Preaching to a changing world

“The way that congregation members listen to sermons has changed, and so the way we communicate must also change.” That is what we are constantly told. What should we do about this?

True but not enough

A couple of things to say before we explore this further.

The call for change must be heeded. Proclamation is an act of communication and it is not good enough to speak the truth but not be concerned with whether or not our words are heard, taken on board or understood.

But there is more to the story than the speaker and the hearer. Proclamation of His word is the authorized means by which God communicates His truth, by His Spirit. To merely concentrate on communication between human speaker and hearer is to ignore what is more important: that God speaks through His Word, His word proclaimed by people and understood and believed through the work of His Spirit in the lives of the hearer. So it is our responsibility to speak the truth revealed in Scripture, but we must do so in an interesting and relevant way.

And we must also consider the role of the hearer. It is easy to place all the responsibility for communicating on the speaker. It is also the responsibility of the listener to hear well. We must heed the warnings in Hebrews that ground that soaks in the rain but does not produce fruit is to be burned.

How has listening changed

Book sales around the world have been falling. Many say this is because of our internet connected world where we want wide but shallow input. We want to know all that’s happening but we don’t have the time for deep thinking or deep thought because we are always being interrupted. So we learn to glean ‘factoids’ – snippets of information; rather than facts.

You can see this happening even in magazines. The magazine may have a 4000 word essay, but in order to attract readers it requires a breakout box with bullet points for those who want to skim the contents, and also a larger font half sentence summary.

The other thing we are told that has changed is that people have lost interest in argument and logic. What is needed is an angle, and a personal story. A friend of mine in the daily media says something is read only if it has a story about a person or family and a photo to go with it.

I think these observations are true of the way we take in mass media. What is frightening is the claim that taking in information in this way changes the way our brain functions and the way we think. There is a loss in the ability to focus on one thing, and to be shaped by an argument.

What it means for gospel proclamation

So what does this mean for the way we communicate the gospel? The gospel message which comes to us in propositions and with logic, calling us to the hard work of understanding God as He has revealed Himself in His word.

  1. There is no need to throw our hands in despair. God is at work and He, by His Spirit takes the words of men explaining His word, and implants it into the souls of the hearer. So we must pray.
  2. Recognise that people get excited to explore more deeply when their interest and curiosity is pricked. We can do this by tag lines and sketching the main argument before or as we dig deeper. We must work hard to ensure that the riveting Word exposed in all its glory is more interesting than just factoids
  3. Help people to see that every part of the Scripture is part of the great story of God’s dealing with humanity for all time and it deals with all the things that matter to human beings; and that we human beings have the privilege of being invited to join that great story of God.
  4. Call on our congregations to take responsibility for helping each other focus on Scripture. It is not just the responsibility of the preacher to ensure we are gripped by the Word of God. Let’s all talk with each other about what we have heard. What did we find interesting? What were we reminded of? What was new and interesting? How does what I heard resonate with other things I have read? Believers should be muttering the Word of God to each other.

There is much more to say, so I look forward to your input.

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