Ed Stetzer is a pastor, researcher and author who has written widely, spoken almost everywhere, and has his finger on the data. His primary role is as president of LifeWay Research in Nashville, and that’s where Executive Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Ed to talk about preaching in the midst of a changing culture.
Preaching: Recently there’s been a lot in Christian media about the rise of the Nones, one out of five people who claim no religious affiliation. You’ve done some interpretation of that data and say it’s not necessarily a falling-off-the-cliff situation for the church. What’s the positive side you see from this data?
Stetzer: Let me say first that I don’t think we’d want to say things are going well with the gospel enterprise in the Western world today. I don’t think I’d want to say things are going well in the United States—North America—but I do think there’s a perception out there that’s driven more by headlines and by a the-sky-is-falling industrial complex inside evangelicalism that Christianity is dying.
I recently spoke in Nashville to a couple thousand church business administrators. I put a slide on the screen that said, “Christianity in America is Dying.” That’s how I started my presentation. I clicked the next slide, “…said no real researcher ever.” Because nobody thinks that except people who read headlines or popular Christian books that say [Christianity is dying].
The percentage of people who go to church, according to Gallup surveys, is about where it was in the ’40s. It went up in the ’50s; Evangelicals were better in the ’80s and ’90s. Again, remember I’m not saying things are going great, but the sky is not falling.
What’s happening, among other things, is that a lot of secular nominal Christians are dropping the religious identification—these are people who don’t go to church yet call themselves Christians because they’re not Hindu or Jewish, or they don’t want to be atheists because atheism has a bad reputation. In my own family, I have many of these people. We grew up Catholic in New York City, but really the Catholic Church was the church we didn’t go to on Sundays. So a few decades later my family—instead of saying they’re Catholic because they’re Irish—they just say they’re nothing. So in many ways, it’s been an outbreak of honesty.
During the past few decades, the percentage of people who regularly are engaged or involved in church has not shifted dramatically in either direction. If you look at a general social survey, the most widely quoted source of data we have, you maybe see a 2 percentage point drop, maybe 3, depending on how you factor that.
So the sky is not falling, but the ground is shifting. Here’s the way the ground is shifting: though the percentage of people who are convictional Christians. They call themselves Christians, and they shape their lives around the convictions that flow from that. That’s about 25 percent of the U.S. population—lower in the Northeast and highest in Mississippi—that’s remained relatively steady.
What’s happened is that about 50 percent of the United States who call themselves Christians but don’t have any meaningful conviction shape their lives around the Christian faith or belief, but they are shifting. The Nominals—we call them nominal Christians—the Nominals are becoming the Nones—none of the aboves—and there’s a correlation. The Nominals are becoming the Nones, and the Nominals are becoming more progressive on many social issues.
So people will say, “It feels so different; you say the sky’s not falling, but it feels so different.” That’s because 20 years ago, 85 percent of Americans called themselves Christians; but still about 25 percent were serious about it, were convictional about it. The rest of them sort of listened to us. Well, what shifted is they’re not listening so much to us now. The percentage of the population that’s secular, which depending on the study is about 15 to 20 percent, has disproportionate influence, and they have great influence over the 45 to 50 percent of Americans who are nominal Christians. Their values are aligning more and more with secular people.
So what the future holds is…[how] the Pacific Northwest looks today, where you have post-everything culture, including post-Christian culture; but you have vibrant and robust churches. In an article I wrote for USA Today, I gave the example of the Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal denomination that was birthed out of Los Angeles, and they’re doing well in the Pacific Northwest. I gave some stats in that article: They planted dozens and dozens of new churches, tens of thousands of water baptisms. So what’s going to happen, I think, is the United States is going to look increasingly that way—kind of a post- or nominal-Christian world that’s heavily influenced by secular views and progressive social values and simultaneously has robust Christian influences that are showing and sharing the love of Jesus in a broken and hurting world.
Preaching: So you’ve got kind of this veneer of religiosity that once shaped the culture, and it’s rapidly dwindling. What are the implications for pastors, churches and church leaders? How do we respond effectively in that kind of culture?
Stetzer: There are two implications to the cultural shifts. One is there are still a whole lot of nominal people we need to reach, and you’re going to reach a lot of nominal people doing things we’ve done in the past and that have worked in the past. So my church, in the spring and fall we do a series and tell people to bring their friends for this series that’s more accessible to non- church people. Because I recognize that where I live in Tennessee, there are a lot of nominal Christians.
