century did not begin well, nor did it bode well, for the human race. Terrorism,
wars, viruses, and tsunamis dominated news headlines worldwide. The entire world
of opinion leaders, my audience, was troubled by thoughts on the problem of
evil. However, God was opening up an annual global audience for me on primetime
secular television. What would I say to them? How could I link their experience
and questions to a presentation, and possibly a proclamation, of the Lord Jesus
Christ? Would I pursue a textual or topical message?
That last issue
was not a real question at all, for most of my audience did not hold to the
Bible in personal authority or to Jesus as a plausible Savior. Would I be text-driven
or audience – driven in my choice of topic? I chose the latter option, since
most of my audience would not share my Christian worldview. I would have to
incorporate pre-evangelistic subject matter and assume a pre-evangelistic style
choices of topics arise from the needs of your audience – contemporary people
who need Jesus’ salvation. These are audience-driven needs, but the only preaching
solution, of course, is text-based – the Lord Jesus Christ!
or Audience-Driven Topics
Here’s the distinguishing
feature of audience-driven topical preaching: your choice of the topic and
the development of the sermon (your structure) are not text-driven.
sermon topic and structure are not text-based for a simple reason: some audiences
don’t hold the Bible in authority. When an audience shares the same worldview
as the preacher, he may use phrases like “the Bible says” for points
to take root, to make waves, and to incite response from the audience. You can
definitely do that with multi-text topical sermons.
However, if preacher
and audience do not share the same worldview, the preacher is left to find
audience-driven topics and develop them in terms of audience categories and
experiences via non-textbased presentation. You would use biblical concepts.
You would normally not repeat, “The Bible says” to state or prove
your point. That would be like a Muslim evangelist preaching, “The Koran,
Sura 10, says” to prove his point to a Hindu or Christian audience, with
no great advantage to his presentation.
much more than you might acknowledge. We operate not out of vacuums but from
worldviews. A worldview is the comprehensive console that controls everything
about a person – his virtues and values, his beliefs and behavior. One’s worldview
answers questions of origin (where did I come from?), identity (who am I?),
meaning (why am I here?), destiny (where am I going?), and morality (what should
I do?). While “not straightforwardly verifiable or falsifiable,”1
a worldview functions to explain, evaluate, justify, integrate, and adapt to
cultures, the majority worldview can change within a generation. For instance,
much was made of postmodernism both in the academy and among the intellectual
elite in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Then came September
11, 2001, when Western postmoderns began to debate calling anything universally
evil. Some defected back to the shredded and discarded philosophical underpinnings
of undeconstructed modernism.
You can’t even
assume homogeneity of worldview at church anymore. Though churchgoers
are likely to share a Judeo-Christian worldview, or they most likely won’t be
at church, you still cant take worldview affinity for granted. People who have
rejected the Judeo-Christian worldview can still make sense of the preacher,
for normally they know what they have rejected (it was formally proposed that
a person who rejected the Christian worldview be called a “bright”).3
But when speaking to people outside the dominant Judeo-Christian worldview,
you have to present the gospel in terms of their concepts and categories for
understanding and assimilation. Worldview distance and dissonance between preacher
and audience causes a misunderstanding of the message, not to mention a mistrust
of the preacher. In topical evangelistic preaching, you can better address the
choosing audience-driven topics and developing your sermon in view of the audience’s
needs, values, beliefs, experiences, and behavior. Missionaries have long practiced
communication principles and techniques across worldview, culture, and religion,
often in one-on-one situations. Preachers also use these crosscultural missions
principles to overcome worldview distance in public and formal environments.
driven by audience needs can either be evangelistic or pre-evangelistic in
form, stance, and nature (you can derive textual sermons from audience needs
does one find audience-driven topics, topics that are also addressed and anticipated
in the Bible but only resolved by embracing Jesus? One finds them in the breadth
of human experience – whether needs, values, beliefs, experiences, or behavior.
Actually, there is no limit to these starting points for launching a topical
evangelistic sermon. God has built into every life and culture issues and needs
that only Jesus can resolve. If you look, you’ll find. Further, the nature of
the Bible as adequate for issues that have not yet arisen, questions that have
not yet been asked, and experiences that have not yet happened allows us to
find sermonic correlation in the final movement of the topical sermon that results
in Jesus as the God who saves sinners.
