By Chris Philbeck
One of the great blessings of my life over the past 40 years has been the privilege of leading a church plant, a turnaround church, and a megachurch. And while these churches have been incredibly different, the one constant has been the opportunity and responsibility to preach. I was 23 when I started, and I’m 63 today.
To be honest, I’m not sure I would have wanted to listen to my 23-year-old self every week in that first church. But I am forever grateful for a group of people who loved me and gave me the opportunity to grow into my role. They helped set me on the path to where I am today. Back then, if you had asked me, “What is your greatest preaching-related challenge,” I probably would have said, “Just writing a sermon.” I shudder when I think about the panicky Saturday nights I experienced trying to figure out what I would say on Sunday mornings.
I would answer that question differently now. Today I would say being relevant is the greatest challenge I face in preaching.
I remember when our high school pastor preached on a weekend several years ago. After one of the Sunday-morning services, I was standing in the Guest Connection Room when a young man who was a first-time guest stopped by. We talked for a few minutes and then he said, “I really liked the message today.”
“I’m so glad,” I replied. “What did you like most?”
“I like that he was wearing jeans.”
That conversation affirms that one of the biggest problems with being relevant is that it means different things to different people. In fairness to our guest, one definition of “being relevant” could simply be the ability to connect. And if wearing jeans helped my high school pastor connect with that young man in a way that made him more open to the message, that’s a good thing. But the question of being relevant goes beyond how you dress.
Joseph Stowell wrote about the dangers of trying to be relevant in a Preaching Today article. For example, he wrote about the danger of leaving the text.
“We’ve all felt this temptation, where we have this marvelous application that doesn’t really fit the text but it’s too good to pass up,” Stowell wrote. “We need to guard against that.” Stowell also mentioned other dangers in trying to be relevant, such as trying to be too cute, too clever, or too transparent.
So, how do we meet the growing challenge of being relevant in our preaching without crossing into what we might call the danger zone? At the risk of being too simplistic, for me it comes down to two things: the text of Scripture and its relevance in my life.
Let the Scripture Text Drive the Message
I’m committed to biblical preaching where the text of Scripture drives the message. That’s my approach whether I’m preaching verse-by-verse through a book or using a specific passage to preach on a topic. At age 9, the very first Bible verse I memorized at Sunset Bible Camp in Mannford, Oklahoma, was Psalm 119:105: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (King James Version). It’s the truth of God’s Word that has the power to change and direct our lives today.
Toward the end of his first Epistle, Peter wrote briefly about the spiritual gifts of serving and speaking. He wrote, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11).We don’t preach our own thoughts or opinions, but the words of God revealed in the Scriptures. And over the past 40 years I have discovered the profound effect the work of studying the Scriptures for sermon preparation has had on my life because I sense the Holy Spirit at work in me through the process. I feel him revealing, challenging, and convicting me about my thoughts, attitudes, words, behavior, and so much more. This results in an overwhelming sense of relevance that creates a lot of options for illustrations and applications.
Make It Relevant to Yourself First
No matter how long you’ve been a preacher, someone has probably approached you after a service and said something like this: “Pastor, I think God gave you that message just for me.” I want to reply, “That’s probably because God gave me that message just for me first.”
You can read the blogs and listen to the podcasts of any number of church growth, health, and leadership consultants—just as I do—but in the end, your preaching will be relevant to others if it’s first relevant to you. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be. Trust in the power of God’s Word and God’s Spirit to make his Word powerful in your life so you can share it in a powerful way with others.