Maybe a pastor is saying, “Well, I live in Maine.” Here’s the deal: The majority of people in Maine still call themselves Christians. The majority of people in Maine still have some sort of idea, this vague connection that there’s religiousness and religiousness is good. So I think there are nominal people we intentionally, increasingly and aggressively want to reach.
That’s one reason LifeWay Research has partnered with the Billy Graham Center. I’ve been appointed senior fellow there, and I hope we’re going to bring to the conversation how to reengage evangelism in North America. There are a lot of nominal people to reach that way.
What we’re less familiar with is reaching the rapidly growing category of secular people, which you have said is representative of about 20 percent of the population, and I’m not disagreeing with you. I’d say 15 to 20 percent depending on the study. We actually have a crystal ball where we can look into the next generation through the American Religious Identification College survey released in 2013. This isn’t a Christian group or anything. What they found is that in the next generation, one-third of the people are secular. Things can change. College students could become more religious. In the next generation, one-third of the people are secular; one-third of the people are spiritual but not religious and have progressive social values; and about one-third are religious, attend church, have more conservative social values. So we actually can look to the future.
Right now, nominalism is the biggest percentage of people we need to reach in the North American context; but secularism is the fastest growing, the place we’re going to learn to engage, and we’re not very good at that. So I think James Emery White’s new book that I endorsed is a helpful one, The Rise of the Nones. Another book is How to Reach Secular People by George Hunter.
We’re going to have to ask the question. We’re not really good at reaching nominal people. We’re not really good at reaching people, but we’re better at nominal than seculars, so how do we reach seculars? If we look to other religions, how are we going to reach Hindus? How are we going to reach Muslims? Those aren’t the big, big categories. Of the big categories, the biggest is nominal; the second is seculars. We need to find strategies to reach both.
Preaching: So how does it impact preaching? You are a teaching pastor in two urban areas, and you know the data. You know the environment, and you’re preaching regularly. How does that knowledge influence your preaching?
Stetzer: Regardless of people being nominal or secular, they’re less familiar with religious imagery. I think it was during World War II when the British soldiers were going to try to be rescued, but then they said the phrase, “but if not,” and everyone sort of had this recollection that that’s a reference to the Old Testament passage. Across the country, they could say, “but if not,” [meaning] they’re casting their cares upon the Lord. If it all goes down, it all goes down. You couldn’t say that today. One thing that’s fascinating is that when evangelically minded political figures use religious imagery, the news media reports on it as if they’re secretly communicating to an evangelical constituency—as if “they will rise up like on wings of eagles” is secret code. That’s not secret code; that’s the Bible that people used to know, and they’re probably assuming people still know.
So when I preach, you know it’s a little different. I preach in Hendersonville, Tenn., (suburban Nashville). I recognize that in Middle Tennessee, there’s a bit more of religious culture, but I still don’t make assumptions about things. So one Sunday I was preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, and we got into Matthew 18:1-4, “unless you change and become like a little child.” Most people assume a little child is referring to child-like faith, putting aside your doubt. Really it’s more about status in that passage, most commentators would say. So unless you adopt the attitude that you can’t do it yourself, that you are unable [on your own] and reliant on the Lord’s work and salvation, that regeneration precedes conversion, it’s all God’s work in some way—that’s news to some people [including] in the culture where I am, a more religious culture.
Next Sunday, I’ll preach in Miami at Christ Fellowship [where there’s] a more Latin culture, from a Latino context and more secular. So the pastor there—he’s the guy who wrote the book on using visual imagery to communicate—I’m assuming that people are two or three steps behind. I never would get up and say, “Remember Moses in the basket, on the river.” In our secular culture, we’re more accustomed to reaching nominals who have some vague appreciative view of religion, so we don’t have to explain a lot of things we have to explain. I actually find with reaching secular people that I explain more than I had to explain before.
In White’s book I mentioned earlier, he talks about changing his preaching to more in-depth, moving away from the secret kind of methodology he had been so well known for decades prior. I think what happens is we have to explain things that didn’t have to be explained before. So I think my preaching is actually deeper, but it also has onramps.
I’ll have to come back, and let me tell you why this is important. Let’s bring you to the onramp. So what’s the background—bringing them to the onramp. This takes a few seconds, my people who know it don’t mind it, but other people are better able to engage with us. So as society becomes more secular, our preaching needs to adapt accordingly. I think a lot of preachers who simply think, “I’ll just open the Bible and explain this, and hundreds will come and thousands will be saved,” I think a lot of those preachers aren’t prepared for the coming shifts.
