Monday, March 4, 2013

What pre-believers listen for in sermons

Everyone knows the sermon is one of the central activities of most Christian worship gatherings. In  emerging, twenty-first century churches, the sermon has lengthened from 25-30 minutes to 45-60 minutes. That's a pretty amazing fact given that emerging churches often have a higher population of dechurched and unchurched people than our older, twentieth century churches.

What is happening in the act of preaching that opens the sermon up to an audience of "pre-believers," those who are not yet believers but who are investigating the claims of Jesus for their lives?

I've become an avid podcast listener to sermons over the past few years: Irwin McManus (Mosaic), Rick McKinley (Imago Dei), David Clayton (Ethos), Tim Keller (Redeemer), and others. Here are two observations from these preachers who connect to the millenial audiences in emerging churches:

1. They preach the text. There's no waffling, excuses, or delaying. The preacher steps right into the biblical text as the context for their message. Often the sermon begins with a fairly lengthy reading of the focus text. Yet these emerging church preachers introduce the biblical text with a sense of awe, of wonder, of expectation. This seems to be what allows the pre-believer access to the message. When we preach in the context of belief we expect the Bible to have authority and that people give it credibility. In preaching to this context of unbelief we cannot assume biblical credibility. It is the preacher himself who provides the first and immediate witness that there might be something of worth and value here. So when the preacher brings in their own sense of awe, wonder, and expectation it allows the believer opportunity to think, "He seems pretty normal. If he has discovered something of value here, maybe I can too."

2. They illustrate before explaining. These emerging church preachers oftem introduce their points not from the text first, but from life. The text is already a given, but as each point or observation is made it often begins with connection to life as the means to bring up the topic, then the text is delivered as explanation. This is so opposite to our more traditional approach that moves from text to illustration to application. In the emerging sermon the movement is illustration to text to suggestion of application, the invitation to "try it out."

These observations make sense when we think of the audience. When we assume the audience are Bible believers with lots of Christian life experience we also assume they want to know what the Bible says and they'll work to apply it. When we assume our audience are not believers we must assume they aren't willing to give the Bible a pass on truth and credibility. So we connect first with life, then show how life as they experience it connects to the text. Only then are they ready to let the Bible speak into their lives. Thus we don't demand they obey; we demonstrate the significance in our lives of the Bible's truths and offer them the opportunity to try it out in their own lives.

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