Bridging the cultural gap: Big task for the preacher

I was going to Italy to be the featured speaker for a pastors-and-wives retreat.  Those attending are all English-speaking serving churches across Europe as well as a few other countries. I was excited.
My host, head of the International Baptist Convention, pointed out a few things to keep in mind.

While everyone at the retreat will speak English, they are not all Americans. Therefore, I must be careful not to use idioms and references that only those from the USA (or even worse, the Deep South) will understand.

So, I started thinking over some of my choice stories. I have tales of growing up in rural Alabama, of small church preachers and narrow-minded Baptists and Southern ways.  I could see I was going to have to revisit all my messages and stories and illustrations. Once we begin in Italy, there would still need to be some fine-tuning and tweaking.

When a preacher ignores the cultural divide between himself and his audience, he could mess up royally.

In his outstanding book Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, John R. W. Stott addresses this issue.  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.” (Stott’s book, published in 1982, 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.

Preachers make two errors

The first error, says Stott, is to withdraw from the world altogether, to banish the culture to hell, and to make our entire ministry about the Bible.

We Bible-believers are more likely to make this mistake. “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.

Stott says you can tell from our preaching that we have withdrawn and are insulating ourselves from the world. How?  We quote Spurgeon a lot. (That’s what he said!)  We misconnect with the very people to whom we’re bringing Christ’s message. He illustrates this with four short examples, which I am including below.

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. Either 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. Or 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. Better yet, we can try to study the culture in order to speak God’s eternal word to it.

That last choice should be ours. 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?

Here are Stott’s examples of preachers who failed 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.  I do so in full awareness that this article would be stronger with contemporary illustrations of preachers who got it wrong.  But the article is long enough and the point is well made, I think.

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