The Perils of Preaching to Modern People

We’re modern people. We value efficiency and practicality.  We like quick how-to tutorials that immediately get to the point. We’re self-driven, ambitious people with a plan for our lives, attainable goals and a timeline for accomplishing them all.  We’re upwardly mobile folks with our eyes on the prize and money in the bank.  We know what we want, we’re not afraid to work hard to achieve it, and we don’t have a minute to waste.

Enter the Sunday sermon.

If this generalization is even remotely true of  many of us, and we bring this modern, self-driven mindset and agenda into the church on a Sunday morning, then we should encounter a problem and experience some serious tension when the pastor opens the Bible and begins to preach.

The tension is caused by a serious collision of agendas and different understandings of the Christian life.  The challenge the preacher faces when he brings the Word of God to us modern Western American people is this: We want God to help us further our agendas, reach our goals, make our lives easier, bring a comforting word to our chaotic lives, and show us how to live “our best life now.”  This incredibly self-centered approach to God and the Bible is veiled by reasonable sounding language of “life application” and “applying the Bible to our lives.”  Yes, we want bite-sized principles from God’s word to tack onto our lives, to aid us in furthering our agenda.  

The preacher is in trouble.  The preacher approaches the pulpit knowing full well that God may not be all that interested in helping us climb the corporate ladder, raise the all-American family, get into the college we want, or excel in our athletic feats. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels isn’t all that into making “family life” the center of our lives.  No, we find ourselves standing face to face with a wild, untamed God who doesn’t fit neatly into our modern categories, and refuses to be a gentle go-to-person for career advice and occasional counseling.

No, Jesus demands we leave our present, self-made universe behind, and enter a new reality shaped by Kingdom values and a Kingdom advancing agenda.  God is on the move in the world.  He has His own agenda, and frankly may not care much about our own.  The preacher has the high and dangerous calling to stand “shaking and trembling” Sunday after Sunday, inviting her congregation to get over themselves for a minute, set aside their own dreams, agendas, value and obsessions, and give themselves instead to the work of furthering God’s project.

Or, as Jesus put it: “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”  Or, Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

I don’t know how to do this.  I don’t want to do this.  I’m scared to preach in 21st century America.  Rather, I’m scared to preach the demanding, self-sacrificing word of Jesus Christ to modern Americans.  But like the prophets of old, preach I must.  I have no choice. Like Jeremiah, “If I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer 20:9).  So, I preach. The best I can. Which is not good enough.  But the Word of God has a power of its own — “living and active, and  sharper than a two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12).

How does a preacher come against this cultural captivity to our own personal kingdoms and agendas?  Answer: Stop emphasizing personal application, stop reinforcing the notion that God’s word is a how-to manual for living a better life, and stop merely extracting bite-sized moral principles from the text to apply to our lives (as if we are the main dish needing some spiritual relish on the side to enhance us).

Instead, I suggest, we stubbornly invite people to apply their life to the unfolding agenda of God in the world. As Will Willimon puts it, ““We come to the Bible, raising questions about its relevance to our present daily lives, only to find that the Bible questions us about our relevance to the way of Christ.”  Start with the narrative, and invite people to imaginatively place themselves within the story, traveling along with the disciples, on mission and at the feet of the master.  Invite them to the shores of Galilee, and to hear firsthand the uncompromising call of Christ to “Come, follow me!”  And then do it. Drop your nets and leave your boat (whatever that represents for you) and follow. It’s that simple – and that incredibly difficult!

Modern friends, will you step outside your modern world and back into the wild, adventurous story of God in Jesus seeking disciples to follow him onto the risky waters of faithful obedience?  This Sunday, when you sit in your pew and the preacher opens the Scriptures, may we beg that the living God would not merely supplement our lives with a meager morsel of spiritual truth to get us through the week.  Rather, let’s ask the Living God to break us, strip us of our self-motivated pursuits of the American Dream, encounter us in holy love, and pull us into a much larger Story where we find our lives having relevance to the work of God in the world.

Think about it.

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