At the beginning of the year, we are all prone to start thinking about resolutions and whatnot. I have spoken recently about that more generally. I am already beginning to see the bible reading plans in a year blog posts and, more recently, takes that all pastors should be reading the whole Bible through at least once every month. All valid and, if you find them helpful, perfectly reasonable, but just not things that are actually demanded of us in the Bible.
Anyway, my points here isn’t to poke holes in any of that. If those are things you want to do, then as long as it helps you to enjoy the Lord more and understand him better, have at it. I’m not saying don’t do those things, though I would suggest we should recognise the freedom for others not to do them (because the Lord doesn’t ask us to do them) and they are not marks of spiritual maturity and growth.
But one thing I hope we might commit to doing this year is to aim to make ourselves more easily understood. I say ‘ourselves’, but I really mean ‘the gospel’. Whether in our preaching, our evangelism or more broadly in our discipleship (whatever forms those latter two things take), we would do well to commit to sharing and applying the gospel in a way that is properly understandable to those in our communities.
Interestingly, there is somebody in our church who frequently prays that the Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in our area would engage with us, and specifically the gospel, in a way that makes sense to them. I always love that prayer. Not just because it shows a real heart for taking the gospel out to our community – which I know this person really does have – but because it is also committed to trying not just to share the gospel, but to do so in a way that is understood by the people with whom we are sharing it.
All too often we share the gospel, we disciple people, we preach and take bible studies and, whilst everything we say might be entirely right and true, we are not making ourselves properly understood to the people in front of us. All the words we use might be right and the illustrations and analogies we employ might make perfect sense to us, but if they aren’t really connecting with the people we are talking to, we haven’t really shared the gospel with them. We might have used a lot of words and either confused them further or done very little to move them on in their understanding of who Jesus is, why he came and what that specifically means to them.
The same is true of our discipleship and preaching too. We might use a lot of words and illustrations, but if nobody can get behind them, what have we really achieved? I have always said the absolute bottom line for any sermon are these two things: (1) The passage was explained in a way that people understand what it is essentially saying; (2) the passage was applied in a way that people understand what it is saying to them and how they ought to respond to it. If your sermon hits those two notes, whether it is a contender for sermon of the year or not, you have effectively done your job. You have explained and applied the passage of scripture in a way that makes sense to the people in front of you.
I, therefore, think the two most valid criticisms of any sermon are: (1) I don’t really understand what the passage is going on about after listening to you; (2) I have no idea what difference that passage is supposed to make to me and my life throughout my upcoming week. There are lots of other criticisms that may come up – and some of them might have a bit of merit while others of them don’t – but it is those two that I think we ought to most seriously hear. If people don’t understand what you are saying and don’t know how what you are saying affects them and their life, no matter how interestingly you have presented and how listenable you are, you have not really adequately preached.
But the same is true of our one-to-one conversations, bible studies, evangelism and any other time we are trying to share God’s Word with others. If people do not understand what we are saying and do not know how it affects them and their life, whatever else we may be doing, they aren’t really learning. And if they’re not learning, you’re not really teaching. You’re just using a lot of words to little effect.
And so, if there is anything we might commit to this year, I would encourage you to let it be this. Work hard to make yourself understood. Work hard to make sure your people, your community, your neighbours and friends understand the gospel and what it means for them. Work hard to make sure your preaching both explains the passage in a way that people understand it and apply it to the people in front of you so they know what it means for them in practice. Work hard, in your discipleship, to explain things in ways that make sense to the people you are speaking with.
The fact is, we are all very good at explaining things in ways that make sense to us. We are good at using words and analogies that, in our minds, seem reasonable and well considered. But our task isn’t to convince ourselves, it is to show others. We need to think about what will make sense to them. And that will, obviously, differ from community to community and person to person. It is why checking to see that people have actually understood what we are saying rather than assuming they have is quite important. It is why we need to repeat ourselves a lot. It is why we need to think of as many different ways to explaining the same thing as we can so that the widest possible range of people might come to truly understand it. It is why we need to work extremely hard at applying the overwhelming majority of what we are trying to help people understand. If they don’t see the point of it and can’t understand what it has to say to them, it won’t achieve very much either.
Let’s work hard at making ourselves and our gospel best understood by the people we are trying to reach. Let’s work hard at helping people inside and outside the church understand what the scriptures say and why they are at all relevant to them. I think this is one of the things that will help us have a significant gospel impact this year – let’s work hard to help people understand what we are saying in a way that makes sense to them. That, of itself, makes sense when you think about it.