A pastor can find it difficult here in the twenty-first century to effectively connect with his congregation. A pastor may have decades of preaching experience and may consider himself to be a communication expert, but he may be stuck on how to effectively shepherd his congregation from the pulpit. This article is not designed to address the specifics of sermon preparation but to assist the pastor in better understanding the people of his congregation (and himself for that matter), who are engrossed in a culture where information is a dime a dozen. The use of the personal computer and internet has enabled the culture to be flooded with information. In understanding how people in today’s culture process information and perceive reality, a pastor can better communicate with his congregation.
It is important to note here that this issue is not about watering down the gospel and the truths of God’s Word in order to better accommodate the consciences of people, who desire a lifestyle of mediocrity in the Christian life. This is about pastors, who as expositors of God’s Word, genuinely desire the Holy Spirit to use his sermon to transform the lives of people. Let us look at this more closely and examine how preaching solely based on systematics has lost much of its effectiveness in today’s culture. The form of preaching needs to change in accordance with the change of culture’s ability to process information and apply it to everyday life. This is largely due to the fact that the internet, social media, and television has changed the way people process information and perceive reality. Let us first look at the culture and how it has changed over time.
A culture is constantly changing as ideas and technology penetrate its way through culture’s thin film. Just how exactly is culture and technology related to each other? Does culture define technology or does technology define a culture? Jacques Ellul defines culture by saying, “Culture is simply the transmitting and organizing of information” (133). Technology does not apply meaning to culture, but a culture applies meaning to technology. Technology enables culture to transmit and organize information in ever changing and greater ways. So, culture is what applies meaning to technology. Technology itself does not change a culture but culture changes as it reacts to technology and the purpose in which people use it for (Ellul 144). For example, when the printing press was invented culture changed in response to the information people produced by it. The specific culture being addressed here in this article is the typical American culture, including upper, middle, and lower classes of society.
The meaning culture applies to technology and the mediums it uses greatly influences a culture. The information that travels through the internet and television affects the culture and the way it thinks. This constant flow of information has become a way of life for most people. Culture has put a great amount of value on knowing. If the internet and television would cease to exist a part of life would be taken away from culture. Just how does this information glut, through the means of television and internet, affect people and the way they think? Let us use a simple illustration to help understand this basic point.
Imagine a century ago a hunter goes out hunting in a remote part of habitation. As he walks through the forest he gets further and further away from civilization. After walking a while the hunter feels he has gone far enough so he stops, climbs a tree, and waits for that perfect deer to walk by. The hunter has no connection with the outside world and has a calm sense of freedom and isolation. So, as the hunter waits and waits and waits for that deer to come by he begins to study everything he sees around him. He studies the different birds flying around him, he studies the squirrels and raccoons climbing up and down trees, and he studies the sky and clouds above him. He doesn’t restrict his experience to what he sees but he listens and studies the silence of nature and the sounds it produces. He hears things such as birds singing, leaves rustling and sticks breaking as little creatures move about around the forest, and he hears trees moving and cracking from the breeze of the day. What he sees, hears, smells, and feels is real. The majority of information a person gathers comes from his personal experiences.
Today, a hunter goes out in the forest to hunt. He climbs up in his tree stand and comfortably sits there and waits for that perfect deer. He looks around and around trying to spot a deer venturing by. After waiting awhile without seeing one he sets his gun on his lap and pulls out his smart phone. The hunter begins checking his text messages, emails, and facebook. He then continues to look at the news and browse the World Wide Web. As he does these things he glances around on occasion to see if he can see any deer. The hunter is connected to a world that is outside of his physical limitations. A large portion of information a person gathers today comes from a world outside of himself.
Which hunter’s way of life is right and which one is wrong? Well, neither one is wrong. The point here is that the second hunter is influenced by a different system of knowing and connecting. This difference can be seen in the context in which they obtain information. The context of the hunter and people from a century ago was their past and current experiences in life. The things they could see, touch, feel, smell, and experience were their context. The second hunter and the people in today’s culture receive their bits of information in fragments, not as a whole.
