I once was asked to speak at a conference in Tennessee that was attended by several hundred pastors whose churches were struggling. As the first speaker, I tried to make the case for preaching a relevant message on Sunday that people could connect with on Monday. I shared the need for creating an environment that the underchurched would find safe and enjoyable so they would receive the message of Christ.
I said that Christ never changes, but the methods we employ must change to relate to every person in the pew. In other words, the message must pass the “Who cares?” test. I tried to help the attendees see that the content of the message plus the way it’s delivered will impact and bring positive change into the hearers’ lives.
When Ezra read God’s Word publicly, the Bible says explicitly that he made it “clear” and gave the meaning “so that the people could understand what was being read” (Neh. 8:8, NIV). Acts 14:1 says that Paul and Barnabas “spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.”
This means that it’s not enough to merely preach God’s Word. The precedent set by our biblical heroes demands that we too communicate God’s Word effectively and clearly. In other words, relevance is a biblical mandate, not a worldly pursuit.
In the parable of the sower and the seed (see Matt. 13), Jesus presents the results of seeds sown in different environments—different types of soil. The environment in this parable is the hearts of the hearers. Our challenge is to create an environment in our churches that prepares the hearts of hearers to receive the Word, so they in turn will bring forth much fruit.
Like it or not, you are leading a church in the 21st century. You are preaching and teaching in the era of niche marketing, mobile news, Wikipedia and made-to-order fast food. This is the iPhone generation. People today are Tweeting and Facebooking. Who knows what they’ll be doing tomorrow? One thing is certain: People are accustomed to getting the information when and where they need it.
This is why we can’t simply preach the Word in the same ole way. There’s no doubt that the Word of God is our daily bread and the light that guides our path, but it is effective only when it is delivered in a way that is understood and internalized. That’s precisely why Jesus used everyday objects and examples that were relevant to His day.
The truth is, we are not very familiar with mustard trees in America, leprosy is all but cured, and no one runs around naked in graveyards breaking chains like the demon-possessed man of Gadara. I believe that if Jesus were preaching today, He’d be talking about the mortgage crisis, the health-care debate and the prevalence of online pornography. Why? Because people connect with us when we address their real, felt needs. They don’t connect with religious lingo that they can’t understand.
The most effective pastors today are not only preaching God’s Word in its tried-and-true historical text; they are making it come alive to this present generation. Here are some key points on how to share the Bible in a relevant way.
Relate a Biblical Story to Real Life Today
Whatever the scriptural passage, read it until it speaks to something in your own life. Then put it into modern language. Here are some ways to do that:
- Create and then solve a problem. The problem could be lack of finances, illness, relational issues or something else. Use Scripture to highlight the problem, then make it personal.
- Tell where you or someone you know has failed or struggled in a similar situation. We all go through the same trials and struggles, some more intense than others, and the listeners want to hear how you dealt with your issues.
- Show them practical ways you found solutions. Once you have identified the problem and shared how you dealt with it, give your listeners several practical steps for solving their own problems. Make the steps obvious, easy and strategic.
- Give them steps to avoid going there again. Give them principles they can live by to avoid making the same mistake in the future. For example, if the issue is financial debt, show them how to retire the debt, live within their means, and be generous.
Communicate Biblical Truth
Truth is what the Bible is all about. Share a fact in Scripture and apply it to everyday life.
- Tell about misunderstandings of the truth. This is where you help people who have tried to use that truth in their personal lives but were unsuccessful. Maybe they don’t understand it the way it is written. For example: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). This does not mean that others will have to forgive you before you forgive them. It means that you must forgive others before God will forgive you!
- Give a strong biblical basis for the truth. This is where a short Bible study will reinforce what the other scriptural passages have said.
- Show people how to apply the truth to their lives. Here is where you get practical. Give your listeners steps for implementing and applying the truth to everyday life situations.
Post-Sermon: Grade Your Message
Listen to your message and ask yourself: “Did I create a path whereby God could connect with the real-life situations of my listeners? Did the lights go on? Was I creative and contemporary?”
The measurement is connection. If the lights of understanding came on for someone so he or she knows how to apply the text to real life, you have succeeded.
Your church can be relevant and life-giving. You are the key. If you take the time to tailor your messages to the real needs of your listeners, they will be changed forever.
Adapted from The Attractional Church: Growth Through a Refreshing, Relational, and Relevant Experience by Billy Hornsby, copyright 2011. Used by permission of FaithWords, New York, NY. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be duplicated or distributed in any form.