Each Sunday, the average pastor preaches to several different culture groups.
These groups speak different languages, have different values, dress differently,
think differently and often have difficulty communicating with each other. These
cultural groups are more commonly known as generations.
Louis B. Hanks has noted: “The five generations born during the 20th
century will align with new phases of life, resulting in shifts in generational
influence, leadership and power. Church life in the 21st
century largely will be shaped by these prevailing winds.”1
Some congregations have ignored the changes and subsequently dwindled in size
to fit the one or two demographical groups that have control of the church.
Others have focused on only one aspect of younger generations, such as musical
taste, and found themselves embroiled in worship wars that tore apart the fabric
of the fellowship.
thinking about how to preach across generational cultures, the average pastor
takes one of three directions.
The Problem of Cultural Exclusion
frustration of encountering a culture he views as foreign can lead the pastor
to ignore culture altogether. He can rightly assert that the message of the
gospel is eternal, unchanging and, therefore, should not be culturally sensitive
to be culturally relevant. He falls victim to the premise that by paying no
attention to the people to whom he preaches he is somehow more pure in his gospel
presentation. No preacher would be so arrogant as to preach in Mexico without
an interpreter. However, the same preacher charges ahead in his own church without
considering whether or not his message is in a language that his hearers can
The Problem of Cultural Exclusivity
pastors may be so sensitive to the cultural distinctions of a particular group
they wish to reach they may create a climate so focused on that single generation
that the church becomes almost exclusive. Other age groups are welcome so long
as they embrace the corporate culture and environment of the church, regardless
of how alien it may be to them. For example, one pastor focusing on Gen-x’ers
made the statement about the decibel levels of their music, “If our music is
too loud for you, you are too old for our church.”
The Opportunity of Cultural Expression
can be effective in communicating a changeless gospel in a fluid environment
by embracing the opportunity of cultural expression. How does the preaching
pastor overcome the complexities of generational culture to bring the Bible
to bear on each person? Why not employ the tenants of expository preaching
and the application of cross-cultural communication to reach successfully across
preaching is not a warmed-over rehash of needs-centered preaching. Only on the
firm base of biblical exposition does the preacher have the authority to preach
to any generation. Far from advocating life-situation preaching, transgenerational
preaching begins with sound exposition of the biblical passage and then uses
cross-cultural skills in application, illustration and delivery to reach across
the generation gaps.
Expository homiliticians see such inquiry as an aid in faithfully communicating
biblical truth. Haddon Robinson wrote that in order to understand their people
as well as the message, preachers need to “exegete both the Scripture and the
congregation.”2 In other words, the preacher who would
be serious about communicating the true word of God must investigate the makeup
of his audience as thoroughly as he examines the Scripture that he preaches.
Stephen Olford suggested the preacher think through a series of questions about
his audience and the uniqueness of the occasion and the specific needs of the
people. “Who are they? Why are they present? What dominant concerns do they
have at this time? What potential barriers are there to understanding and responding
to the message?”3
giving attention to the audience mean risking compromising the message?
Some preachers sense the tension between being true to the Word and intentionally
communicating that word to different hearers. Conn observed that many evangelicals
confronted by the idea of “presenting the unchanging Word in a changing world”
fear that “contextualization inevitably meant syncretism, … an erroneous conclusion.”4
only does audience sensitivity not compromise biblical integrity, but rather
it enhances the accurate communication of the intended message. As Olford noted,
the preacher does not ask questions about the audience “to compromise the message,
but rather to make sure that the truth is presented as clearly and as passionately
as possible to these people on this occasion.”5
understanding the culture of one’s audience really help biblical preaching?
the preacher ignores the cultural filters through which the hearers receive
his message, he is likely to discover that what they heard is not what he said.
