Faithful Biblical preaching is one of the greatest gifts of the risen Christ to his Church but what does it look like? This July I reach my twentieth year of ordained ministry and look forward, God willing, to the next twenty years. But what are the marks of compelling preaching able to reach the next generations and speak into a rapidly changing progressive culture? 

We must maintain the centrality of Christ in the gospel

Paul summarizes his own ministry in 1 Corinthians 1:23 as “we preach Christ crucified.” This means that Christ, in his perfect life, saving death and triumphant resurrection is sufficient as the only atoning sacrifice and savior from sin. We must, therefore, avoid becoming distracted by side roads since all Scripture testifies to him, (Luke 24:46-47) and to his saving death. The cross must be central to in all our preaching and we must imitate Charles Spurgeon who said, “I take my text and make a bee-line to the cross.” No matter how professional, morally upright, middle class, successful, materially secure, ministry-minded, or academically qualified a congregation is, we are all ultimately just fallen sinners who desperately need to know, each week, the wonder of the Father’s grace shown in saving work of Christ. We must, therefore, as Bryan Chapell argues (Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, pp. 40-44), use the “fallen condition focus” and allow the portrait of sin in the passage as a mirror to expose our guilt so as to drive us to the grace of God in the cross of Christ. In my training of young preachers preaching from the Old Testament I often use the “Jewish Test” – and ask, is this a sermon a Jew would be happy with (in that it omits Christ, grace and the cross)? A cross centered preaching ministry will evangelize the lost and build God’s people into maturity. Biblical preaching will not, therefore, center in on what we must do for God but what He has lovingly done in Christ for us.

We must understand our culture well so as to speak effectively into it

Good preaching must not only understand the text but the zeitgeist of culture. Our aim is not to speak against culture so as to harshly condemn it, but to speak into culture so as to lovingly save it. We must therefore be sensitive to the narratives within society. If, for example, the big ideas in present culture, center on identity, inclusion, diversity, gender, justice and truth then we must try to explore these avenues as ways into the gospel, showing how the Bible provides the answer. We must know where our culture is, and meet it, wherever possible, on its own terms. We must work so as to win the trust and hearing of those who visit us, and in our preparation, illustrations and applications our preaching must be conversational enough to engage our listeners on their “defeater beliefs.” Classically, our listeners’ principal objections to Christianity will include: (i) Is there really only one way to God?  (ii) The problem of evil and suffering (iii) The autonomy of self (iv) The power and abuse of the Church (v) The untrustworthiness of the Bible (vi) Whether science has disproved Christianity (vii) Isn’t all truth relative, and  (viii) What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?  In his book the The Challenge of Preaching John Stott speaks of the difficulty of preaching in today’s world. He suggests there is a “cultural chasm” and describes preaching as “Bridge-building.” Stott’s observation is that preachers who are conservative theologically make the mistake of living only on the Bible side of the gulf, because that is their comfort zone, and they are not at home in the modern world. The culture on the other side of the gulf bewilders and threatens them, as a result of which their bridge is firmly rooted in the Bible but never reaches the other side. Stott argues that: “We must ask God to make us Christian communicators who are determined to bridge the ravine. We must struggle to relate God’s unchanging word to our ever-changing world without sacrificing truth or despising relevance.” The central task of the preacher is, therefore, to apply God’s never changing word to an ever changing world. This necessitates what Stott calls a “double-listening” as we exegete both God’s word and our culture. Many preachers may feel that their primary struggle lies in their exegesis of the former, but as our culture changes so rapidly, it is our exegesis of the “ever changing world” which is the most challenging. When I was ordained in 1999 pastoral ministry was relatively simple. Large numbers still came to church, with a clear framework of Biblical understanding. And, when they did, many, having already heard the gospel in previous contexts, were ready to give their lives to Christ. During a recent visit to Northern Ireland I was reminded of the long gone past. As I spoke to an evangelist, who had led fifteen people to Christ in just two months, the culture shock was as stark, almost as if I had stepped into Dr Who’s Tardis and gone back to a world I left twenty years ago. But as I flew back to England, where now only one in every 400 secularists is now turning to Christ, (see Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe) I returned to reality with a bump. But what does effective Biblical preaching look like in today’s culture? So what can we do to preach Christ as persuasively as possible? How can we understand our culture so as to speak effectively in order to win it? How in our Sunday preaching can the pastor serve a widening demographic with increasingly complex pastoral struggles? And how, in progressive contexts, can we ensure the good news of the gospel is heard as easily as possible? These questions drive me to my knees and force me to admit my own failure as a preacher. But as I look forward to the future I am resolved, under God, to be as faithful, loving and compelling as I can be. The purpose of this paper is simply to offer my own reflections so as to open a discussion on how we can be as effective as possible in a pastoral mission that seriously engages the next generations going forward. 

