Bible Teachers: It’s Not Just What You Say That Matters, It’s What People Hear

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When preaching and teaching God’s Word, we are right to focus attention on our understanding of the text and our delivery of the text’s meaning in a faithful and relevant manner.

It’s just as important, though, to understand our listeners. We must know our cultural context well enough (and the people to whom we speak) to have an idea of the way our message will be heard. Exegesis of the text must be combined with exegesis of the church, and exegesis of the church on mission will include exegesis of the culture.

Do We Really Need Cultural Exegesis?

The idea that preachers and teachers must study the culture causes a reaction for many Bible-believing Christians. They worry that cultural analysis is a sad attempt to chase “relevance,” or to demonstrate the speaker’s “hipness” in knowing about the latest fads or fashions in Hollywood. Shouldn’t we focus most or all of our attention on accurately communicating God’s Word?

The answer is yes, of course, but we fail to accurately communicate God’s Word if we think the only job of the teacher is to understand the text. To communicate accurately requires us to consider how a contemporary audience will receive our words about the text. We must pay attention not only to the accuracy of what we say, but also to what people will hear.

It’s possible for our preaching and teaching to be biblically and theologically accurate in a technical sense and yet still be culturally misunderstood.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Age

Consider the cultural context of North America, a society awash in the dominant religion of moralistic therapeutic deism. Christian Smith defines this religious worldview by five central tenets:

  • “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
  • “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
  • “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
  • “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
  • “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Those of us called to preach or teach in this environment must understand that everything we say will be interpreted through the moralistic therapeutic deistic grid. Here are a couple of examples.

Old Testament Commands

Let’s say you’re preaching through the Old Testament, and you come across the commands of God and the rewards he promises to those who obey. It is theologically and biblically accurate to say that God blesses obedience. But in the context we just described, the “God” imagined is the deistic therapeutic god, and the blessings imagined will be moralistic in nature (be “good” morally and God will bless you).

‘Abundant Life’

Or, say you’re in the New Testament preaching about the “abundant life” that Jesus promised his followers, or the power of the Spirit that can help us overcome obstacles in our lives. In order to encourage people who are going through difficult times, we can trot out all sorts of inspiring Bible verses about how God is with us, beside us, in us, and for us. Everything we say may be theologically and biblically accurate.

But in the context of North America, people will inevitably interpret these truths through a therapeutic framework. They will assume the purpose of religion is to have God as a helper, who provides them with abundance and happiness, perhaps through material possessions, a promotion at work, or inner peace and tranquility. You can be heard as a preacher of the prosperity gospel and never say anything theologically inaccurate. You can be heard as a promoter of moralistic therapeutic deism even though you never stray from biblical statements.

Unless we define what the abundant life is according to Scripture, people will define abundant life according to the world.

Unless we define what the abundant life is according to Scripture, people will define abundant life according to the world. They will say “Amen” to your teaching all day long, when in reality, you and your audience are speaking two different languages. You’re working from two different frameworks. Your idea of abundance is about the God-centered flourishing life that belongs to every Christian, and would even include the martyr who holds on to hope after witnessing his wife and children slaughtered before his eyes. Their idea of abundance is about the American Dream with a veneer of Christian spirituality.

Deconstructing and Reconstructing

This is why cultural exegesis and analysis is so important. We don’t study the culture because we want to be relevant. We study the culture because we want the gospel to be heard.

As a teaching pastor, I feel the weight of this task every time I walk onto the platform with an open Bible. I don’t think I do this kind of careful cultural exegesis as well as others do, or even as well as I want to, but I aspire to this. I want to explain biblical texts and concepts in ways that affirm people’s deepest longings, confront the world’s pernicious lies, and demonstrate the beauty and goodness of the gospel.

Often, this means we must deconstruct a false way of viewing the world before we can reconstruct a biblical way of viewing the world. This is the challenging task of the preacher today, just like in every other age. We want to teach the Bible. We also want the Bible to be heard, truly heard, and in order to deliver God’s message to people today, we must care about how they hear.

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