To speak of God's Word as being "relevant" is almost equal to saying that God may be "useful" to humanity. And to say that preachers can "make" the Word relevant, as if they could "assist" God in making Himself known, is little short of blasphemy. Yet the major problem for preaching today is relevance. If preachers cannot "make" the Word relevant, at least they ought to avoid the sin of making it irrelevant.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the problem is no longer whether Christianity is credible or not, but whether it is relevant. Preaching in irrelevant terms is as bad as not preaching at all.
The problem of relevance
I am concerned with the problem of relevance in three areas as they relate to the Adventist pulpit.
Mechanical presentation. First, Adventist preaching has been guilty of a wooden and mechanical presentation of doctrine. Doctrinal to the bone, the sermon is drawn almost exclusively from the Bible, with scarcely an illustration to help the listener discover the hidden riches in those scriptural texts. The tone is sonorous, as if the vocal cords could make intelligible what apparently the mind could not. Such mechanical presentation presupposes, for example, that simply using the phrase "justification by faith" would allow the audience to grasp its meaning.
Doctrinal sermons are needed. But they should have come alive first in the experience of the preacher and then should be communicated in such a way that they come alive in the experience of the listener. "When the theory of the truth is repeated without its sacred influence being felt upon the soul of the speaker, it has no force upon the hearers, but is rejected as error, the speaker making himself responsible for the loss of souls."1
Coupled with this mechanical presentation of doctrine is an absence of authority in the pulpit. The preacher's authority derives from the Word ex pounded. And our people recognize this to an amazing degree. But that is no reason Adventist preachers should take advantage of it as they often do. Con fusing the source of their authority with a mechanical presentation of doctrine and encouraged by a docile and respectful people, all too many Adventist preachers have felt that all that is necessary is to "proclaim" the gospel in theological language, regardless of whether it is intelligible or not.
Christocentric or theocentric preaching. A second area in which the Adventist pulpit has opened itself to the charge of irrelevance is in its emphasis on Christocentric preaching to the neglect of theocentric preaching. A perfectly proper and necessary emphasis upon Christ has been so heightened as to result in an improper de-emphasis of God. The net result is preaching that is irrelevant to the gospel. For, after all, the gospel is good news about what God has done through Christ.
In its zeal to affirm God's redemptive activity in Christ, the Adventist pulpit has moved unconsciously toward a Christocentric emphasis. Consequently the preacher constantly beseeches the person in the pew to trust Christ, believe in Christ, accept Christ. Implicit in the appeal, from the preacher's point of view, is the thought of the God we know, accept, and trust in Christ. But the implication is not explicitly set forth to enable the hearer to connect what the preacher is saying about Christ with the group of associations that go with the word "God." The result is that even well-informed listeners may be living in a world with two Deities: the Lord Jesus Christ, who redeems and saves, whom they love and trust, and the God of creation and judgment, whom they respect and fear.
The Christocentric emphasis in Adventist preaching gets so twisted out of proportion, albeit unintentionally, that the essential gospel of the revelation and redemption of God in Christ gets all but lost. To "accept Christ as my personal Saviour" apparently has little or nothing to do with God. And such preaching is simply irrelevant to the Word of God.
Neglect of social context. A third area in which the Adventist pulpit is charged with irrelevance is its emphasis upon personal salvation to the neglect of social context. Lest I be misunderstood, let me state that the emphasis upon personal salvation to bring a person to repentance and faith is the primary object of preaching. But such preaching must also recognize that no individual can be cut off from relationships with others. After all, each person is a part of the whole social fabric of the church and society. And it is this recognition that is so frequently lacking in Adventist pulpits.
The reasons for this exclusive emphasis upon "personal salvation" are not difficult to trace. For one thing, there is an eternal and unchangeable message to be preached. The gospel is the same gospel in the twentieth century as it was in the first. And then, too, there are certain unchanging circumstances in which people find themselves: death and bereavement, suffering and loneliness, sin and guilt. Moreover, a person's relationship to a neighbor or a family member is not markedly different today than it was a century ago. A message that deals with such unchanging elements of life is presumed to be not only safe but adequate.
Further, the exclusive emphasis on personal relations can be traced to a felt danger of "social gospel," with its programs, policies, and pronouncements that quickly leave the gospel behind and usurp the place of the living Word.
