In less than eight years we will break into the third millennium. Apocalyptic fervor and fever loom on the horizon. Books reminiscent of The Late Great Planet Earth will flood the secular and religious market. Doomsdayers carrying placards heralding the end of time will appear in record numbers on our city streets.
Eschatologic hope and fear will be the topics of discussion among theologians. Publishers of religious books will be inundated with titles such as Interpreting the Bible for the Third Millenium, The Third Millennium and Christian Ethics, Theology for the Third Millennium, and of course, Preaching in the Third Millennium. To be sure, we will be “third millenniumed” to death (no eschatological pun intended).
Even with all the hype that will usher in the twenty-first century, the beginning of a new millennium is a decisive occasion for theological reflection. Authentic ministry is conscious of its various contexts, realizing that the Church never functions in a vacuum.
For those of us interested in preaching, the prospect of preaching into the third millennium is marked with questions: What impact will the Church have on society in the twenty-first century? Will preaching continue to have a place in the life of the Church? What will preaching look and sound like in the third millennium?
What will society expect from preaching? What will preachers expect from preaching? What issues will shape preaching in the third millennium? What will preachers have to do to help their hearers make the transition into the new aeon? What will the world of the third millennium look like? How will it sound? What will be its terrain? What will be the shape of society?
To answer these questions, we must develop a hermeneutic for the preaching situation. Situations, like texts, require interpretation to understand fully their implications. In Gadamer’s terms, we look to discover the horizon of the future world situation and decide how preaching’s horizon can be fused to it. Where there is the fusion of horizons there is the prospect for understanding.
For preaching truly to make the “word become flesh and dwell among us,” sound biblical exegesis must be balanced with an interpretation, not only of the listeners but of their multifarious situations. Knowing the motivating factors behind people’s actions and attitudes makes it possible for preaching adequately to address their needs.
A crystal ball would be a great help for answering the hermeneutical questions facing us as we prepare to preach into the twenty-first century. The popular work of Naisbitt and Aburdene in Megatrends 2000 offers some hints for understanding the future scene. They suggest the following ten trends for the 1990’s: (1) a global economic boom, (2) a renaissance of the arts, (3) the emergence of free-market socialism, (4) global lifestyles and cultural nationalism, (5) the privatization of the welfare state, (6) the rise of the Pacific rim, (7) the decade of women in leadership, (8) the age of biology, (9) religious revival, and (10) the triumph of the individual.
A cursory reading of Megatrends 2000 will produce nods of agreement. Their proposal is tenable and their statistics look convincing; I find it hard to believe, though, that Monday Night Ballet is going to replace Monday Night Football. Yet who knows: perhaps ABC could get Hank Williams Jr. to convince us that “Swan Lake” has more popular appeal than watching twenty-two grown men chasing an oblong ball up and down a one-hundred-yard field for an hour. To the disappointment of Naisbitt and Aburdene, football will be around in the third millennium. Still, the trends they forecast give us a hint about what the world will look like.
Naisbitt and Aburdene make much of the economic boom that is emerging in the 1990’s. The issue of a one-world economy points to a bigger reality: the world will continue to become a smaller place. It will be impossible for anyone to maintain an isolationist posture: nations or individuals. What happens in Bangladesh has an effect on us, almost instantaneously.
For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, we heard about it within hours. In January of 1991, the United States led a coalition of forces to liberate Kuwait. We watched and listened to CNN broadcast from within Baghdad and describe the “surgical accuracy” of Tomahawk missiles. We watched videotaped replays of smart bombs being dropped into airvents on selected targets. Daily, millions of Americans were glued to their television sets, hearing briefings broadcast from central command in Riyadh. General Norman Schwarzkopf talked to the world and heard reports simultaneously with the Pentagon in Washington.
