any preacher! But what is far more significant is what Peter does next.
Make a beeline to the Lord Jesus Christ
He moves quickly in every sermon from what interests them to what interests him – and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. Note how directly and speedily he introduces the Saviour: ‘Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth…’ (2:22); ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his Servant Jesus...’ (3:13); ‘Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus of Nazareth...’ (4:10); ‘The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all...’ (10:36). After the attention-grabbing introduction, he at once begins to proclaim Christ. But we need to think carefully about how these two elements of his sermons are related.
His opening statements are not gimmicks. This is not the verbal trickery of the salesman who pretends to share our interests only in order to manipulate us in the direction which suits him. The cultist who has knocked on our front door may begin by commenting on our delightful children, manicured lawn or the unseasonably fine weather. What could be more timely? But he is interested in none of these things. They are merely conversational hooks, designed to pull us into a dialogue which he will use to bring us to his real agenda. In other words, there is no significant connection between the cute introduction and the content of what he intends to say.
Preachers, without realising what they are doing, sometimes resort to such confidence tricks. A middle-aged man addressing a group of young people begins by referring to a current pop star about whom he obviously knows nothing. Or perhaps he tries to spice up his language with a piece of teenage slang. Eager to establish credibility, he has merely made himself seem foolish. A message starts with glittering promises of immediate benefits. But the promises are never developed and those initially attracted are left feeling cheated. A catchy reference to some current event is so obviously unrelated to what follows that discerning hearers feel contempt for the stratagem designed to catch their attention. This is not relevant preaching. Such devices are, rather, the trinkets offered by those ‘peddling the word of God’ (2 Cor. 2:17).
Peter, however, is genuinely interested in the topics with which he begins. He is not simply using them as clever bids for attention. He takes them seriously and intends to explain them. But his main commitment is to proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only answer to all the needs of his hearers. How then does he link introduction and message? It is by showing the connection between their interest and his. He makes plain that what they are thinking about is a pointer to the great, vital issue which they need to consider and about which he is speaking.
The people on the day of Pentecost are fascinated by the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Peter shows that this has been caused by the long-promised outpouring of the Spirit, who in turn is the gift of the exalted Jesus (Acts 2:1, 22). Their interest in tongue-speaking, although they did not know it, is in fact an interest in something very closely connected with Jesus Christ.
Both the crowd and the religious leaders are astounded by the healing of the lame man. But Peter points out that this miracle is due to the activity of the Saviour, crucified and risen, and that ‘his name, through faith in his name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know’ (3:16); ‘by him this man stands here before you whole’ (4: 1 0). Without realising it, they are enthralled by the mighty work of Jesus.
Cornelius and his fellow-Gentiles are puzzling over Peter’s willingness to come among them and his surprising statement that ‘God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean’ (10:28). What can he mean? The answer to their dilemma is to be found in Jesus and in the fulfilment of the prophetic witness that ‘whoever believes in him’, whether Jew or Gentile, ‘will receive remission of sins’ (10:43). He is the One through whom it is now plain that ‘God shows no partiality’ (10:34).
The pattern therefore is always the same. Peter relates his preaching to his hearers on two levels. It is obviously and instantly relevant in that he begins with whatever issue is concerning them. But, more importantly, it is truly and eternally relevant in that he uses this focus of interest to lead them directly to Christ. They may not initially be interested in the Son of God. But he is the One towards whom Peter invariably and exclusively directs their attention. Speaking to different people and in varying situations he always begins at the place where he finds his audience, then traces from there a direct road to Jesus.
What is Peter teaching us?
He is reminding us that there is nothing wrong with taking as our starting-point in preaching the felt needs and pressing concerns of our hearers. Indeed, this is a wise procedure. When speaking to believers we may be able to dispense with a striking introduction and plunge straight into an exposition of our subject. Our hearers, we may hope, are interested before we begin. We should not need to capture their attention, because they are already eager to understand the Scriptures. Ravenous for that Word which is the food of their souls, they have no need of an appetising hors d’oeuvre to whet their appetite. (Oh, if only! groans the discouraged pastor.)
When preaching the gospel, however, we are consciously addressing those who have little interest in the message of salvation. So we have to win their attention, persuade them that what we have to say is of the utmost relevance to their lives and destinies. We must take pains to begin where they are. The Spirit, who alone brings men and women to repentance and faith, has chosen to use means, and one of the most fruitful of these is the skill of the speaker in capturing the interest of his listeners.
C. H. Spurgeon, a giant among preachers of the gospel, understood well the importance of this initial point of contact:
Their attention must be gained, or nothing can be done with them ... We must make the people feel that they have an interest in what we are saying to them ... I never did hear of a person going to sleep while a will was being read in which he expected a legacy, neither have I heard of a prisoner going to sleep while the judge was summing up ... Self-interest quickens attention.
In the twentieth century, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, renowned for thorough, detailed biblical exposition and for his distaste for gimmicks of any kind, makes the same point, not just in the context of evangelism but about preaching in general:
This question of relevance must never be forgotten ... The preacher is a man who is speaking to people who are alive today and confronted by the problems of life; and therefore you have to show that this is not some academic or theoretical matter which may be of interest to people who take up that particular hobby, as others take up crossword puzzles or something of that type. You are to show that this message is vitally important for them, and that they must listen with the whole of their being, because this really is going to help them to live.
