The Three Way Tug

Photo Credit: Payton

Photo Credit: Payton

faithfulness :: relevance ::  shepherding

As a pastor who teaches God's word more than once a week, I find myself wrestling weekly with three competing tensions: faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. These three tensions feel, at times, like a three-way tug.

The first tension, faithfulness, comes from my desire to remain true to the text of Scripture. One thing I would never want to do is to distort the message of the Bible. Because I believe that the Bible is the authoritative message from God, my most basic commitment is to be faithful to what the Bible says. 

I also feel a tug not only to remain true to the text of Scripture, but also to explain how the passage of Scripture is relevant to the modern audience. While the tension toward faithfulness to the text comes from my convictions about Scripture, this second tension comes from the people in my church. Every congregation wants to “get something out of” the message. I feel like many people come to church asking the unspoken question, “Why is Pastor Brian taking forty minutes to tell me about these verses?" I think it is a good question and I want my message to give them a great answer.

In addition to the tensions caused by the text and the tension caused by the congregation, I also feel a sense of tension that comes from my responsibility as a shepherd of the flock. This tension is similar to, but not the same as, the tension of relevance. I know that people come to church looking for a personal message from God, but I also know that the congregation has deeper needs than the ones they feel. They need to see how God meets them not only in their personal lives but also how his working in our lives connects to the larger work that God is doing. Ultimately, Christ will return and establish his kingdom. Right now, he is preparing for that coming kingdom by calling people into that kingdom by faith in the gospel. If our faith is only about us as individuals or our local church, we are not seeing or participating in the larger work that God is doing. We need to see that evangelism, missions, and even our growth in Christ is all connected to God's larger work in the world.

So, there it is: the “three-way tug” of faithfulness, relevance, and shepherding. This tug can cause my preaching to be imbalanced in one or two directions if I'm not careful. When pastoral obligation wins, the message challenges the listener to look beyond his or her felt needs to the larger issues in the church's life. At its best, this kind of preaching confronts people’s worldview, asking them to choose the path of selflessness over selfishness. At its worst, this type of preaching degenerates into condemnation. The church may feel berated for not living up to the my ideals and is urged to “do better.”

When felt needs win the tug of war, the audience pays close attention as the issues they care most about are surfaced and addressed. They may find answers to their problems or comfort for their griefs and struggles. When felt needs preaching is at its worst, however, the message of the Bible can be distorted and made to say something that the biblical author never intended. Furthermore, an over emphasis on felt needs can sometimes fail to challenge selfish attitudes that God wants to change.

Finally, if my preaching leans too far toward interpretation, people in my church may feel like students in a classroom, collecting many facts or truths about the Bible. At best, this emphasis in preaching creates a congregation with extensive Bible knowledge. At worst, the church might know a lot but obey very little. This type of preaching may also leave people in their comfort zones, never challenged to reach out to the world around. 

Biblical Preaching, as defined by my teacher Haddon Robinson, attempts to take these three legitimate tensions and allow the message to be shaped appropriately by them all. Biblical Preaching is a process; it is a series of steps that, when followed in their proper order, usually yield a sermon that is faithful to the Bible, relevant to the audience, and challenging to the local body. This is what I'm trying to do as a canyon crosser in my preaching and teaching ministry.