Preaching: In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis among evangelicals on expository preaching. There is a camp within that group that says, “You’ve got to be doing verse-by-verse exposition or it’s not legitimate exposition.” How do you respond to those who narrow down the category?
Stetzer: For me, I want to explain, exposit, the meaning of the text. The text is going to set the agenda of the message. To make a clear, unequivocal claim that verse-by-verse exposition is the only form of expository preaching, which is the first sentence in a preaching textbook that I used. It’s problematic and unhelpful for several reasons. Before I get to the first reason, let me do a preface. I preach verse-by-verse; we’ve been in the Gospel of Matthew for two years, and we just got to the middle of it, and I said, “We are now at the halfway point,” and my people cheered. Why do I do that? I preach verse-by-verse because I think it’s the best way to communicate the intended meaning of the inerrant text. So I think that’s helpful, and really it’s the predominant way we preach in our church.
People do a disservice when they say that’s the only form of biblical preaching, because they are taking a method that is not found in Scripture, and you can say, “Well what about that time Jesus explained…” You know? Jesus explained in all of Scripture, so how is that verse-by-verse expositional preaching? As such, I think if it’s not in Scripture—and nobody does it in the early church—I mean, we don’t find it at all. Chrysostom’s the first one, who on a widespread basis began to use it, because by the time we got to Chrysostom, we had the academic tools, the linguistic ability to preach in that manner.
So, here’s the thing. Let me say it again because people who say, “Ed Stetzer’s against expository preaching,” clearly haven’t been to my church. They don’t see the values I have. What I’m against is requiring something that the Bible neither displays nor requires.
It is something that people around the world can’t always do. The church is not simply an English-speaking, Western context where people can plug in their program in WordSearch and do Greek diagramming sentences and explain the background of Greek terms. The church is Kenyans in Africa, the church is in Malaysia, and what I want to say to them is, “You may not be able to do that, and we’re not saying that is the biblical requirement. I’d like you to do that when you can, but what I want you to do is open the Word of God”—to not bring to the text your predispositions or five things you read in Psychology Today that you found Bible verses to support—but let Scripture shape the intent of the message. You can do that through verse-by-verse, that’s why I do it most of the time.
I could do a doctrinal series on the holiness of God, and I think God would be honored if we search Scripture about what His holiness was about and we preach through Scripture and let Scripture shape the agenda of the message. Is that exposition? I’d say certainly it is, letting Scripture shape the message and asking doctrinally what Scripture points to [in a given passage].
I have friends, we have friends, who say only verse-by-verse exposition, and that’s OK. I was preaching verse-by-verse in a church where I was serving as interim pastor, and when you’re interim pastor you don’t have to worry about all these things. I’m preaching through, and we get to (I’m trying to remember where we were, it might have been Philippians or Ephesians and Mother’s Day) and the passage was on hell. So, I went for it. In hindsight, that probably was not best! People say to this day, “I remember your message on hell on Mother’s Day!” So in hindsight, I could have done a biblically faithful message that would have drawn from other principles. There’s a place for doctrinal preaching that’s expository.
There’s a place for topical preaching. I wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition on how to do one-time sermons on topical issues. I think there’s a place for narrative preaching. I’ve talked about topical, I’ve talked about doctrinal or thematic, and we’ve talked about verse-by-verse, all of which I think you and I would affirm; but also there’s a place for narrative preaching. Telling the story that weaves through the scriptural text and points to other truths and maybe a stacked narrative or singular narrative that points to that. People who say only verse-by-verse are reacting to bad topical preaching, and there’s a lot of bad topical preaching—you know, “Five Ways to a Better Life,” “Three Ways to Raise Obedient Pets”—that’s not what I’m looking for here. What I’m looking for is stuff that’s driven by Scripture but is not imposing a way of preaching that is neither displayed nor required in Scripture. I want more of it, not less. So can I be for verse-by-verse exposition and not think it’s a biblical rule?
Preaching: One area that is so critical today is the issue of application. As you’re doing verse-by-verse exposition in your church, how do you work with that? What’s the balance for you in terms of the exposition of the text versus the exhortation and application of text?
Stetzer: It’s a hard balance sometimes for me because some texts you get to are just hard to bring to application. Sometimes there are just things you need to know; so when you get to things you need to know, it’s that information you need to know. People say things such as, “Scripture wasn’t given for information but for our transformation,” but at the end of the day, sometimes Scripture is given for information. You need to know what this verse teaches you.
Preaching: That’s the application: You need to know this.
