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How to Preach in an Age of Spectacle

This past summer I watched Meredith Viera interview Danny Boyle, this year’s Olympic Opening Ceremony director. Viera posed a difficult question to Boyle: She inquired how Boyle’s ceremonies could ever supersede the Opening Ceremonies from Beijing in 2008.

Boyle’s answer was wise. He replied that, in essence, it was impossible to top the Beijing ceremonies, so he would simply attempt to create an Opening Ceremony that was faithful to the heritage and contribution of the United Kingdom.

It was, I think, the perfect answer.

But then the Opening Ceremonies began. If you watched the Opening Ceremonies this year, you understand Boyle’s project was hardly a model of understatement.

It was a celebration of the highest order featuring Queen Elizabeth, James Bond, Mr. Bean and a legion of Mary Poppins battling He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Perhaps Boyle believed he could not compete with the Beijing ceremonies. But he was, at the end of the day, creating an event that can only be described as spectacle.

Of course, spectacle is the steady diet of those who exist in the 21st century.

We fill our time with the most recent Internet memes, the most outlandish stunts and the “biggest and the best” of whatever our endeavor is.

Over against the society enamored with spectacle, the Church has been given something completely different.

The Church possesses the Gospel of God become human, living and serving among us, dying a sacrificial death on a cross, being resurrected to new life and giving the gift of His Spirit. On its own terms—God became human!—this truth supersedes any sort of spectacle we might hope to generate of our own effort. But, in practicality, even those of us in the Church seem to believe we need a bit of spectacle. The spectacle of the Church focuses on service, hiddenness, the washing of feet and self-sacrifice. This is exactly opposite of what most of us are used to.

And so we are caught in a dilemma.

Pastors step into pulpits each week where both believers and non-believers sit—ready to varying degrees—to hear the good news. They want to faithfully proclaim, but they want to be relevant. They want the lost to hear the good news, but they do not want to bore or alienate the long-time disciple. Simultaneously, they want to make church palatable for those outside of the faith without boring them.

Those of us who are pastors have a very well-founded fear: How do we faithfully proclaim to these sorts of people? How do you preach to the lost and the saved simultaneously, knowing the wide gulf between them?

This is not a new problem, and many blogs, articles and books have been written attempting to navigate these waters, but I thought I might share three principles currently guiding my preaching to our digitally drenched age, particularly with regard to the rise of spectacle:

1. The Gospel has universal application.

The Gospel is simple. In fact, sometimes it seems too simple to those of us who are too familiar with it. It is: Jesus lived, died, was buried and was resurrected. His doing so fulfilled God’s requirements for justice, and receiving the Gospel makes people in right standing with God.

Of course, this simple Gospel has unlimited explanation. It can be applied to every person, from every walk of life. Those who find themselves in worship for the first time ever need to hear the Gospel, for they need to know they will not be saved by moralism or religious activity. Those who are long-time believers need to hear the Gospel, as well. Personally, I struggle with achievement and recognition. I can be tempted to need the approval of others. This will often spill into my spiritual life, as I begin to attempt to “achieve for God.” So I need to preach the Gospel to myself, as well. I need to be reminded my requirements for righteousness have already been fulfilled at the cross and the empty tomb. There is no need for me to impress God. My righteousness is as filthy rags. But the cross gives grace.

On weeks when I find myself staring at a blank screen wondering how to preach the Scripture at hand, I remind myself every passage of Scripture points back to Jesus Christ and his good news of salvation. Let me say that again: Every passage of Scripture points back to Jesus Christ and his good news of salvation. You cannot preach an irrelevant sermon if you constantly circle back to the message of Jesus through the text at hand. Even on weeks when your sermon needs to go a different direction (I preached on service last week, for example), the Gospel will always be central to your method (i.e., service is possible because we have been transformed by grace).

Every person in your congregation needs to hear the Gospel every single week. It may be in different contexts or situations, but we constantly need to be reminded of the fact that God’s entire message culminates in the person of Jesus.

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Steve Bezner planted Commons Church in Summer 2010 and is on faculty (Bible/Ethics) at Southwest Christian School, both located in Fort Worth, Texas. He holds degrees from Hardin-Simmons University (B.A., Bible; M.A., Religion) and Baylor University (Ph.D., Religion). He is married to Joy and has two sons: Ben and Andrew.