Only by understanding the culture of his people can the preacher encode the
meaning of his message in such a way that they will decode it properly. Merrill
Abbey noted that the hearer “lives within and is conditioned by a wider cultural
system.”6 My observation is that such cultural systems
are largely predicated on the generational issues of one’s own age group.
across the Generational Lines: Keys
to Transgenerational Preaching
J. Hesselgrave advocates three steps to cross-cultural communication: (1) understanding
human universals, (2) inquiring into cultural differences and (3) understanding
uniqueness. He writes: “It is the similarity between men that makes identification,
understanding and empathy possible.”7 Keys, then, to
transgenerational preaching include the following:
Know your audience: Sheila Massey reminds the preacher that “The most
crucial aspect of communication is one’s attitude to the people to whom one
is communicating, and that attitude is tied in with one’s presuppositions of
the context.”8 By understanding the people in our pews
and genuinely caring for them, the preacher can bridge a vast gap of cultural
Identifying in love. Robert Cunville reminds us that Paul claimed, “I am
made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Cor. 9:20-22)
He notes that while total identification is impossible, still, there must be
an acceptance and love for people to whom we speak.9 Lingerfleter
and Mayers argue that although total identification culturally is impossible,
there must be some attempt. “Such effort shows respect and generally produces
a positive response.”10
Finding commonalities. Given the vast differences between the generational
cultures, each human being has many aspects of nature and life in common with
all other humans. The transgenerational preacher must discover those traits
and bring application of the biblical exposition to bear on those matters all
people hold in common.
Understanding the vocabulary Preaching to multiple generations requires
expanding one’s vocabulary and speaking with special precision. Far from trying
to employ the latest slang, this key calls for understanding the different meanings
words have for different people “Many times even the word ‘God’ is a symbol
for a great many different conceptions of deity. It is important to specify
precise meaning,” writes Cunville. 11
Hearing feedback: Cultural cues can aid cultural feedback from the congregation.
Lingerfleter and Mayers advised: “It is fairly obvious that communication requires
effective use of cultural cues. … A cultural cue is a specific signal or sign
that people use to communicate the meaning of their behavior.”12
Adapting the methods of communication – Cunville observed how different
cultures may respond negatively if the method of communication is inappropriate.13
Leonard Sweet in Postmodern Pilgrims made a strong case for the
transition of society from a word-driven to an image-driven communications modem.14
Postmoderns especially need to be able to see the message, not just to hear
it. McIntosh agrees. He wrote: “Busters tend to be visual learners, rather
than cognitive learners. When information is not presented in a visual form,
it may take them longer to digest.”15 Preachers
can bridge the generational divide by using word pictures to cross into image-driven
Maintaining the integrity of the message. Finally,
the effective preacher will maintain the integrity of his message while adapting
the method of transmission. As James S. Stewart eloquently wrote:
“Surely in this
immensely critical hour, when millions of human hearts are besieged by fierce
perplexities; when so many established landmarks of the spirit are gone, old
securities wrecked, familiar ways and habits, plans and preconceptions banished
never to return; when the soul is destined to meet, amid the crash of old
beliefs, the ruthless challenge and assault of doubt and disillusionment’
when history itself is being cleft in twain, and no man can forecast the shape
of things to come – the church needs men who, knowing the world around them
and knowing the Christ above them and within, will set the trumpet of the
Gospel to their lips, and proclaim His sovereignty and all-sufficiency.” 16
L. Phillips is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Mid-America Baptist
Theological Seminary in Memphis, TN.
1 Louis B. Hanks, “American Generations: The Churches in the 21st Century,”
(Nashville: The Baptist Sunday School Board, 1996), p. 9.
Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Books,
2001), p. 28.
3 Stephen and David Olford, Anointed Expository Preaching (Nashville:
Broadman and Holman, 1998), p. 188.
4 Harvie M. Conn, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, Acadamie Books, 1984), p.184.
5 Olford, p. 188.
6 Merrill Abbey, Communication in Pulpit and Parish (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1973), p. 36.
7 David J. Hesselgrave, Counseling Cross-culturally: An introduction
to theory and practice for Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984),
8 Sheila Massey, Delhi Bible Fellowship, “Cross-Cultural Communication
(III),” The Work of an Evangelist (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications,
1984), p. 469.
9 Robert Cunville, “Cross Cultural Communication (IV),” The Work of
an Evangelist (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1984), p. 474.
10 Sherwood Lingerfleter and Marvin Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally.
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), p. 18.
11 Cunville, p. 474.
12 Lingerfleter and Mayers, p. 18.
13 Cunville, p. 474.
14 Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims (Nashville: Broadman Holmon,
15 McIntosh, p. 158
James S. Stewart, Heralds of God. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972),