One of the many things Christians mean when they say the Bible is inspired is that it has furnished, and continues to furnish---in every time and place---the deepest and truest insight into their lives.
There are two aspects to this belief. One has to do with the Bible itself. It claims to record God's self-revelation to the world, a revelation made in the history of God's chosen people, Israel, and in the life of God's incarnate Son, Jesus Christ (including the response of the apostolic church to Him). The other aspect is that the biblical text has the capacity to illuminate every human situation, so that Christians can learn from it how their situation looks from God's perspective. This is a stupendous claim, and it says that the library of documents that came together almost two thousand years ago is relevant in all times and places since then. The question prompted by this overwhelming fact is not only how it happened but how those with the responsibility for proclaiming God's Word can become effective channels through whom the Bible's illumination of contemporary situations can be revealed.
In accomplishing this, the first thing is to simply ask for God's help. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired the original text of the Bible, He inspires our interpretation and also our application of Scripture. We need to turn to God for understanding of individual passages and the message of the Bible as a whole. We need to turn to the same God for insight into the world in which we live. And we need to call upon God to help us unite the two in a way that will speak most directly to our people.
Tasks underlying our use of Scripture
We have three tasks. The first is to understand the original meaning of a particular portion of Scripture. Next, we need to understand what is going on in the world in which our people live. And, finally, we have to apply our insight of the text to the aspect of life today in which that insight applies.
The first two of these tasks have much in common: Both are efforts to understand, interpret, and exegete a situation. In the one case, the situation is that which the biblical text itself addresses; the other is the specific situation in our congregation. And, finally, these two have to be united so the situation in the text can be made relevant to the present problem.
In exegeting the text, we should not be seeking abstractions. The Bible is not a book of formulas as much as it is a history of events in which God has been active. A large portion of the Bible is historical, a record of God's activity in the life of His people. And the books that are not narrative imply narrative. They are not abstract treatises but analyses by prophets or apostles of the situations in which they found themselves and how these situations looked to God. The subject of the Bible is God's mighty acts. What is to be looked for, then, is the structure of situations, the pattern of God's involvement---and the dynamics of the interaction of the faithful with each other, with others, and with God.
"Exegeting" the congregational situation
Much less familiar to many ministers is a method for exegeting the situation in their congregation. While they may have been operating with an implicit understanding of how to discern the needs of their people, they have never been taught, or worked out for themselves, the elements of an adequate method for dealing with all the various concerns of their flock.
We can start with the individual believer and the crucial issue of his or her spiritual and moral situation. Beyond these, of course, God also cares about their personal problems, the things that cause them to lie awake at three o'clock in the morning. God cares about how they get along with members of their family, with their friends and neighbors, and with their enemies. Their private physical and emotional conditions are also concerns of God, as is their life in the church. Their work and their play are important also.
God is not just concerned with individuals as individuals. There is much more in the Bible about God's relation to the community of faith than about His relations with solitary believers. That relation raises questions about both the local congregation and the larger fellowship of each particular tradition in the wider Christian community. The situation at the local church level involves issues of worship, how members get along, what kind of witness they have in the community, and leading the community in the solution of common social and moral problems. How does the congregation relate to the denomination itself and to other Christian bodies? And, beyond the local level, how does the denomination as a whole carry on a faithful witness to the society? How does it involve itself in relation to other churches?
Beyond all these, there are many other ingredients of the congregation's situation, because no one leads an exclusively religious existence. We all participate more or less in our culture. We are shaped by the media. Much of what we take for granted is just as reflexive a belief for us as it is for non- Christians. And some of these assumptions the familiar furniture of our minds have religious implications that we have never thought about because we assume that the matter looks the same to everyone else.
All of these dimensions---personal, religious, and cultural---are part of the situation in the congregation that the preacher needs to "exegete." If the situation in the congregation is to be brought together meaningfully with the situation in the text, a preacher must understand both and be able to meaningfully relate each to the other.
How do we exegete the situation in the congregation? Many steps are involved. Home visitation is one of the best, not just so that you can hear what those who live there have to say but also so that you can see how the members of a given family relate to one an other. In unconscious ways they will show us what their values are and what is important to them. Such knowledge is deepened when we do pastoral counseling. And, while not all churches have sacramental confession, all clergy have church members who unburden themselves to the pastor. We also get to know them by working with them in the activities of the church and by sharing in its social occasions. In all these situations, we need to listen for what they say (and do not say!) about themselves, their faith, and their world.
Because we also need to understand our people as members of a society, we must read newspapers, magazines, and sometimes even books that analyze and insightfully comment on our culture. Much can also be learned from the artistic media surrounding us: con temporary songs, certain comics or cartoons, television, and commercial advertising. In all of these we can learn much by answering the question "What's going on here?"
Advertising, for instance, often operates at two levels. The conscious appeal is to practical reason, recommending what only seems common sense. But the unconscious appeal is usually to some deep insecurity: a fear that one is inadequate, socially unacceptable, or not attractive to members of the opposite sex. Such ads treat the viewers as merely consumers and assume that their only goal in life is the accumulation of material goods. The pastor must listen carefully to what these voices of the culture say and do not say.
Bringing it all together in the sermon
After the preacher has exegeted both the text and the congregation, how does he unite the two in a sermon? How does the preacher decide what aspect of the situation in the congregation should be addressed when preaching from a particular verse? This task has been described as "placing the 'map' of biblical reality over the 'map' of the present."
When I was a boy, I enjoyed building model airplanes. In those days, before plastic, we made many models out of blocks of balsa wood. While the blueprints for these had end, side, and top views of the airplane, that was not enough to guide us in shaping the parts of the plane, especially its body. So the plans also included full-sized drawings of cross-sections of the body. These drawings, called templates, could be cut out and held to the particular point on the plane's body to find out if it had been shaped properly.
It seems that biblical passages both narratives and abstract passages that imply narrative situation are templates that reveal the shapes of situations from God's perspective. Thus what we need to do when we are deciding how to apply a text to the life of our people is to sort through the situations in the congregation that we have exegeted until we find the one that has the shape of the one in the text. Then we can transfer what we learn from the text to the present.
Through this method, the Scripture can meaningfully coincide with the most specific needs of our people, even thousands of years after the text was written.