Adventist pulpits, for the most part, have avoided the irrelevance of the social gospel. But have they been conscious of the need for social con text in preaching? Preaching that shuts its eyes to the world in which the congregation lives is in danger of becoming irrelevant for two reasons.
First, such preaching presents the gospel as an escape from the harsh and bitter realties of life. Escapist preaching hawks the gospel for the good it will do for one's headaches, insomnia, and neuroses. Preaching needs to deal realistically with people in their social context, relating personal salvation both to the present and to the future.
Second, preaching that is silent on the social concerns of our times confirms from the pulpit the tragic compartmentalization of modern life. Family life is here in the second drawer. Business is in the top drawer, center. International problems lie on the surface of the newspaper on top of the desk. Religious life is tucked away in the bottom drawer, left to be opened on Sabbath morning.
To be relevant, preaching needs to address the whole person in the totality of relationships. Preachers need to take these charges of irrelevance seriously. Each charge hinges upon a distortion of a perfectly valid and indispensable emphasis in preaching. Indeed, these are precisely the emphases that have been the strong points of Adventist preaching: doctrinal, Christocentric, and evangelical. But the distortion of these valid and indispensable emphases is not surprising since the devil attacks at the point where we presume ourselves to be the strongest.
Making the Word relevant
How, then, can the Word be made relevant? Three principles would help.
Know the gospel. To begin with there must be recognition of the nature of the gospel itself, for the preaching of the gospel cannot be divorced from the content of the gospel. When we say that the gospel (or the Word of God) is God's self-dis closure, we refer to God's revelation in history. "But revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God, his self limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls. It is God Himself drawing ever more near and arrived at last. And a living God can only come to men by living men. . . . It was by men that God gave Himself to men, till, in the fullness of time, He came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself, not merely acting through Him but present in Him, reconciling and not speaking of reconciliation, or merely offering it to us." 2
The content of the gospel is an event: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14, NKJV),* Christ lived, suffered, died, and rose again a once-and-for-all act of God. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Recognition of God's activity in Christ will save preaching from the irrelevance of a Christocentricity at the neglect of God.
A frequent criticism of sermons is that the name "Christ" is never mentioned. Without fully endorsing the principle that the word must be mentioned before a sermon can be evangelical, I should like to ask whether a sermon can be evangelical if Christ is mentioned but God is not? The gospel is good news not about Christ but about God. The need for such a distinction is that the word "God" carries a number of associations: power, prayer, nature, death; and the word "Christ" carries other associations: cross, shepherd, love, miracle. All too often the two groups of associations are almost complete strangers to each other, underlining the necessity for preaching to be explicit in witnessing to an event that is an act of God.
But the divine event, though once for all, is also "prolonged" (to use Forsyth's word) in the witness to it. Our preaching is rooted in the witness to the event as preserved in the Scriptures. It is the preaching of the event itself. Paul preached, and we have the record of it in the epistles. The early church preached, and we have the record of it in the Acts. Thus the New Testament is more than simply an ac count or even a primary witness to what happened once. We do not tell people to read the New Testament because they will find there a record of what happened once to some people 2,000 years ago. We tell them to read it because there, in the witness to the event, the event itself is pro longed. There is to be found the living Word of God, not in any pedestrian or mechanical sense, but in the very disclosure by God of Himself.
If preaching is to be relevant today, it must be biblical. It must witness to an event to which the Bible bears witness a witness that is forever rooted and tested by the biblical witness. The divine event must be prolonged in preaching today. Preaching therefore is more than something said; it is something done! God is disclosing Himself again to us with His demand and His promise.
Experience the gospel. A second principle in facing the problem of ir relevance in preaching relates to the person of the preacher. Preachers must be men and women of God; they must have experienced the event, and like the excited band of disciples on Easter dawn should be able to exclaim, "It happened to us." To be sure, preachers speak out of more than individual experience; they speak out of the context of the whole witnessing community, the church. And their authority, therefore, rests upon both these facts: the prolongation of the divine event in their own experience, and the commission laid upon them by the church to witness to the event. Let either of these get out of balance, and you get, on the one hand, a distorted individualism, and on the other, an irrelevant authoritarianism. And it is the latter danger that Adventist preaching is facing today.
