We are told today that we live in a Postmodern world. What is the place of the sermon in such a world, and how does it affect how we listen to the sermon?
Put simply: In Modernism, you focused on the truth of the message: Is it true? I believe it. Is it false? I don’t believe it. In Postmodernism, you focus on your feelings about the message, and particularly the messenger: Do I like him? I believe it. Am I irritated by him? I don’t believe it.
There has always been something artificial about this dividing line in history between the Age of Modernism and the Age of Postmodernism. As far back as the 1st century A.D. Jesus had to contend with Postmodernist “Pharisees and lawyers” who didn’t receive His message because they were annoyed with Him (Luke 7:30-34); and Paul warned against those that “will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers” (2 Tim 4:3). On the other hand today, even in this Postmodern world, the sincere Christian is still concerned to get at something like objective truth.
The truth is that most throughout history, as well as most of us today, have always sat somewhere in the spectrum between Modernism and Postmodernism when it comes to listening to sermons. This is not all bad: after all, good communication is about relationship, as well as content. But the prevailing culture of Postmodernism means that we are much more ready today to assess the message by feelings (what Paul calls, our “own desires”) than by whether or not it is objectively true. This has helped create the present phenomenon of the celebrity preacher; added to which, it is now easier than ever to access one’s “favourite preacher” on the internet.
My word to HEARERS is: Focus on the message, not the man. Your relationship with the preacher (if he is your pastor) is important; and he may irritate you at times, but this is a product of any personal relationship – just as the celebrity preacher (with whom you have no personal relationship) irritates some in his own congregation at times. But try and not let that affect how you hear; it is a mark of maturity to focus on what God is saying to you in the message rather than on some things that may irritate you about the messenger. To focus primarily on feelings is a mark of immaturity (note Jesus’ reference to “children” in Luke 7:32 above, and Paul’s reference to “itching ears”). Also, unlike the celebrity preacher, your pastor knows you, and will seek to preach what will help you in particular.
My word to PREACHERS is: Focus on the truth, and on your people – not on being the greatest orator. As a pastor, you are to care for the souls of your people; and, by caring for their souls – if they know you care – you will get an open door into their ears and hearts, to be able to communicate what is for their own good, even if it does irritate them initially sometimes. A celebrity internet preacher (who has no personal relationship with his audience) can perform without being a pastor; but you can’t be a preacher in a local congregation without being a pastor. As John Appleby points out (in his book, “…to tell the Truth” ch 7) simply firing ideas at people on the one hand, or even tailoring your message to a “target group” on the other, will not communicate; as a preacher/pastor, you must build relationships.