Don’t be predictable and unimaginative in your preaching
So much gospel preaching today is predictable and unimaginative. It begins in a theoretical, abstract manner to which ordinary, unchurched people simply cannot relate. They do not see the relevance of what is being said. They are not made to see it. It does not appear to touch their lives in any meaningful way. Mild interest soon gives way to bewilderment and boredom. They are turning away from the gospel, we say. Perhaps, but it may be that what they are rejecting is a dry, tedious presentation of the most thrilling message in the world.
We cannot help people who are not listening to us. So we must do everything we can to compel them to listen. We must make it our goal to command their attention. This will mean entering their thought world and trying to imagine what would interest us if we were in their place. The true preacher is filled with a passionate determination: ‘I will be heard. I will make you understand why the gospel is important for you. You may reject the message I bring, but you will never be able to say that it was irrelevant.’ This is why Peter began his sermons as he did and why we should follow his example.
But, having done that, we must at once bring the people to Christ. Our starting-point has been what interests them. But we dare not pause there. We must, at all costs, avoid giving the impression that our preaching is governed by their demands and felt needs. They are not in charge of the process. They are not in a position to dictate the agenda and can never be allowed to do so. Otherwise, they will be in completely the wrong frame of mind for hearing the gospel.
Does your preaching have a purpose?
Any preacher worthy of the name longs to preach relevantly, to bring messages which meet the needs of his hearers. If not, what is the point of preaching at all? But, come to think of it, why are we preaching? Why is it necessary to convey gospel information to those who are not believers? Surely it is because they are not aware of their real needs. They are ignorant of those very truths which are most relevant for them. This is part of what being ‘lost’ means. The lost do not know where they are, or where to turn. Their sense of direction is distorted. They are confused, helpless, frittering away their years on trivialities. In the light of sin and judgment, heaven and hell, their whole course of life is a tragic irrelevancy.
This means that, if we allow the unconverted to tell us what they need, we are by that very action rendering ourselves unable to help them. It would be a case of inviting the blind to lead those who can see. For they do not know what they need. They may think that they know. They may be very dogmatic and assured about what their needs and problems are. But they are invariably mistaken.
‘Seeker-centred’ approach fatally flawed
Here is the fatal weakness of the ‘seeker-centred’ approach. ‘Tell us what you want’, such churches say to enquirers, ‘and we will show you how Christ can provide it.’ But what people want is rarely what they should want, and to allow the sick to prescribe their own medicine is not relevant but cruel. A physician would be incompetent indeed who permitted patients not only to describe their symptoms but to suggest a diagnosis and outline the treatment required. It would be a betrayal of professional responsibility. Doctors exist because people do not know what is wrong with them or how they may be cured. Gospel preachers exist for the same reason.
We should not be intimidated by the modern clamour for relevant preaching. The fact is that it is only the message of salvation that is relevant. We stand up and look at all the different individuals who form the congregation we are about to address. Many of them may be strangers to us. We do not know their names, their backgrounds, their personalities, their circumstances, their present problems or their conscious expectations. How then can we preach relevantly? Because we do know what they need. We are far more aware than they are of what is relevant to them and it is our task to provide it. ‘Find the hurt and heal it’, advise the experts in sociological analysis. But we already know what the hurt is – the mortal wound of sin.
Let this persuasion master every preacher
The urgent need of every one of our unconverted hearers is salvation. They need to have their sins forgiven. They need to be reconciled with God. They need to turn in sorrow from their godlessness and to call on the Lord Jesus for mercy. They need Christ. It does not matter whether they are old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, black or white, outwardly moral or in the gutter. ‘There is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:22, 23). There is only One who can help them and we have come to proclaim the astoundingly good news that he offers himself now as their Saviour. This is the message of the gospel – universally, currently, eternally relevant – which is entrusted to us.
Let this persuasion master us. In the gospel we have what people need more than anything else in the universe. Nothing matters more to our hearers than that they should understand and believe what we are about to tell them. Whether they want to or not, this is the truth which they must be compelled to face, ‘for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Such a conviction will fortify us against the contempt of an unbelieving world.
Peter has shown us the way. We begin where our hearers are, then show them how where they are relates to Christ. They may perhaps be lonely, so we take that as our starting-point. But we do not initially promise ‘Jesus can cure your loneliness’, although that is true. Instead, we show them that their loneliness is merely a symptom of a more profound alienation, their separation from God. We insist that this is their real need and explain how it is possible for them to be reconciled with God and to come to know him as their Father through Christ. Or they may be tense and anxious. We begin there: but not by offering the Son of God as a heavenly sleeping-pill or an anti-depressant. Instead, we demonstrate that they have far more reason to be anxious than they realise and that the stress they are experiencing is an indicator of the fearful fact that they are under God’s condemnation and heading for hell. But there is a solution. If they trust in Christ, they will be delivered from judgment and experience ‘peace with God’ (Rom. 5:1). Then, and only then, will they be in a position to enjoy ‘the peace of God’ (Phil. 4:7). But this peace must come as a result of salvation, not as a substitute for it.
To return to the medical analogy, it is perfectly proper for a doctor to begin with the symptoms of which the patient complains. But it would be quite wrong for him to become so wrapped up in treating those symptoms that he neglected the underlying disease. People will not listen to sermons which seem to have no connection with life as they know it. Yet preaching which is dominated by this world’s concerns will be of no ultimate benefit to them. Peter’s preaching is both obviously and truly relevant. He starts where people are, then takes them at once to where they need to be. But this is possible only because of the Person who is central in everything he has to say.