Continued from Part 3
A college student attending the first week of classes for a course on Western Civilization finally closed his text and barked out in frustration, “This course is not relevant to me.” He could not see how the course would help him in his after-school job pumping gas. Being relevant in this case required the teacher to bring her subject matter to bear directly on the larger but overlooked aspects of his life. For that student to live in the here and now without any idea how he got here would be to live in a narrow world.
The preacher’s task is similar: to give perspective — an eternal perspective — to the here and now. But we preachers sometimes confuse relevance with novelty. We cast about for a new and sometimes startling way to get our message across. Indeed, innovation can be good and we want preaching that is fresh and imaginative. But preaching that is only cute or clever or sensational is not necessarily relevant insofar as the Bible’s message is concerned.
A sermon is relevant when it connects a basic Biblical truth to the real needs of the people who hear. The story is told that a missionary to an Indian tribe many years ago was discouraged because he could not reach through to the people. The tribe had lost several children to an epidemic and the parents were grieving stoically but deeply. Finally, the missionary began a message with the words, “I can tell you where your children are.” Immediately he had their interest and was able to give them the gospel of eternal life in a way that was relevant to their sorrow.
We can test a sermon for its relevance by asking:
• Does this sermon speak to some universal human need — the need for hope, forgiveness, mercy, love, repentance, purity, holiness, or Christian assurance?
• Does it link the Bible’s message with life as it is lived in the community?
• Is it faithful to truths that can be known only by divine revelation – such as the promised return of Christ, the certainty of final judgment, the revealed destiny of saints and sinners?
Men and women who are lost may not be aware of the need for these truths. But when the words are preached with clarity and power, they establish their own relevance.
P.T. Forsyth said that the preacher’s first duty is not to secure his audience but to secure his gospel. If we become clear in our understanding of relevance, we will be saved from any effort in our preaching to be cute or clever or even merely artsy. Thomas Oden notes that “preaching that has lost touch with the vitalities of Scripture is easily captivated by egocentric faddism, pretentiousness, and sentimentalism.”