With the proliferation of satellite communication, news stories that once took days or hours to be telecast are now beamed instantly into our living rooms. Once we were happy to see video tapes on the evening news of events that happened that morning. Now we watch many events as they happen. Some of these events affect us indirectly, some directly. Because we watch them, we are somehow affected.
Naisbitt and Aburdene point out that English is quickly becoming the universal language, again suggesting that the world is a shrinking place. Boundaries are broken down when individuals communicate directly. Distances of culture are lessened when people of different ethnic and social backgrounds commune without the use of an interpreter. Ideally, the commonality of language would enhance understanding and dialogue. This phenomenon is just another sign that the world is becoming smaller.
Travel is another reason that the world seems smaller. Since travel is more available to more people, people are traveling more and doing it quicker than ever before. The third millennium will likely see new modes of travel that will revolutionize how we do business and how we recreate.
The world of the third millennium will be characterized by a continuing boom in technology. Computers will get faster and smaller. We will find it harder to live without them. Have you walked through an airport lately and noticed how many people are carrying lap-top computers in designer carrying cases? George Orwell would be enticed to write a sequel to 1984 about a society whose every move is controlled by bits and bytes, hard drives and software, floppy discs and mice (Mice is the plural of “mouse” you know).
New technology will affect the cars we drive, how we watch television, how we heat our homes, and how we educate our children. There will be great advances in technology for health care. However, the greatest weakness of the proliferation of technology is the depersonalization that it brings.
It has been months since I have talked to or, for that matter, seen a human being when I have done my banking. I drive up to a machine that instructs me to insert my plastic ATM card. After I do, it greets me by name and asks me for my “PIN” (that’s computereeze for “personal identification number”). Once I’m cleared, it handles my request, takes my deposits, gives me cash, provides me with a receipt, and tells me to have a nice day (how does it know what a nice day is?). It gets the job done, but something is missing.
Technology can be helpful, but even “user friendly” computers lack personality. Unfortunately, the third millennium will likely be characterized by the lack of the personal touch.
Pluralism will be a hallmark characteristic of the third millennium. As the world gets smaller, pluralism is a natural result. A nation’s society will be characterized by diverse ethnic, racial, religious, and social groups all maintaining some participation in the development of society as a whole.
The great strength of pluralism is society’s ability to build on the differences contributed by the various groups. We can learn much from those who are different from us. We learn from their customs and world views. We gain new perspectives on life that broaden our horizons. The society is enriched and becomes more than a sum of its parts.
Pluralism’s weakness is an amalgamation that causes the unique characteristics, qualities, and strengths of a particular segment of society to be swallowed up and lost in the whole. For example, the merging of various cultures may lead to confusion of moral issues within a society. Individual group values and moral concerns are watered down or lost completely in the process. Pluralistic societies tend to soft pedal moral issues. In an attempt to prevent one group’s morality from being imposed on other groups in the society, moral and ethical concerns become obscured.
To deal with morality, pluralistic societies turn to religious communities as the prescribers of moral codes. This action protects public schools and other societal organizations from having to make or enforce any moral code. The prescription of a code of ethics is called a religious issue in a pluralistic society.
What will be the impact of religion as we usher in the third millennium? Naisbitt and Aburdene feel that the coming of the millennium will produce heightened interest and awareness in religion. When life seems uncertain and in flux, people often turn to religion for answers. New sensitivity to the spiritual is already characterized by the growth of the New Age Movement and books like Dianetics. Naisbitt and Aburdene question the viability of traditional forms of religious expression and focus on the continued decline of mainline denominations with their formalized and bureaucratic ways of expressing Christian faith.
The above is a view into the third millennial world in which we will preach. It is a smaller world, marked by an interrelated economic system, the continued proliferation of technology, pluralism, and the increase in religious interests with the decline of traditional denominational approaches of expressing faith. Even if this is a narrow glimpse, and a somewhat speculative one at that, how does it inform us concerning how we will preach into the third millennium?
