Sermons are culture-shaping events. As we craft church mission, vision, and values, it’s important to see how sermons shape churches and communities. To address the issue, we’ve assembled a panel of some of the best culture-shaping preachers we know: Gina Colburn, Lenny Luchetti, Amber Livermore, and David Drury. As you read the conversation, think of your own tips for culture-shaping preaching; join the dialogue by leaving your tips in the comments below
First, what ingredients cause a sermon to shape congregational and community culture?
Gina: Here are a few key ingredients: Biblical truth, applicable instructions, and questions engaging the listener’s growth in faith. I also attempt to insert our local church vision and mission several times each month.
Lenny: The sermon has to say something of substance about God, his nature and/or his work. The primary ingredient that shapes the lives of listeners is not merely good advice about finances, dating, etc. People can get that from a talk show. The sermon must bring people face to face, heart to heart, with Christ. The preacher can be considered a theotokos. This term literally means “God-bearer” or “one who births God.” The preacher must birth Christ in sermon, so people encounter Christ and not just the preacher. Christ architects a cultural DNA that aligns with the values of His kingdom. This happens best when preaching faithfully makes God the hero of the sermon by proclaiming his nature and work.
But, the theological substance of the sermon must be contextually connected to the particular people we preach to. The preacher does this through metaphors, illustrations and applications that are most relevant to his/her context. What cultural values are most likely to supplant Christ’s values in the lives of your particular people? We must put the Gospel in a container that fits our particular preaching context. We must be relevant.
There are four types of sermons:
- Theologically shallow and contextually irrelevant
- Theologically substantive but contextually irrelevant
- Theologically shallow but contextually relevant
- Theologically substantive and contextually relevant (the preacher must aim for this mark).
Amber: Sermons which can change the culture of a community in a positive way exegete, both Scripture and the community; culture is only shaped when Scriptural truth is presented in a contextually-engaging way.
David: Abraham Lincoln was bored with many preachers who he considered cut and dried. He preferred preachers who “seemed to act like they were fighting bees.”
Which bees do my sermons swat? A sermon can have a cultural effect if I can tie the point of the passage, first, to the felt needs of those in my congregation and community. Next, I can apply the gospel truth with rich theological urgency that provides the solution to those felt needs (rather than just cultural commentary “Ain’t-it-Awful” preaching.) Finally, my sermon can tap into the power of the Holy Spirit in Christians to overcome these things, not merely escape them for an hour at church.
A sermon’s content can shape the culture; but without theological urgency, no one will know it could in the first place. This theological urgency can be infused into any sermon if we preach as Luther advised: “as if Jesus was crucified yesterday, rose from the dead today, and is returning tomorrow.”
I’m glad we touched on culture and Biblical faithfulness, because much of our audience is concerned with both. How do you tell if you’re delivering culture-shaping preaching?
Gina: Most pastors ask, “Is my preaching making an impact on culture?” I measure this by first assessing a cultural shift within the church. Are people changing the way they think? Are they engaging on deeper levels in our mission? Is there life change? Cultural shifts don’t happen when people become apathetic; they occur when action and sincere desire for change results in reaching our communities.
Don’t just pastor your church; pastor your community. Build relationships with everyone you can. Be a lifelong learner. Be open to listening to what people are saying and doing around you. Don’t let your “ideas of what should be” cause you to miss what is actually happening.
Lenny: I am not ready to preach until I have a “word from the Lord” for the people to whom I preach. The way to receive that “word” is to listen with one ear to the heart of God through the biblical text and with the other ear to the hopes of humanity through pastoral ministry.
Once I’ve done the exegetical work of digging into the text’s literary and historical context, I prayerfully invite God to take the scalpel of his word to my life and do surgery. How dare I unleash the word of the Lord on others unless I have let his word have its way with me first!
Then, I listen to how the text intersects with my congregation, community, nation and world. I expend lots of energy in sermon preparation trying to discern how the word of the Lord intersects with the particular people to whom I preach. How will this word specifically challenge, comfort, correct, or convict them?
When I come away from wrestling with the angel of the text so that I’m limping, with Jacob, under the weight of a word from the Lord, I am ready to preach. The sermon’s development and delivery must flow out of a sacred love triangle that incorporates love for God, love for people and love for Scripture. The sermon is the consummation of these three loves.
Amber: Sermon-writing must be a process of deep listening to the Word, the Spirit, and the community. Any time I am struggling to listen to one of these voices, the sermon loses its culture-shaping power. If I do not listen to the Word carefully, the sermon has no authority. If I do not listen to the Spirit, the sermon loses its anointing. Therefore, listening prayer becomes an extremely important ingredient in the sermon-writing process. If I do not listen to the community, the sermon loses its contextual delivery. For this reason, seeking to know and understand our community culture is tremendously important.
David Drury: Some say one should preach with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” But this clever preaching quip runs the risk (as Bonhoeffer bemoaned) of sermons “reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events.” We should free the sermon from the parentheses. Perhaps we preach with the Bible in one hand and human nature in the other. Helpfully, human nature is not like a newspaper you subscribe to, it is in the very hand that holds the paper: yours.
