As a young Christian I became frustrated with preachers who assumed that I knew the Bible. I was converted at college, without any biblical or Sunday school background. I was ignorant of the Bible.
When a preacher said, ‘Well, you know about when Moses…’, I wanted to stand up and scream, ‘No, I don’t know. Please tell me!’ It was a sad reflection of a subconscious thinking that no outsider was expected to be part of the congregation.
The preacher was addressing the faithful, knowledgeable few. Yet the prayers of the midweek meeting were for the gospel to be heard by many, and that the Spirit of God would move and save people.
Children’s Bible storybook
Two things helped to dispel my unfamiliarity of the Bible: teaching in Sunday school and, closely associated with that, a crash-read through the Bible using a children’s narrated book. The one I used was excellent, and, since then, I have lent to it to folk who were converted in later life and needed an express route to gaining Bible knowledge.
One lady who struggled with anything in the Old Testament, couldn’t put the book down and complained I had made her stay up late at night! This is not the place to debate who should teach children; churches have to deal with the situations they face. But, for me, it was a game-saver.
I remember panicking during the week when the teaching notes talked about two kingdoms. What two kingdoms? The child’s Bible storybook came to the rescue, as I was able to read large chunks of narrative leading up to the split of the nation of Israel. Alongside the fast track catch-up, was the regular preaching and teaching taking place in the church.
This early Christian experience had a profound effect upon me. My starting position when I preach or teach is that the audience being addressed knows nothing. It runs the danger of patronising some, but inevitably someone always comes, as a believer, and comments on how even something basic that has been said was new to them.
Another difficulty is jargon and idiom. I was not aware of it straightaway, having imbibed our evangelical ‘tribal’ language. It was only when abroad, when we listened to a sermon through translation and the translator enquired how well we understood the message, that my wife and I responded that we understood the words but had no idea what the sermon was about.
This was the same on other continents where the message we heard was in English. People would interject with their amens and hallelujahs, triggered by particular phrases. It may have been an uplifting emotional experience for them, but what did they take away to help them in their daily lives?
As always, the Lord used such instances to shine light upon my own heart and thinking. How often do thoughtless clichés slip onto my tongue when preaching; or, worse still, theological terms, merely to impress the hearers?
At one of our church prayer meetings the pastor suggested we pray that evening trying to avoid the word ‘bless’ or ‘blessings’. It was an interesting exercise. What do we really mean when we are asking God to bless someone? The folk did well circumnavigating the phrase with expressions that were more precise. It was the more mature believers who struggled, showing how ingrained our traditional vocabulary can be.
The challenge for the church has always been to communicate the gospel to the community in which it is located. We have to sort out where our starting position has to be, the vocabulary we use, and that what we say is relevant.
Reaching out to people is just the beginning. When they become followers of Christ, they have to be discipled — that is where the work really begins. The skill of the preacher is to show how the context of a biblical passage for the hearers of the time relates to the context of the audience now. We must not squirm when the speaker uses illustrations that do not conform to our own life values. Rather, our hope should be that there are those listening for whom it resonates.
One of the aims of discipling is for people to become more and more like Jesus. This results in them growing and becoming mature as an effective witness to this fallen world, and in preparing them for the everlasting, face-to-face life we will have with Christ, in the new heaven and new earth.
As preachers and teachers direct believers along this path, they too must be imitators of Jesus. The Gospel writer Mark describes how that the people were amazed by the way Jesus taught. He was unlike the religious leaders, who confounded the people with their religious laws.
Mark also refers to Jesus speaking plainly when teaching his disciples. They were with him on a daily basis and yet they struggled to understand, partly because of God’s timing for new revelation.
It is a great comfort to any preacher or teacher to know that it is not eloquence that moves a hearer on, but the work of the Spirit. That is not an opt-out clause, for the preparation and delivery of a sermon has to be done as if everything depended upon it.
So, please make it plain and simple to address people like I was all those years ago — and still am!
Maciek Stolarski was born in the UK of Polish parentage and was converted at university. He worked in local government as a town planner, before joining Grace Baptist Mission in 1998, as their literature coordinator. Since retirement, Maciek continues to travel, teaching in Africa and SE Asia.