We must address a wide range of listeners sensitive to the complex struggles people face  

As I prepare a sermon I normally draw a cross to create four zones. While not exhaustive, they are illustrative of the wide variety of listeners present on any given Sunday. We will be preaching amongst others, to the next generation skeptic, the fringe member, the drifter and the broken. Placing the cross at the center is a powerful picture of the sufficiency of the gospel for our pastoral needs, and a reminder that each groups’ fundamental need is grace.  

The next generation skeptic                                    The fringe member

The drifter                                               The broken

Within any mixed congregation there be will “Two way traffic”. Sunday attendance will include those who are moving towards the gospel as well as those who are moving away. Effective preaching will address both and, encourage the whole congregation inward towards Christ. Crucial to this is working at addressing and applying the text to this wide demographic. An effective preacher will therefore be aware that within his congregation are: women, men, the young, the elderly, singles, marrieds, internationals, divorcees, those who with painful marriages, some who cannot have children, the bereaved, people struggling with depression, same sex attraction, or with past abuse. We need to apply the passage like the Puritans did (for example, see William Perkins, Art of Prophesying), asking questions like what does the passage say to unbelievers, believers, young Christians, established believers? Does it address specific types of people like fathers, children, women, the rich, the young, leaders, the depressed, the discouraged, the arrogant, the anxious, or the complacent? A powerful approach is to illustrate what the world might say to each and then to contrast what the Bible says. This will mean that the Bible cuts into dominant worldviews and the congregation can really begin to grasp the implications of the gospel. Detailed application must not be a “bolt on” but present at the heart of the sermon. John Calvin says that “a sermon without application is not the word of God.” We must, therefore, avoid preaching as if it is a theological lecture and constantly ask the “so what question”. What congregation members desperately look for from a sermon is help in a whole range of practical struggles, and how the gospel can be brought to bear on their problems. As we preach application must include practical help on how to become a better worker, a better parent, how to overcome the battle with pornography, make progress in a painful marriage, meaningfully engage gay friends at work with the gospel, or hold on to the gospel with a cancer diagnoses. Though a sermon might excel in rigorous textual exegesis as well as theological truth, nevertheless, if meaningful application which trains and transforms is absent the congregation will not be pastored or trained. 

We must work to get to know the congregations we minister amongst 

Crucial to good application, however, is a deep awareness of the struggles the congregation face. This, however, is only really possible when the preacher works to connect with them. In Acts 20:20 Paul’s pattern of ministry included both the public and the private as he taught “house to house”. In his book The Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter underlines the central importance of home visiting in pastoral ministry. While this is very difficult in eclectic city center churches, nevertheless, the principle stands. The preacher must not just be a “talking head” but a caring shepherd patterning his ministry after the Chief Shepherd whose ministry is relational (John 10:14).  The more the preacher knows the congregation, prays for them, lives among them and loves them, the more effective his teaching ministry will be as the congregation see the authenticity of the gospel modeled in his and his family’s life. Where home visiting is not possible because of the size or location of the church, the minister should meet regularly with small group leaders to take the temperature of the groups and listen to how members are doing. Pastoral visiting as well as evangelism keeps the minister out of the ivory tower of his study and will ensure that his preaching is both evangelistically and pastorally applied and shaped. For example, two weeks ago I counselled a man struggling with same sex attraction who has recently left the active gay scene in London. As I listened to his past, his battle to grasp grace and struggle to overcome temptation he helped me in my preaching. As we listen and counsel we will be informed of a range of areas we must address. For him, preaching that will build him into Christ will not be condemnatory, but will teach and heal him so that he sees why the LGBTQ lifestyle is not one to return to as well as why the grace of God is sufficient. Good preaching will encourage him that, while the trajectory of progress will be painful, God is at work and that the Holy Spirit will keep him. Like us all, his deepest need is grace for the past, strength for the present and hope for the future. 