I know all this
may sound complex, and I too wish we could merely quote the Bible for people’s
quick recognition of the truth. Yet it is not as complex as it seems, nor is
it as simple as quoting the Bible to those of another worldview. Just like you
must do hard work for any preaching, you must take additional audience factors
into thoughtful and prayerful consideration as you prepare for unbelieving audiences.
Remember, you are
not alone in the process of preparing and delivering sermons. There is One who
has gone ahead of you into the audience, and not only in the inspiration of
Scripture. He is anxious to get his salvation message to those who do not share
your worldview through you. So depend on him, exegete your audience,4
prepare your sermon, keeping the “rights of the pew” for a clear and
winsome presentation of the gospel to the audience in mind.
preaching will always be topical in nature for the reasons just given. Since
pre-evangelistic preaching is not just Christian moralism, it will name and
point to Jesus. Christian moralism, the covert and surreptitious verbalization
of Christian principles for the challenges of life, assumes that Christian virtues
and values will assist people whether they turn to Christ or not. I place that
stealth operation in the category of pre-evangelistic presentation but
not in pre-evangelistic preaching. There we are helping people with a
Christian way of doing life, and we hope that it will take. Our motive allows
us to use the word evangelism in that pre-evangelistic witness. We give
people some right words to live by in life, leadership, or love. We may point
to Jesus as teacher without necessarily mentioning Christ as Savior. For example,
while speaking to business leaders or athletes, we talk about the value of teamwork
(a solid Christian value) or the need for integrity (a core Christian virtue).
No more is pre-evangelism
an exotic exercise undertaken outside the church and meant only for sophisticated,
antagonistic audiences. It is very likely that people in your own audience,
invited by friends, perhaps, to a special evangelistic event, hail from diverse
worldviews imbibed via academia, media, or relationships.
Now, what is the
difference between pre-evangelistic and evangelistic preaching? They fall in
a continuum of evangelism and were actually practiced by Paul where he did not
quote Scripture at all when speaking to audiences that did not share his worldview
(Acts 14, 17). To the Greek, he really became as a Greek, while he prolifically
peppered his talks to Jewish audiences with Scripture. The fact of the matter
is that people fall into varying spiritual and intellectual categories
– pre-faith, pre-Christ, or even pre-God.5
To pre-faith people, you preach evangelistically. To pre-Christ (and pre-God)
people, you communicate pre-evangelistically.
preaching, we always pick audience-driven, salvation-compliant topics. Salvation-compliant
topics, like salvation compliant texts, are one step away from an unbeliever’s
experience of Christian faith and blessings. We attach them to textual bases
or theological reasons to make them serve an evangelistic purpose. Pre-evangelistic
sermons often begin with existential entry points and problems to which
Jesus is the solution if the root problem of sin is resolved. These problems
are addressed in the Bible either by plain text or theological implication.
They are issues that simply don’t go away from the human situation.
subjects belong to academic apologetics, but I prefer existential apologetics
simply because most audiences are not asking theoretical questions (e.g., Does
God exist? Did Jesus rise from the dead?) as their first questions. People
ask existential questions (e.g., How do I fill the spiritual hole in my heart?6)
to find order and meaning and resolution. I can always move from existential
to philosophical levels of engagement.
Here I list some
universal spiritual needs that lend themselves to audience-driven development
and conclude with the Lord Jesus as the salvation (re) solution, because all
these needs are rooted in sin and separation from God:
(supernatural evil forces)
Below is a short
list of widespread intellectual questions that can be seized for a salvation
ending. These questions have been relatively stable over history, and you can
find more subjects in theoretical apologetics books written by Christian philosophers
• What is the
nature and existence of truth?
• Does God exist?
• What is the
nature of God?
• What about
the problem of evil?
• Is religion
• Are miracles
• How do you
reconcile the religion versus science debates?
• Why is Jesus
• Why is Jesus
• Why is Jesus
• Did Jesus rise
from the dead?
• What destiny
awaits those who have not heard about Jesus?
• Is the Bible
• Do the Bible
and science conflict?