Stetzer: Exactly. There you go. The application is: You have a greater sense of knowledge. We look at a book such as Ephesians—you know I’m the 10 millionth person to point this out—but the first half is filled with who we are, doctrinal principles, and truths people need to know, while the second half is very much practical. When we preach, we should preach who we are when that’s the theme of the passage and what we should do in light of who we are. When what we should do is the theme of the passage, we have to remember (using Ephesians as example) that the stuff we’re told to do in Ephesians 5 or 6 really has to be rooted back in who we are set to be, who we are told we are in Ephesians 1 in particular.
I always want to root it in the gospel. It’s not “Try harder”; it’s ultimately pointing people back in a biblically responsible way. So it’s not, “First, take a bee-line to the cross,” though I want to do that, including with a proverb. I recently preached Deuteronomy 6 on Father’s Day, and in doing so, I said, “OK, these are the principles. These principles shall be in your heart, but today we don’t speak in terms of principles but as the principles are tied up and represented in a Person. So where it says these truths shall be in your heart, you’ll treasure them day and night, I say, “Today those principles are now in a Person, Christ Jesus our Lord, who then calls us to live in a certain way.”
So I constantly want to point people back to Jesus. I constantly then want to point people to how it looks when a person who is changed by the power of the gospel is not trying harder, who is not living out the gospel, which is not language I use; but there are implications that flow from knowing the gospel that clearly are articulated in Scripture and need to be taught. If we don’t teach them, we’re not teaching the full counsel of the Word of God.
Part of the challenge is that we’ve gone through a season, 30 or 40 years, that was corrective of the season before; but these 30 or 40 years were to make it practical. I have friends who say: Write out your whole sermon, write out your application, and then just preach your application, and mention the earlier stuff from the sermon. I think that’s a reaction to when there was no application. So I’m a strong believer in application. Sometimes in the text itself is the application, but when it’s not, I still try to ask, “What are some implications we need to know? What are some implications we need to understand, maybe some ways we need to live differently to work out our salvation in light of this passage?
Preaching: You’re one of the influencers of the evangelical world. A lot of people hear you; a lot of people read you. Who are the people to whom you listen and who influence you as you are preparing to preach on a subject?
Stetzer: Some of the people I like to listen to—and I set a broad table—I love a Matt Chandler sermon; Daniel Montgomery, a little lesser known but someone I’ll sometimes listen to on the topic. He’s at a church in Louisville. Also, Cesar and Keller; I have a man crush on Keller, so I always listen to Keller; but Keller stuff is behind a paywall, so I can’t get to that as readily. I listen to Warren or Hybels on the subject, and lesser known people in those genres, as well; but I try to listen and ask, “How have other people communicated this?” I do that after my prep, after my sermon outline is done. I’ll listen maybe Thursday or Friday, maybe when I’m walking or driving home I’ll listen to a couple of messages. So I think those people sort of shape and influence some of what I do.
You and I have been preaching for a while. I think young preachers or new preachers need to be careful to listen to a broader array than I think they normally do. You should not end up sounding like Mark Dever or Bill Hybels by the time you’re done. You should sound the way God has gifted or wired you. You know, listening to people talk about it takes a certain number of hours depending on who you ask. Is it 10,000 hours or whatever? There’s a principle that you’ve just got to keep preaching but listen to a broad table.
If you only listen to people who are within your theological tradition, you can miss a rich tradition of preaching out here. Lately I’ve been listening to Pastor Choco and found his stuff helpful. I listened to a couple of HB Charles’ sermons, which is out of my normal tradition. I’m doing so partly because I’m preaching to a church that’s 40 percent Latino, as well. What do I need to learn? Am I done learning? I hope not.
Preaching: One last question: An angel shows up on your doorstep this week, and says “Ed, this Sunday’s your last sermon.” What are you going to preach?
Stetzer: What I was planning on preaching on anyway. I look to Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders, and there’s great stuff. I’m of the view that you serve God in your generation, then you die. That’s of course a reference to the Book of Acts. So…what I want to do is simply say that what I was doing last week is what I think I should be doing next week. If Jesus takes me home before then, that’s OK.
I would say to them, “Thank you for the privilege to open God’s Word, to be in a community.” I’ve had the privilege of leading a small group at my home on Sunday nights, and I’ve had the privilege of baptizing all the adults who go to that group. So, we’ve been a community together, and in our tradition we baptize following conversion.
So…I would say, “Thanks for letting me be your pastor.” I’m there because I love the church. Ephesians 3:10 says, “God has chosen the church to make known His bountiful wisdom.” So the end result is, “Thanks for the privilege to be in this together. Keep making the fame and name of Jesus more widely known, and see you on the other side.”