We must preach so as to transform both the mind and the heart 

Authentic preaching, according to Martin Lloyd Jones, is ‘logic on fire.’ A sermon must, therefore, be logically composed so as to persuade the mind, but more than that it must fire the heart. Effective preaching will therefore be compelling, gripping and empowering. As Jesus opened the Scriptures the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:32) they asked “did not our hearts burn within us” and this will be our experience under solid preaching which address the mind, the heart and the life. J. I. Packer, pictures three types of dysfunctional discipleship which emerges out of three types of misplaced preaching. These are (a), (b) and (c) below:  

In (a) the preaching is simply an exegetical and theological lecture but with little or no application. As a result the mind is full of Biblical knowledge which puffs up and leads to pride while the heart is largely unaffected and the congregation are not trained for service and mission. In (b) the preaching addresses the heart alone with exhortations but not the mind. Here the discipleship is shallow because the preaching is not genuinely transformative of the will. In (c) the preaching is only ever applied with commands to serve but because there is no theology neither the mind nor heart are moved so grace doesn’t drive the disciple. As a result this discipleship is a works centered moralistic legalism. (D), is, however, the healthy Christian. Here solid exegetical preaching and deep theology has addressed the mind, changed the will and fired the affections as a result of which this believer is serving actively and sacrificially. In my own view somewhere around 80% of the normal diet in preaching should be expository Bible teaching we must also make room for topical and doctrinal preaching which makes room for areas of Christian living to be thought through in depth. The challenge in preaching is, therefore, to be transformative not just informative, and this means the sermon needs to pass the “Thursday Morning Test” Our aim must be that, four days later, not only is the main point still central in the hearer’s mind, but she or he is still working through the application for her/himself (how should this shape my professional life, parenting, marriage and  pastoral struggles). In summary, the preacher must work hard to love the congregation deeply, exegete the text rigorously and apply concretely, and deliver the sermon with conviction, relevance and urgency not only to the congregation but reaching the skeptical visitor as well.  

We must ensure the sermon shapes the whole church corporately 

The temptation in preaching is to apply the text only ever individualistically. While there must be applications into personal life (as we discuss above), the epistles are primarily applied corporately to the life of the whole church lived in relationship together. We should aim to  create a culture of corporate Bible listening and corporate Bible application where the question is not simply “What does this text mean for me?” (though this is critical) but rather, “What does it mean for us?” When the Bible is applied like this it often sounds arresting in an individualistic culture, and restores the supremacy of scripture over the life of the local church. Compelling preaching will, therefore, ask questions like: how should a passage govern our congregational aims and goals? How should it shape our relationships together? How should it inform our attitude to service? How should we respond in our financial giving, or the way we listen, and think about church? As the Bible is applied like this, the Spirit will be at work, shaping and transforming us not only in personal holiness but in our corporate life and mission together. 

We must ensure that we create “mission pathways” for those moving towards the Church 

The Sunday service is really like the flagship event in the life of the church and the sermon occupies a central part in it. Around the flagship, however, are all the other vessels in the fleet  (the church’s midweek meetings). In a “Silo Church” numerous groups run like boats heading in their own direction but with no real relationship to the center or to one another. Unless this is addressed it is a recipe for factionalism and ultimately a divided congregation. In a heathy and united church all the various groups travel in convoy in the same direction led by the flagship, and each of them flow both into and out from the Sunday gathering, in partnership with one another. Mission pathways which flow into the Sunday service may include groups such as, the student Bible studies, international groups, MOPs, soup kitchens, disabled ministries, alcoholics anonymous, pregnancy advisory service, apologetics evenings, youth ministries, elderly ministries, and counselling groups. As these ministries flow into Sunday church the whole congregation unites to worship God in unity under the teaching of the gospel. 

We must not lose our nerve the power of Biblical preaching 

As our culture shifts increasingly away from Biblical truth we might be tempted to find new ways to reach culture that bypasses the gospel. In 2 Timothy 4:2, however, the apostle Paul (speaking into the context of a society which had abandoned the truth) provides the apostolic strategy, “preach the word.” For serious evangelicals sound Biblical preaching is, therefore, non-negotiable. It is as the word of God is taught and heard that the flock of God are gathered, fed, defended, tended, strengthened and saved (John 10:3-4). As the text as originally given in its original context, in the story line, with reference to the doctrines in the wider canon is understood, and applied pastorally and within culture, God’s voice is clearly heard, the lost saved and the people of God built. When Martin Luther was asked how he had brought about European Reformation he testified to the power of God’s word as sufficient both within and outside the church. He said “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word. Otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf….the Word did it all.”

We trust in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the grace of God  

At my ordination in 1999 I was asked: “Are you persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?” My answer now is the same answer I gave then: “I am so persuaded, and have so determined by God’s grace.” Like any preacher, however, I must how admit my completely inadequate for the task. With the Apostle Paul, I am bound to ask, “who is equal to such a task?”(2 Corinthians 2:16) The answer is no-one and certainly not me! So as I look ahead, God willing to twenty more years in preaching ministry I echo the hymn writer’s words: “Facing a task unfinished that drives us to our knees, a need which undiminished rebukes our slothful ease. We, who rejoice to know you, renew before your throne, the solemn pledge we owe you to go and make you known.”