Friday, 1 February 2013


This article outlines four ideas that in my experience are at the core of preaching effectively in a secular culture. If you seek to communicate the gospel to both the Christians and non-Christians in your midst, I encourage you to pursue all four elements in your own preaching.



Much of modern church-growth literature presupposes that we cannot minister to both Christians and non-Christians at the same time.1 In this view, “evangelistic” messages call upon non-Christians but bore Christians, and “teaching” messages appeal to Christians but confuse, bore, or offend non-Christians. This means a church may have to settle for one approach or the other, and as a result they may be limited in their biblical faithfulness as well as their reach.

Some churches have tried to solve this problem through distinct “seeker services,” held at a different time than discipleship-oriented services. But this approach has not been without problems: many seekers stay in the seeker services long-term, never getting fed more challenging material. And since the majority of attend­ees at the seeker services are usually Christians, the believers get stuck in elementary Christianity as well.

I believe the problem is theological, not methodological. Indeed, it is impossible to combine Christians and non-Christians in a coherent way unless the preacher and leaders understand that the gospel is not just the way people are justified, but also the way they are sanctified. You see, the typical approach to the gospel is to see it as the ABC’s of Christian doctrine, or merely the minimum truth required to be saved, but to rely on more “advanced” biblical principles for progress in the Christian life. If that were the case, then we truly could not focus on both evangelism and spiritual formation at the same time. However, Martin Luther understood that the gospel is not only the way we receive salvation but is also the way to advance at every stage in the Christian life. This is why the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

Jonathan Edwards, in his Religious Affections, argues that belief and behavior are inextricably linked and that any failures in Christians are due to unbelief. The antidote to unbelief is a fresh telling of the gospel.

Preaching, therefore, is not either for evangelism or edification, because all of us have the same underlying problem. If a sermon is Christ-centered in its exposition and application, and if it is oriented toward disman­tling the unbelief systems of the human heart and toward retelling and using the gospel on the unbelief, then it will be illuminating to non-Christians even though it was aimed primarily at Christians.


We live in a society in which people are skeptical of any kind of truth at all. In contrast to earlier eras, which accepted revealed truth or honored reason and scientific truth, many people today can’t simply receive a set of teachings without seeing how Christianity “works,” how it fleshes out in real life.

1. See also Timothy Keller, “Evangelistic Worship” (2001), | 2

This has implications for all of us. For Christians who are surrounded by today’s secular culture, it is impor­tant to hear the preacher dealing winsomely and intelligently with the problems of non-believers on a regu­lar basis. This helps them address their own doubts and is also excellent “training” in sharing their faith. The evangelism programs of earlier eras do not always adequately prepare Christians for dealing with the wide range of intellectual and personal difficulties people have today with the Christian faith.

In a similar way, when the preacher speaks to believers, the non-Christians present come to see how Chris­tianity works in real-life situations. For example, if you are preaching a sermon on the subject of material­ism, and you directly apply the gospel to the materialism of Christians, you are doing something that both interests and profits non-Christians. Many listeners will tend to make faith decisions on more pragmatic grounds. Instead of examining the faith in a detached intellectual way, they are more likely to make a faith commitment through a long process of mini-decisions, by “trying it on” and by seeing how it addresses real problems.


Some practical tips for preaching:

+ Solve all problems with the gospel. In this way, non-believers hear the gospel each week and believers have their issues and problems addressed with the beauty of the gospel.

+ Beware of assumptions. Do not assume that people all have the same premises. Avoid exhorting point D if it is based on A, B, and C, without referring to A, B, C. Constantly lay groundwork statements about the authority of the Bible or the reasons we believe.

+ Engage in apologetics. Try to devote one of the three or four major sermon points to non-believers. Keep in your head a list of the most common objections people have to Christianity. More often than not the sermon text has some implication for how to address those objections.

+ Provide applications for both parties. When providing sermon applications, address both non-Chris­tians and Christians, almost in a dialogue with them. For example, “If you are committed to Christ, you may be thinking this, but the text answers that fear.”Or, “If you are not a Christian or not sure what you believe, then you surely must think that this is narrow-minded, but the text speaks to this very issue.”

+ Be authentic. Young, urban, and secular people in particular are extremely sensitive to anything that smacks of artifice or glitzy showmanship. Beware of sermons, or anything in the worship service, that is too polished, too controlled, or too canned.

+ Be conscious of alienating language. Secular listeners will be turned off if they hear the preacher use non-inclusive gender language or make cynical remarks about other religions or use religious jargon, language that only Christians understand.

+ Expect, and respect, doubt. Always treat people’s doubts about Christianity with respect. Beware of ever giving the impression that Christianity is devoid of doubts or that only less-than-intelligent people would doubt its truth. It is important to acknowlege the presence of doubters, to say in effect, “I know this Christian doctrine sounds outrageous.”

+ Address the wider community. Be mindful in your demeanor and preaching of the needs and concerns of the wider community, not just the Christian community. Show how the grace of God favors the poor, marginalized, and outsiders. Celebrate deeds of justice and mercy and common citizenship in the community.

+ Draw on cultural references. Manhattanites do not know or trust the Bible very much, so it is important for me to know their cultural references, read what they read, and answer the questions they are asking from the Bible. I generously document and support my points with corroborating opinions from the very books and periodicals that New Yorkers read. Often I can show them how the Bible was addressing these issues long before the contemporary authority | 3

+ Read across the spectrum.If you read just one perspective on a subject, you tend to be naive and over­confident. If you read a second, contradictory perspective that deconstructs the first view, you become cynical and discouraged. But if you read a spectrum of four or five different perspectives, you find your own view and voice and often get rather creative ideas. I regularly read different viewpoints and imagine what a conversation about Christianity with the writer might sound like.

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