At first glance, the twenty-first century world seems confusing and inhibiting, alienating and frightening. Our initial reaction may be to cower at what is an enormous task; that is, making the gospel relevant to such a complex age. Like so many detractors of preaching, we may decide that proclaiming the old, old story is essential, but the old way will never fit the new world. If we are not careful, we will bring a demise to preaching by singing that song made famous by the theologians of Hee Haw: “Gloom, Despair, and Agony on Me!”
A consoling thought to remember is that the Church, throughout its history, has always experienced a journey into the unknown, even the complex unknown. Believing we are the first generation of Christians to face a confusing world situation is naive.
For example, the idea of a one-world economy and cultures transcending national boundaries sound like anomalies to many modern Christians. Yet Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees concerning the paying of taxes is interesting. He asked them to bring Him a coin used for paying taxes. They brought Him a denarius, and looking at it He asked them whose face was inscribed on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they replied. Jesus informed them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:25-28).
Rome’s influence transcended geographical boundaries. Roman money was used for official purposes in Palestine, and specifically cited here for the paying of the Roman tax. The Roman economy was the world economy. Other Roman influences are made explicitly clear in the New Testament (cf. Luke 2:1; John 11:48; Acts 11:28; Acts 16:12 and 37-38). The world was a Roman world, influenced by Roman culture, religion, and social practices.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth provides a detailed glimpse of many cultural issues that Christians faced, influences directly related to their life situation as Roman citizens. Paganism, syncretism, humanism were all paramount in the pluralistic Roman world of the first century.
While transportation was slow and communication a problem, the world had become a smaller place than it had been. It was a Roman world marked by a common language and customs being exported from Rome itself. Not a twenty-first century world, but a world that posed monumental obstacles for preaching the gospel.
Some twentieth-century Christians wring their hands about the apparent lack of influence the Church has on modern society. We forget that in the first century the Church was not welcomed with open arms. Jews who converted to Christianity were banned from the synagogue and ridiculed. Christians were accused of cannibalism because of their strange rite of eating the body and drinking the blood of a crucified Savior. Into such a world did the first preachers proclaim good news.
Here are some practical suggestions for making preaching viable in the third millennium. First be intentional about considering the issues described above when you plan, prepare, deliver, and evaluate your sermons. Remember that your preaching is not taking place in a vacuum. The world around you provides the context for your preaching.
These contexts are the container in which we preach and minister. In the same way that a fluid is influenced by the shape of its container, our ministry is influenced by the contextual container in which we live and move and have our being. Unlike the liquid in a bottle however, we hope that our preaching has some influence on the container and not just the other way around.
Second, remember that the “scandal of particularity” is crucial for preaching. Preaching is a particular message to a particular group of hearers at a particular time by a particular preacher. I have students describe the particular congregation to which they will preach. One student wrote that his sermon could be preached to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. This student missed the point that the far-reaching truths of the Gospel need to be particularized for one’s own preaching situation.
Jesus was a master at knowing His particular hearers and bringing the truth of the Gospel to their doorsteps. He spoke in terms and ideas that struck at the heart of where they lived. He talked of a man who had two sons, a man who was beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, the beauty of the flowers, the foolishness of building a house on a foundation made of sand. Even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount provides ample evidence that Jesus dealt with immediate life issues that faced the people each day of the week. Jesus’ images and messages were directed to the particular life situations of His hearers.
Be sensitive to what is going on in the immediate context of your hearers. Develop a listening ear as you mingle with them after church, as you eat with them during the fellowship meal, as you minister to them in the hospital. We preachers are not the best listeners; we feel God has called us to talk. Yes, but not all the time! The greatest compliment you can receive as a minister is that you know how to listen.
Evaluate your sermons to make sure they intersect the life experiences of your hearers. Ask yourself, Does my preaching reflect a sensitivity to these hearers? Is this sermon relevant to this congregation? Does this sermon address a need faced by this congregation now?
