Ignore the Culture, Preacher, to Your Own Detriment

The big event on my Spring calendar is a pastors-and-wives retreat for English-speakers in Europe. We’ll be there several days and have time to run out to Pompeii and check on Vesuvius and such. (This is the Amalfi Coast of Italy, near Naples.)

Piece of cake, right? Not so fast.

The executive director of the International Baptist Convention, my hosts, pointed out in a recent email a thing or two I might want to keep in mind.

All the retreat participants speak English, but they are not all Americans. Therefore, guest speakers from the States have to be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from Yankeeland (my term, not his) will understand.

I knew that, but I had not thought of it.

So, I started going over some of my choice stories. These are tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways. Uh oh. We might have a little problem here. I’m going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. And even then, once we begin in Italy, there will need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.

What happens when the preacher does not make an attempt to learn the culture of his audience and adapt to it?

He messes up royally.

In his book “Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century,” John R. W. Stott addresses this very issue. In the section titled “Crossing the Cultural Gulf,” he writes that “preaching is not exposition only but (also) communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it.” (Incidentally, Stott’s book was published in 1982, but could just as easily have been addressed to the Twenty-First Century.)

It’s about bridge-building, Stott writes.

A bridge is a means of connecting two peoples who would otherwise be shut off from one another. Bridges make possible traffic between the two. The chasm between the two–that which the bridge spans–represents the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the two groups.

For us, the gulf is 2,000 years (or more, in the case of the Old Testament) which Scripture spans to connect us with the message of Christ.

Stott identifies two errors which we preachers make. The first is to withdraw from the world altogether, to banish the culture to hell, and to make our entire ministry about the Bible.

This is the mistake we Bible-believers are more likely to make. “We believe the Bible, love the Bible, read the Bible, study the Bible and expound the Bible.” And if we’re not purposeful, we end up insulating ourselves from the culture.

He says you can tell from our preaching that we have withdrawn and are insulating ourselves from the world. How? He says we quote Spurgeon a lot. (I didn’t say that, Stott did!) But mainly, we misconnect with the very people to whom we’re bringing Christ’s message. (see the four brief stories at the end)

The other error is to join the culture, to surrender to it. This is the mistake of liberals, Stott says. “They find it congenial to live on the contemporary side of the great divide.” They are always up to date with the times. They know the latest novels and movies and celebrities. What they may not know is the Scripture.

Such preachers who have joined the world, Stott says, have given up the biblical revelation. Where they get their sermons, “heaven alone knows.”

To be fair, Stott adds, “Those of us who criticize and condemn liberal theologians for their abandonment of historic Christianity, do not always honor their motivation or give them credit for what they are trying to do. The heart of their concern is not destruction but reconstruction.” That is, they look around and see large numbers of people dismissing Christianity as a relic of the past that is irrelevant to their lives. And, in an attempt to make it relevant–to restate the Christian faith in terms which are intelligible, meaningful and credible to their secular colleagues and friends–they give away far too much.

So, each minister of the gospel must choose. First, we can retreat into our studies and come out on weekends to preach the revelation of God with no thought as to how the people in the pews are processing this Word. Second, we can spend all our time with the people and none in the study and so bring messages entirely of their understanding and approval but with little of God in them. Or, third, we can try to study the culture in order to speak God’s eternal word to it.

That middle ground is our territory. There will often be tension in those trying to occupy this spot of earth. Should I join this club or see this movie? Is there value in learning Greek and Hebrew? Should I attend that Mardi Gras ball if it would enable me to invite my hosts to our church’s revival?

Finally, I want to share Stott’s fascinating little stories on preachers who failed miserably to connect with their audience for lack of thought as to who is listening and how to address them.

The first comes from British author George Eliot.

We should not follow the example of the Reverend Maynard Gilfil, the Anglo-Catholic curate of Shepperton, whom George Eliot introduces to us as “an excellent old gentleman, who smoked very long pipes and preached very short sermons.” In fact, “he had a large heap of short sermons, rather yellow and worn at the edges, from which he took two every Sunday, securing perfect impartiality in the selection by taking them as they came, without reference to topics.”

Second. A chaplain who visited the construction works on the Great Dam being built on the Upper Nile.

His congregation consisted of men who had to endure great heat, extreme isolation and the strong temptations which assault people who have too much time for recreation and too few facilities for it. So what do you think he preached about? “The duty of observing all the saints’ days in the church calendar–as if they had been a group of the devout widows and spinsters in the home congregation.”

“He was a first prize idiot,” comments W. M. McGregor, who tells the story.

Third illustration from Stott.

Then there was the Cambridge don of whom E. L. Mascall tells in one of his books who “began his sermon to a group of Cambridge bedmakers (college servants): The ontological argument for the existence of God has in recent years, largely under Teutonic influence, been relegated to a position of comparative inferiority in the armoury of Christian apologetics.”

One more.

Yet even this crass stupidity was exceeded by Bishop John Wordsworth of Salisbury (1885-1911) who, in his sermon at a confirmation service at Sherborne School, “vehemently implored the boys, whatever else they might do, on no account to marry their deceased wives’ sisters.”

After that, I am speechless. Which makes this a good place to end.