“Let me hear you make decisions / Without your television, / Let me hear you speaking just for me.” The line is from Depeche Mode’s Stripped, and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up more often in manuals for effective preaching.
For a preacher, there are seemingly two roads into the hallowed courts of a person’s undivided attention.
The broad way, and many there are who find it, is to speak as often as possible about movies, music, books, websites, celebrities, brand names and catchphrases. How can I truly connect with my congregation, the reasoning goes, if I don’t namecheck the programmes they watch, the celebrities they’re familiar with, the politicians in the news, the music between their earbuds?
The narrow way may be narrow, but it is much deeper. It passes through every human heart. It may make rare and passing reference to popular culture, but its main aim is to speak of the hopes and fears common to all human beings, and apply the gospel to them. The Puritan preachers did this beautifully, speaking more about the world inside their hearers than the world outside them.
The broad way is relatively easy. It requires no Scriptural knowledge, merely a capacious bottom on which to perch while gratefully soaking up the rays emerging from a nearby television.
The narrow way takes a little more time to find. But it has at least one clear advantage. Being less culturally shackled, it speaks more deeply to more people, from more diverse ethnic backgrounds, from a wider range of ages, regardless of whether or not they’ve watched this week’s episode of The Apprentice.
John Piper made a similar point when he was interviewed recently:
I think there are common denominators in human beings that are so massive that one can get a lot of mileage out of feeling them very strongly. For example, take the fact that everybody’s going to die. You should try feeling that sometime. Just feel it. Everybody’s going to die. And everybody loves authenticity. Try to feel that and go with that. People generally like to be held in suspense and then have something solved. I read the newspaper, listen to a little bit of NPR, and look at advertisers. I think they’re the ones who study human beings, so I just try to read off what are they doing there. But mainly I’m trying to understand how John Piper ticks. I go deep with my own heart and my own struggles and my own fears and guilt and pride and then figure out how to work on that, and then from the Bible I tell others how they can work on that—and there’s enough connection to be of some use.
Many of the preachers who work hardest to be interesting and relevant by immersing themselves and their congregations in popular culture would be interesting and relevant beyond their wildest dreams if they would only gather up the time spent watching Strictly Come Dancing and use it to become students of what is going on inside their hearers.
Do that, and nothing you say can be tedious. Not for anyone who has a heart.