Third, keep your preaching biblically based and theologically sound. Easier said than done. In the present and future world scene, it is easy for us to chase after quick fixes. We are tempted to woo our hearers with our brilliant insights about the world. In fact, our hearers do not come to church to hear a word from us. They come believing that somehow, in the mystery of worship, God still speaks to them. Therefore, we must be faithful to allow the Word of God to be heard through our preaching.
Just quoting much Bible in the sermon does not make it a message that is faithful to the biblical text. Sprinkling a biblical phrase here and a Bible anecdote there may make a sermon sound biblical, but if sound exegesis does not stand behind your preaching, you may be making a mockery of the Bible.
I suggest preaching expository sermons instead of topical sermons. Topical sermons are more prone to proof texting because the preacher typically chooses the topic, decides what to say and what not to say about the topic, and then finds Scripture to support his or her view of the topic. Expository preaching is the proclamation of the biblical message by exposing the meaning of a passage of Scripture and showing the passage’s relevancy for the lives of your hearers.
The controlling feature of expository preaching is its fidelity to the meaning of the biblical text. Careful and thorough exegesis of the text encourages this fidelity. An in-depth hermeneutical study of the text’s historical, social, and literary contexts fosters textual faithfulness.
Expository preaching is not necessarily a running verse by verse commentary on a passage. Expository preaching transcends a particular preaching style or sermon form. Expository sermons can be preached narratively, inductively, and creatively; even monologue sermons can be expository. An expository sermon is not determined by its form but by its faithfulness to the passage of Scripture.
Third, consider preaching as an opportunity for providing ministry. Many preachers do not view their preaching as ministry. Hospital calls are ministry. Counseling with a depressed teenager is ministry. Evangelistic visitation is ministry. But preaching is …. preaching.
The introductory course that I teach is called “The Ministry of Proclamation.” I encourage preachers to understand that their time of study and research and preparation of sermons is ministry. More people will hear you preach than will experience your various one-on-one ministries. View your preaching as an opportunity to offer a word of encouragement and hope, to give a challenging word as prophet, to console the heartbroken as priest, to teach the truths of the faith, to persuade people to respond to the grace and demands of the Gospel, to offer worship through proclamation. Preaching is ministry.
Finally, spend time learning about the issues of the world scene. Be sensitive but not overwhelmed. Become an effective interpreter of the world by keeping yourself informed. Read the local and national newspapers with a critical eye. What are the theological implications of what you read? Subscribe to at least one theological journal or periodical that deals with the role of Christianity and modern culture.
Take stock of the films that are playing at local theaters. Films often reflect the values and concerns of society. What are the theological implications of films such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” and “Mississippi Burning”?
Listen to how your congregation talks about their financial concerns, the dreams for their children and grandchildren, their concerns about the environment. These are real issues to which the Bible speaks. You as a careful interpreter of the Bible and the world can show your hearers the connection. The quotation attributed to Karl Barth says that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Not bad advice.
Preachers are general practitioners. Your daily work of administering the programs of a local church are demanding in terms of time and energy expended. However, to be both prophet and priest to the people who have called you to your ministry position, you must be willing to be a student of the Bible and of life. The confusion and busyness of the world in which we live is the context in which you minister.
Effective preaching is accomplished when you shine the light of the Gospel onto the confusing paths on which your people walk. Help them to discover how the biblical revelation and the message of Christ is as relevant today as it was in the first century.
Preaching into the third millennium will have its own particular obstacles. Yet in many ways, preaching is always facing new obstacles that it has, somehow and someway, overcome before. Preachers must strive to communicate the biblical message’s relevance to the needs of a twenty-first century world, believing that God still has a word for all people.
We must know and understand the world in which we will preach. Then we must preach, because that is what we have been called to do. So let us press on, back to the future, preaching Christ and Him crucified. Paul reminds us that doing so will be a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but to all who will listen, we will preach “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

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