Those who know me have heard me say many times, “Context is everything.” We never experience anything outside of context. Most would agree that Scripture as a whole has an overriding context. With few exceptions the Bible was written for the Jews or the church that emerged from Judaism. Each passage of Scripture has the context of the book in which it appears, and it has the context of the larger pericope that the passage falls within. Scripture is best used within the context it was intended.

That said, the more important context is the delivery of a sermon. We sometimes call this culture or environment. The reality is that the particular context the congregation shares colors how the message is understood and received. This has become clear to me through my travels as I have had the opportunity to experience church among many different traditions in this country and other areas of the world. In my experience and the experiences others have reported to me, the understanding of biblical truth and the urgency of the gospel message is much more intense when the congregation doesn’t have the security and tranquility the American church generally enjoys.

Think for a moment about the context of my region of the country, the mid-South. Most of our churches have a stable congregation that includes second-, third- and sometimes fourth- and greater generation Christians. Most of our churches don’t fear financial collapse. Most of us hear the Sunday message as one in a long line of messages that bring some new information, maybe some new connections with other Scripture passages or theological truth, and always a generalized application to our personal lives. What we normally don’t expect from our Sunday sermon is that God is giving us a special word just for us requiring us to alter everything about how we view the world and our responsibilities in the body of Christ.

For a few years my wife, Karen, and I ministered in Berkeley, Calif., at the height of the anti-establishment rebellion. At that time, most people on the streets of Berkeley were experiencing Eastern mysticism and often used recreational drugs. When someone chose to commit to following Jesus, the individual normally changed his or her living arrangements, sometimes quit a job, and always changed friends. Obviously the local context did not overlap with the context of the New Testament gospel.

In the mid-South, we don’t have clear demarcations between spiritual and secular. So, we have fallen into the pattern of accepting little change in lifestyle. It is possible for an individual to remain in a fine Christian church for decades, yet see little change in his or her life. I submit to you that when we deliver the message of the gospel in this context—as if it were just another message among many—we have used the message outside the context in which it was intended, and we have done an injustice to our Lord and His Word. The missing element in our preaching today is expectation. Throughout Scripture, the one continual responsibility of the hearer of God’s Word was obedience. God’s message to the Israelites in Egypt was to follow Him wherever He led. The Word delivered by the prophets to the nation was to change their behavior. The command to the disciples was to follow Jesus. The Word to those who were forgiven their sins and healed from ailments was to go and sin no more. We have changed the expectation from obedience to learning. In Africa today, the continent is being swept by an explosion of tens of thousands of churches and the conversion of hundreds of thousands of individuals because they are asked to obey God’s Word—and they do so.

So, how should this affect your preaching? Preach the Word within its context, and don’t let the context of the delivery change the message. Challenge America to obey God’s Word. Challenge the people God has entrusted to you to change their habits, to believe God can make life new, and never to settle for maintaining the present context of the church.

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