Here’s a list of
common existential issues that can be seized for a salvation ending in
the final movement of your sermon:
sense of loss
sense of limitations
In these ideas,
questions, and issues, you are looking for the audience’s underlying spiritual
needs and the ways they attempt to resolve or address them without Christ. Their
needs and attempts furnish topics and illustrations for preaching evangelists
(see the upcoming chapter on support material). The comprehensive nature of
the Bible allows a thousand entrees into the nonbeliever’s issues and needs
for which Christ is the only answer. If Jesus Christ is placed in human hearing,
he enters the human heart in a hundred different ways. Ask a few people what
drew them to salvation, and you’ll find various creative ways in which God showed
them their need for Christ. He uses the entire spectrum – broken hearts over
sin all the way to broken hearts over relationships – in order to bring people
to a realization of their ultimate spiritual need, with salvation clinched
by our presentation of the gospel.
You’ll find entry
points for topical choices and illustrations in contemporary beliefs and events.
These beliefs and events are what your audience is thinking and talking about.
Therefore, they become fodder for audience-driven, text-based, or theologically
reasoned, topical pre-evangelistic sermons.
A cursory look
at my newspaper headlines today evokes the following topics:
Overlook Depression, Even in Themselves”
for Life Out There Gains Respect, Bit by Bit”
Patience, A Virtue of Some Urgency”7
If I were preaching
on these subjects, I would see if I could attach these audience-driven topics
to textual bases or theological reasons in order to achieve evangelistic finales.
With evangelistic experience and an observant eye, you’ll catch topics that
possess evangelistic potential. For instance, “depression” as a topic
attaches to a textual base: Jesus’s claim to give people a joyful rather
than depressing existence (John 10:10). And the news item can work as an opening
or concluding illustration, or it could conceivably help in developing the points
of the sermon.
The topic of “the
search for life out there” attaches to a theological reason: the
yearning to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence as part of our
search to find God or to displace him. Then we can proceed to how Jesus brought
God from “out there” to “in here,” perhaps attaching the
theological reason to John 1:1-18, or even John 1:18. Again, the news item can
work as an opening or concluding illustration or help in developing the points
of the sermon.
Ensure that the
topic from the text you are attaching to the audience-driven need is founded
and derived from its central proposition. In this way, you will not be taking
some obscure part of the text to make your point with your audience. Always
remember, the central proposition of the text (step 3) is derived from the text’s
structure (step 2) as the safeguard from your penchant to make the text say
whatever you want it to mean.
preaching points to the Lord Jesus, mentions his name, and offers his salvation
for the human situation. The PS principle of textual preaching, a salvation-appended
text and sermon, places the evangelistic twist at the end of the sermon’s conclusion.
In a pre-evangelistic
sermon, the evangelistic twist always arrives as the last movement of the body
of the sermon: Jesus is the answer to the human dilemma the audience faces as
a result of human sin.
serves as leader of Ramesh Richard Evangelism and Church Helps (RREACH) International
and teaches expository preaching at Dallas Theological Seminary.
1. I borrow this phrase from Ninian Smart, “The Philosophy of Worldviews
– That Is the Philosophy of Religion Transformed,” N. Zeitschr f. syst.
Theologie 23:2, 1981.
2. See Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical
Theologizing in Cross Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,
3. Daniel C. Dennett, “The Bright Stuff,” New York Times, July
4. I have explained a method of exegeting audiences in Preparing Expository
Sermons and more extensively in a future volume tentatively entitled Wisdom
toward Outsiders: A Manual on Cross-Cultural Apologetics and Worldwide Evangelism.
5. More sophisticated scales of the spiritual awareness of an unbeliever toward
conversion and maturity began in contemporary evangelism with the Spiritual
Segmentation linear model of V Sogaard, Everything You Need to Know for a
Cassette Ministry (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1975),27-53, and the Engel Scale
(from awareness of supreme being and no knowledge of the gospel all the way
to Christian stewardship), in James E Engel and H. Wilbert Norton, What’s
Gone Wrong with the Harvest (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 45. Many suggestions
for refinements are suggested on the Internet (type “Engel Scale”
on your search engine). The Gray Matrix, http://www.thegraymatrix.info/, adds
the critical component of attitude (antagonism/enthusiasm) to prior Christian
knowledge (in communication effectiveness).
6. I used to give away a fine short book, Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter,
but then I noticed that many people were not asking the academic questions about
Jesus as their first questions. After looking around for a preliminary
gift, I decided to write Mending Your Soul: The Spiritual Path to Inner Wholeness.
I still keep copies of More Than a Carpenter as a second book to lead
people into a further consideration of Jesus.
7. All three headlines appear in the same section of “The Science Times,”
New York Times, July 8, 2003. Each day I find more topics to turn into
evangelistic themes and thrusts.