When watching a video, most screen shots are done in clips and segments (Postman 136). When reading an online article or a message on Facebook it is usually pretty short in length. If it is a long article many times people just brush it off for a shorter one. This has happened because of the age of television and the internet, where most of the content is made up of short segments, commercials, scenes, videos, or articles being short, unlike a whole book. On the internet there are links everywhere to click on and bring up more and more bits of information. Whether using the Google search engine or navigating through Facebook the possibilities are endless. These bits of information as a whole have little to do with each other. One clip of information to another causes the mind wonders to and fro. There is really not much if any context for a lot of the information people consume, just pieces here and there.
Jacques Ellul was before his time in predicting the use of a World Wide Web and its effects on the world. In his book, The Technological Bluff, which was published in 1990, Ellul says,
Every human activity is now set within a network or an intersection of many networks that are combining and will finally become a global network, it is thought, which will be the agent and expression of all possible combinations of networks. We have here a supple and constantly changing force which before our very eyes, without our being aware of it, is structuring a new world (134).
Everything is connected to each other in a global network, where ideas and information are effortlessly shared. The things we know are not the here and now but the there and now.
The Lens of Culture
The point is the way people see the world is changing. The world can no longer be viewed as being made up of “fixed things or objects but that we must think of everything, whether physics, economics, or sociology, as in flux” (Ellul 134). Therefore, if the world can no longer be viewed as being made up of fixed things, people cannot view reality as something that is fixed, but that it is in a constant flux. The English Encarta Dictionary defines “reality” as “the totality of real things in the world, independent of people’s knowledge or perception of them.” Yes, things change in the sense that there are different stages of life a person experiences, but that is not what we are talking about. When reality appears to be in flux it is muffled to the point that reality becomes less real, though what is real doesn’t cease being real.
Another point all pastors should consider when preaching is that the consumption of the internet, television, and movies provide a medium for distraction and escapism, thus making the perception of reality less real. Reality becomes (or should I say appears) less real because more and more attention is being given to things that are of little value and attention is taken away from things that truly matter. There is obviously nothing wrong with viewing videos or movies or being on the internet. However, people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, escape reality for awhile while avoiding the concrete things around them. Distracting oneself from reality has never been easier. Just go browse the web or play a movie. Many evangelicals do these things because they are not sinful actions, yet at the same time it keeps them from facing the hard facts and probing deep into their hearts. Consuming too many movies or spending too much time browsing the web can cause people to become numb to the reality of the hard facts of life.
But does the ability to so conveniently access the outside world really affect a person’s way of thinking? The culture experiences the world through a different lens than it used to. The culture classifies the world through the information in which it interacts with it. There is no controlled access to information; it is a free for all (Meyrowitz 150). When it comes to knowing, there are no boundaries of space. This changes the way which people think, understand, and act upon things.
Not only can people in today’s culture communicate effortlessly they can access information about the world they live in with just as much ease. There is no longer a need to go to the physical bookstore and buy books to look up information. A few decades ago it was common for salesmen to go around from house to house trying to sell encyclopedia sets to families. When a family couldn’t afford the entire encyclopedia set they would join together with their neighbor or friends to purchase them together. People value the ability to know.
Loss of Action
Before the age of technology “the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action value” (Postman 69). There is more information available at a person’s fingertips than ever before. How much of this information prompts a person to action? Very little action occurs on account of the amount of information a person consumes. Decades ago, information was likely to cause some sort of action on the receiver’s end. Now, it is just the opposite, people consume very large amounts of information, but it causes little turnover.
With so much information going into the minds of people and so little of it actually causing or prompting a person to do anything about it, people are prone to compartmentalize most of the information they receive. It is as if there is a box in each individual’s mind marked “low value” and all the information that doesn’t affect a person’s way of life goes into the box. When living like this all the time it becomes natural to just toss things into that box.
