How to preach culturally relevant sermons
Bishop Delroy Hall shares some insight into how preachers and Christian teachers can compile biblically based, informative and culturally relevant sermons.
A current challenge for many Black pastors is how to bridge the gap between the biblical and modern world. Is it possible? In answering this question, John Stott writes, “I believe that nothing is better calculated to restore health and vitality to the Church, or to its members into maturity in Christ, than a recovery of true, biblical, contemporary preaching.”1 From a personal perspective, Jesus and the Bible are irrelevant if they cannot relate to me as a Black man in England. Thus, an area of difficulty for many Black Majority Churches (BMC) is the acceptance of a popularised, self-centred, ‘bless me now’, heaven-focused theology.
In thinking about cultural relevance, Black pastors should note the fact that the Bible stories are based on dark-skinned, brown-eyed people. The Old Testament focuses on the Jewish Diaspora, marginalised and often persecuted, while the New Testament is based on a church birthed amidst persecution. God, then, is still concerned about marginalised people. So how might we begin to open up the Bible to preach culturally relevant sermons?
I am alarmed when people say they are called to preach, yet do not possess teaching material on sermon construction. It comes as no surprise, then, with a lack of homiletic training, how many preachers stand before God’s people not knowing the importance of exegesis. To exegete the text is to ‘draw out’ or explain the Scriptures.
Exegesis is carried out by following the principles of observation, interpretation and application. Observation looks for what God’s Word is saying. Interpretation asks: What does the Word of God mean in light of my observations? Application asks: How does God now want me to live in light of my new understanding? Therefore, before running to our commentaries and the Internet, it is imperative to spend time with the Scriptures – with paper and pen in hand to scribble, and a mind influenced by the Holy Spirit. William Turner writes that, “The script that has vitality begins with scribble. In scribble, the Spirit is free to brood, hover and inseminate fecundity for the creative work that precedes preaching.” 2 In other words, we must spend extended time with the Scriptures, because God’s presence is with us.
In studying the Scriptures, we must understand the context of the biblical passage by reading a range of biblical reference materials but, at some point in our research, we must ask: How does this Scripture relate to the people sitting in the pews? Asking such questions initiates the bridge-building process in sermon preparation, and often leads to new insights. Allow me to illustrate.
Many male preachers, speaking about the woman at the well in John 4, have castigated her for having five husbands and a live-in partner. If they saw the world from her standpoint, a different sermon would emerge. For example, in some churches, this woman would have been sidelined and refused church membership, yet God used her as an evangelist in bringing others to Jesus. Alternatively, you could preach about the women who possibly excluded her from their company, due to her unacceptable marital status, leaving her to fetch water on her own during the hottest time of the day. An important and often overlooked point about this woman is that she was confident in her cultural, historical and religious identity. Oddly enough, though, everything is named in the story, except her. Who are the unnamed, shunned and marginalised in our congregations, communities and society? They exist.
Preparing such sermons is hard work and cannot be started on Saturday nights. Preparation must start as early as possible. Ten hours or more on thorough sermon preparation, asking relevant questions while incorporating time with God, is indispensable for effective, culturally relevant sermons. However, another challenge remains. Preaching such sermons, especially in traditional congregations where there is an accepted view of a particular Scripture, can be a source of conflict. To minimise such tension, Jesus demonstrated a good model of teaching people by starting with their current knowledge and leading to them to new understanding.
Preaching culturally relevant sermons uses the ancient biblical text and, through a process of exegesis – reading and understanding the world, while asking relevant and probing questions on how God might speak to the hearers – brings life, hope and faith to people living with the complexities of a modern world. Such sermons are possible, but it takes intentional and disciplined work, and it can be achieved while honouring the power of the Gospel.
1 John Stott, Preaching between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Chicago, Eerdmanns, 1982)
2 William Clair Turner Jnr, Preaching That Makes the Word Plain: Doing Theology in the Crucible of Life (Oregan: Cascade Books, 2008), 21.