According to Backstory Preaching's definition of an effective sermon:
"An effective sermon
offers a clear message of Good News
that is authentic to the preacher,
relevant to the listener,
keeps their attention,
and invites transformation."
Googling the idea of a sermon that is "relevant to the listener," however, brings up all kinds of disagreement. Some think the idea of relevance is juvenile or manipulative, that it's a cheap ploy to seem current at the expense of truth. Others say it's essential.
Here's just a sampling of what people have to say about "relevant" sermons:
- Be true to yourself and your sermon will automatically be relevant to the listeners.
- We're not supposed to consider the relevance of the listener but the relevance of the Gospel.
- Relevance will be discerned when we think "from the pew" instead of "from the pulpit."
- "Relevance" is a homiletical and theological disgrace because God is eternally relevant.
Is that the case, though? Let's take a step back and consider what we mean by "relevance."
The Apple Dictionary defines "relevance" as "appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest."
Perhaps to determine whether our sermons should be relevant, we should consider what it would mean to preach a sermon that is NOT relevant.
An IR-RELEVANT sermon:
Does not preach about current realities inside or out of the congregation
- The ir-relevant sermon would not name common circumstances, ignoring the "contemporary interest" of the parishioners
- This stands in contrast to Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus courageously named the specific and gut-wrenching realities of those to whom he preached in order to offer hope
Does not grapple with the challenges of life and God's place in it
- For example, a burial sermon that ignores grief and the finality of death in relation to the eternal life of resurrection fails to be "appropriate to the circumstances."
- In contrast, Jesus wept at the tomb of his close friend and displayed the hope and glory of the cross.
Does not bridge the gap of time or culture
- When we tell the story of the Good Samaritan in our own words, who plays the part of the Samaritan and who plays the injured man? Do we retell the story with a "Samaritan" and a "Jew"? Or do we tell the story with contemporary people/groups who are at odds with one another?
- To appreciate the radical nature of Jesus's definition of "neighbor," the cultural contexts of biblical characters and 21st century listeners needs to be bridged.
- Without the bridge, the story seems inappropriate "to the current time" and loses much of its meaning.
- The way we preach factors in here, too. There are good reasons we no longer choose the "three-point sermon," and reading "Fordyce's Sermons" circa Jane Austen wouldn't fly.
Does not account for the listeners' ability or preparedness to receive a message
- The Sunday after 9/11, a sermon demanding immediate forgiveness and mercy for the attackers might feel "inappropriate to the circumstances," even if it's God's ideal. People may need to be led more gently or gradually to that kind of response.
- God's mercy is almost unfair in its exacting fairness. Consider:
- A man who shows up late to the fields receives the same wages as those who showed up on time.
- Respect the dignity of every human being--without exception.
- Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
- Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone.
- Rain falls the same on the righteous as the unrighteous.
- The prodigal son gets the fatted calf while the dutiful son who never left home does not.
- Our nature recoils against this grace. We can tolerate God's mercy in the same measure we can tolerate "the enemy is us." In our human nature, there's only so much of God's mercy we can tolerate towards others at a time.
- What's the preacher's role here? How do we preach the truth of God when hearts are resistant?
If these are examples of what a "relevant" sermon is not, then should we preach a relevant sermon?
We believe so.
Relevance is not pretending to be someone you're not or littering your sermon with media references to demonstrate your cultural literacy.
Relevance is simply considering your listeners' circumstances, challenges, and spiritual development to offer a sermon that connects with them in the realities of their lives.
Tell me how you see this at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be Good News to Preach Good News,
P.S. Remember to check out our Holy Week and Easter Sermon Bootcamps. Give yourself peace of mind, knowing you'll learn strategies and tips you can use every week while ensuring your sermon is finished by Friday. To give personal attention, there are limited spots available, so don't wait!