People who live in a world that is flooded by information (much of which is unfiltered), can find it difficult listening to a sermon where the pastor focuses on technical facts. The culture is flooded with technical facts, whether about their friends or family or with news or with anything. Today, people are less able to critically think and process information as compared to many decades ago. Just read about the Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas political debate that took place in the nineteenth century in the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (44-48).
There needs to be a context in which people can learn from. When the pastor makes the context in which he preaches, both God’s Word and the lives of the people in the congregation, the congregation is going to be steered in a direction where transformation and sanctification will occur.
Relating to the People
Years ago, pastors use to be able to basically read a commentary for two hours and the sermon was effective. However, that is not the case now. It used to be the case when the majority of the information consumed prompted action. The congregation in a church could critically think about what the pastor said from a particular passage and make the needed inferences. Now, the majority of information prompts people to no action, because of the culture they live in. A pastor who reads a commentary today to his congregation as a sermon would put most of the people to sleep and few could get some meat from it to take home.
Anybody who listens to sermons regularly has sat through a sermon where he gets nothing out of it. There is no truth or point of application that hits home. Sermons like these put people to sleep. On the other hand there are sermons which keep the attention of the congregation the whole time, and many of the people feel like God has spoken to them personally. When sermons like these end there is disbelief in how the time expired so fast and the people wish the sermon would continue on.
What is the difference between these two kinds of sermons? This isn’t talking about one sermon being entertaining and the other not. That is a discussion for another time. The reason why one sermon captivates the congregation and another sermon does not is because the pastor is connecting with the people. The people can relate from their own lives, desires, joys, struggles, and experiences to the truths and points being made from God’s Word. The pastor understands the people in the congregation God has given him and he knows how to speak to their hearts. The pastor is reaching down into the congregation and connecting with them right where they are at in life.
A pastor needs to closely analyze his sermons and decide whether or not they are relevant to the congregation’s needs. Without a sermon being relevant to the congregation there is little value to it.
Without an appeal for a response, however, expository preaching lacks distinctive theological purpose and may function merely as a form of public address. The preacher must relate the Scriptures to the people who face diverse situations and needs. Unfortunately much of expository preaching is merely pedantic explanation, almost to the extreme of being an oral commentary (Willhite 96).
In many evangelical churches today there is disconnect between the pastor and congregation because of this.
People, who go to church, sit through a church service, maybe visit Sunday school, and go back home. Many people do church the way they do because that is what they have always done. But are people’s lives being transformed by their faith and their relationship with God? Are people being shepherded the way they need to be? So, what things make up a good preacher? Is it a good Biblical education, good communication skills, and good leadership qualities? Yes, these things are favorable for any pastor to possess, but do these qualities describe an effective pastor? All evangelicals who are serious about their faith will agree a good pastor produces fruit.
There is much more too preaching than just understanding the audience and the culture they live in, and it would be unfair not to address the work of the Holy Spirit here. So, what does make a sermon a “success” in the twenty-first century? First of all the Holy Spirit has to be involved from the beginning of a sermon to the end. A seminary professor always tells his students, when it comes to preaching to “prepare as if it depends on you and pray as if it depends on the Holy Spirit.”
Secondly, the pastor needs to be in step with his walk with Christ. If a pastor is living in disobedience in any area of life he is not daily surrendering himself to Christ, and therefore lacks a strong element of the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart. I once heard a pastor say when it comes to preaching “purity equals power.” When the pastor does not allow the Holy Spirit to work in his heart his sermons will be just as empty. How can a shepherd lead his flock to green pastures when he is not there himself?
Lastly, thing needed for an effective message is for the pastor to understand his congregation. This is not done at the expense of Biblical truth. A good pastor “aims to “adjust” the audience to the biblical message without adjusting the message to the audience” (Willhite 97). When the pastor can better understand his congregation, the better he will be in relating the truths of God’s Word to their everyday lives.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. Print.
Meyrowitz, Joshua. No Sense of Place-The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford, 1985. 4444Print.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
Willhite, Keith. Gibson, Scott M. Ed. Preaching to a Shifting Culture. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004. 95-111. Print.