OK, I admit it. I’m a bad listener. Sometimes, I just don’t listen. Ask my wife. She’ll tell you. In my defense, I would like to make the point that I do listen—to ESPN, to the game announcers, to the pundits on the editorial talk shows. I just, sometimes, don’t listen to her.
I will, however, never own up to this. Whenever I realize she’s been talking to me for the past few minutes and I haven’t heard a word she’s said, I will mumble an indirect, “Uh huh.” Being a smart lady, she will then demand I repeat back to her what she’s said. Most of the time, I fail miserably, which brings the inevitable question from her, “How can you listen to me and not hear a word I’m saying?”
That’s a good question. How can someone listen but never hear a word that was said? I thought about her question again when I was talking to a friend who serves as a missionary in Western Europe. I asked him what surprises he had found in this work. His answer surprised me. Young people in Europe, he said, respond quickly to simple presentations of the gospel. In any conversation, he’ll look for a moment to present the gospel and genuinely looks for a response. He then went on, “Maybe,” he said, “they respond because they’ve never heard the gospel before.”
Of course that got me thinking about my own church. If you asked me or any of the leaders of our church, we would say that on most Sunday mornings our services are filled with people already have heard the gospel. My task as a preacher is not necessarily to share the gospel (because they’ve already heard it), but to apply familiar stories in new ways to their changing life circumstances. My creativity is shown by how many aspects of a biblical passage can apply to people who now are trying to make sense of their lives in postmodern America. The assumption is that our people know the gospel but lack skill in applying its truth to their lives.
Is that assumption true? Has my congregation—has your congregation—heard the gospel too much? Or are they, similar to me, mumbling back a religious “Uh huh” to our sermons when they haven’t heard a word that’s been said?
Why am I asking this? Here’s why. In the New Testament, whenever someone heard the gospel—really heard it—something happened. Some people left everything right then and followed Christ. Lazarus came back from the dead. The woman at the well went and told her whole town about Jesus. Others were healed. Still others got so mad they picked up rocks and tried to stone Jesus. My congregants? They get up and go to lunch.
In our efforts not to bore people with the gospel, which they say they’ve heard, have we stopped preaching the gospel? Have we assumed that because people can repeat certain facts back to us that they have heard the gospel? How can people listen that long and not hear a word that was said?
It’s easy. I do it all the time.
I know we can’t do the work of the Holy Spirit and change the hearts of people who are listening, but can we as preachers at least make sure the gospel is being preached—the simple, beautiful gospel of grace for sinners–so that by the rare chance someone hasn’t heard it, they can have the chance? Then, as Western Europeans, they can respond to the gospel they’ve never heard before. Haven’t we as preachers always said the most fertile mission field for most us is the congregation that sits in front of us every Sunday?
The gospel is beautiful enough in and of itself. It doesn’t need to be freshened up for a new generation. The glory of the gospel is that it never changes. The good news of Jesus deals with the unchanging basics of human life—the brokenness of humanity and God’s redemptive grace in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Preach this simple message so plainly that everyone listening will hear it and either come to Christ…or get up and start throwing rocks. That way, we’ll at least know they heard it.
Mike Glenn is senior pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. He is a contributing editor of Preaching.