In the newspaper, on television, on the Internet, and yes, in social media too, we find useful contemporary catalogs of sinful human nature wreaking havoc in our culture. With these in hand I do not ask: “What does the Bible have to say about current events?” Instead, I ask: “what do current events confirm about what Scripture tells us of human nature and sin?” As I prepare the sermon I ask, “What is the solution to that sinful human nature through Jesus Christ?” These are more theologically urgent questions than the banal treadmill of fabricated relevance.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson speaks about pastoral ministry being a subversive act. Sermons are an opportunity to subvert the dominant sinfully motivated culture of my church, and furthermore the same culture in my community. Then the sermon may spark two of the most critical tools of the Kingdom of God: subversive spiritual language and subversive biblical values.
Subversive spiritual language is made up of the shared terms and ways we describe our spiritual growth over and against cultural norms. Subversive biblical values are manifested in the stories we tell about how we made decisions with biblical wisdom and character in our everyday lives, rather than succumbing to sinful human nature. If you see these showing up in your church and surrounding community, your preaching has had a subversive Kingdom effect on the culture.
So far, we’ve assumed culture-shaping matters. To shift directions a little bit: why should pastors worry about the cultural effect of their sermons?
Gina: Jesus came to change culture. At the core of His ministry was redeeming culture (people) back to him. If we don’t care about culture, we don’t care about the people Jesus called us to reach. Our sermons should empower and engage people so they become involved in shifting culture.
Lenny: Preaching has produced various significant cultural movements. There are examples of people like Adolf Hitler, whose nationalistic preaching (that’s what it was) caused a movement of German people to seek the annihilation of non-Germans. Conversely, the Gospel preaching of MLK caused oppressed African Americans to seek the liberation they believed they already possessed in Christ. Preaching—not politics—got that ball rolling through the church and into culture.
Hitler preached towards cultural oppression. MLK preached towards cultural liberation. What we say from “the pulpit” (or music stand) in the context of Christian worship can lead to oppression or liberation, bondage or blessing. Your preaching can start a movement, and it should. Let’s make sure our movement preaches the values of a king not of this world, born to peasant Jews in Podunk, to redeem and restore what was lost in the Fall.
Amber: If sermons do not shape a faith community’s culture, they fall short of proclaiming the full power of God. God desires to speak to His people corporately through preaching and call them to communal transformation. Individual transformation is much more sustainable within a transforming culture. A sermon, then, becomes a powerful tool of speaking new vision and direction over a people, encouraging the kind of kingdom culture shifts needed for God’s work to be accomplished in new ways in that community.
David Drury: I should pay most attention to the difference my sermons have on my congregational culture. The best hermeneutic of the gospel, of course, is a congregation. Preaching is not a solo sport. In the end what matters is not my preaching, but my preaching-in-community.
Unfortunately, most pastors face a spiritually oppressive culture within the church, as much or more so than a persecuting culture from outside of it. Some reading this might be discouraged these days, thinking their congregation right now is just about the worst hermeneutic of the gospel, not the best. Be encouraged. If one faithfully subverts the culture of their church and turns its language and values toward Kingdom language and values, it will transform the community around it in time. Community transformation is the mission of God. We join in proclaiming the Word, and the church is his tool in that mission, with our preaching embedded in it as a sort of voice box in the body of Christ.
When speaking of his style of preaching, Billy Sunday reflected, “They tell me that I rub the fur the wrong way.” Billy wasn’t all that worried about this accusation of his subversive preaching—and we shouldn’t be either. It might be the best criticism we ever receive. When told his preaching rubbed the wrong way, Billy mused, “I don’t rub the wrong way; let the cat turn around.” I hope the cats your preaching rubs the wrong way this Sunday start turning around.
 Lesslie Newbigin makes this lesson essential for preachers in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
About the Panelists:
David Drury is the author of eight books including Transforming Presence, Being Dad, and SoulShift. He serves as the chief of staff for The Wesleyan Church international headquarters.
Lenny Luchetti is the professor of proclamation at Wesley Seminary, a graduate school of Indiana Wesleyan University. He also writes articles and books to equip and inspire the church and her leaders.
Gina Colburn is the lead pastor at Trinity Wesleyan Church in Allentown, PA. A 2011 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, Gina’s expertise in communication has been honed through her experience in children’s ministry, and nonprofit work.
Amber Livermore is a Global Partners missionary in New Zealand. Amber trains and develops young leaders to influence their communities for Christ—helping lead and organize regional/national youth events, as well.
Ethan Linder is a staff writer for wesleyansermons.com. A fresh graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, Ethan and his wife Sarah currently live in Marion, Indiana–where Ethan is College Pastor at College Wesleyan Church, and Sarah is a teacher. When he’s not writing, Ethan enjoys reading, listening to music, studying cultures, running, and following the Philadelphia Phillies.