Only as the content of faith passes through the mind and experience of preachers can they witness it, not as a theological concept, but as a living deed that they have experienced. "The gospel of Christ becomes personality in those who believe, and makes them living epistles." 3 Here lies the difference between preaching with an "air" of authority, which is irrelevant; and preaching with the "note" of authority, which is indeed a witness to the prolonged event.
Therefore the walk and conversation of preachers must reflect their personal experience of the saving power of the gospel. How often a pastor's life stands in the way of the spoken word from reaching its objective! Richard Baxter appeals: "Take heed to yourselves lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest while you proclaim the necessity of a Saviour to the world your own heart should neglect Him and His saving benefits." 4 The most convincing evidence of our authority as preachers springs from the certain knowledge that of all the sinners to whom we preach, we are the chief.
Communicate the gospel. Beyond the fact that preachers can say "It happened to us," they must be able to articulate this experience in terms that are meaningful to the congregation. Preaching is not preaching unless it strikes home. The Word be came flesh and dwelt among us. So with preaching. Its message must come to dwell in the minds and lives of the people so that something hap pens not in the pulpit but in the pew. This is not to say that the mes sage will always be received well. The message may well be rejected, for the gospel is still a stumbling block! But it must be presented in such a way that the listener knows a response is demanded: a yes or a no.
Here we face the problem of communication. Words are symbols; and speech is nothing more than a "highly complex and refined way of signaling to one another." If there is to be communication, therefore, the signals must mean the same thing both to preacher and listener. Words like sin, grace, faith, love may mean one thing to the preacher but quite another to the listener. By sin, for ex ample, the preacher may mean the soul's rebellion against God; but a listener may take it to mean the little white lie he told his wife over the breakfast table. There may have been a time preachers could take for grant ed that the primary signals used in the Christian pulpit were understood in the same sense by the congregation. Today no such assumption can be made.
Thus for preaching to be relevant, preachers should know their audience: the way they think, the language they use, the aspirations and frustrations they experience. Walter Russell Bowie suggests: "It is well that at some time he [the preacher] should go into the church and kneel there in one of the pews and remember those who will be sitting there.
Here in one place will be a business man, burdened and often bewildered by the difficulty of keeping his business from being a failure and at the same time keeping himself a Christian. Here will be a woman bringing in her heart some secret wound of domestic wretchedness. Here will be a young man undecided whether to resist or welcome some hot temptation. Here, seated side by side, will be two who have fallen in love and before whom life seems to be opening into the wonder of new romance. Here they are, these different personalities with their different joys and sorrows, their opportunities and their needs. What can the message he plans to preach on Sunday be made to mean to them?" 5
Without this journey into the lives of those to whom we preach, our word is a dead word.
Thus preaching that is concerned solely with the salvation of individuals apart from their social, political, and economic concerns is preaching in a vacuum, and is little better than escapist preaching. For example, preaching on sin that speaks only of a person's pride and selfishness with respect to family, friends, and business relationships, but does not lead that person to face the problem of national pride and international relationships has not really spoken about the total meaning of sin. Preaching on loving our neighbor that does not go beyond the immediate personal relationships and make its claim upon the suffering Somalians or the dispossessed Bosnians has not begun to present the claim of Christian love upon the congregation.
This is not to suggest that we shall preach programs, policies, and pronouncements. As Hugh Thomson Kerr reminds us: "We are sent not to preach sociology but salvation; not economics but evangelism; not re form but redemption; not culture but conversion; not progress but pardon; not the new social order but the new birth; not revolution but regeneration; not renovation but revival; not resuscitation but resurrection; not a new organization but a new creation; not democracy but the gospel; not civilization but Christ. We are ambassadors, not diplomats." 6
* Texts credited to NKJV are from The New
King James Version. Copyright @ 1979, 1980,
1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.
1 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washing
ton, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915),
2 P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the
Modem Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmnans, 1964),
3 Ellen G.White, Fundamentals of Christian
Education (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn.),
4 Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Classics
of Faith and Devotion Series (Portland,
Oreg.: Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 27.
5 (Source unknown).
6 Hugh Thomson Kerr, quoted in R. A. Anderson,
The Shepherd-Evangelist, (Washington, D. C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1950) p. 393.