Every time I log into my Facebook account and scroll through the endless list of news, opinions, and experiences, my heart gets overwhelmed with a very wide gamut of feelings and emotions. I can go from laughter to anger in just two and a half seconds. I react to posts by liking, loving, ignoring, blocking, or even reporting them, while ignoring an enormous load of information that I find irrelevant. Meanwhile, Facebook’s artificial intelligence analyzes my behavior to feed me more relevant, agreeable, and likable content. People who listen to what I have to say do the same: they like, love, block, and maybe even report. I may get the impression from their reactions that they like what I say because they like me. In reality, however, they like me when they like what I say. Something in what I say has to resonate with what people already know and agree with for me to get their like, share, or Amen.
This is how all people operate. This is why missionaries and church planters have to use some degree of contextualization, which is the art of connecting the gospel to where people are at the moment in order to bring them where they should be. It requires proper study of both the biblical text and the audience, as well as creativity and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Connecting with your listeners in order to lead them to the gospel truth starts with finding common ground. Note that all the major speeches in the book of Acts begin with something the audience already witnessed, believed, or knew to be true (Acts 2:14–40; 3:12–26; 4:8–12; 5:35–39; 7:2–53; 13:16–41; 17:22–31; 20:18–35). Then, speakers would move their audiences to agree with the intended message in order to move them to a particular decision or action. Finding common ground is essential in gaining your audience’s attention and willingness to move along with your gospel presentation.
So, is my gospel relevant? Normally, I would not put the words “gospel” and “relevant” into one sentence because the gospel is already relevant and because of the legitimate fear that making it more acceptable requires its alteration. Unfortunately, however, there is always some gap between objective relevance of the gospel and its perceptual relevance. While I disagree with the expression “perception is reality”—because objective reality does not depend on anyone’s perception—perception of reality can be different from reality itself. Consequently, while Jesus is the only way to God the Father and to eternal salvation, neither God nor salvation made it into Maslow’s hierarchy of people’s needs. So, how can we present Jesus for people to perceive Him as their ultimate need? We must somehow connect the gospel to people’s experiences, knowledge, and beliefs. One way to do it is to present Jesus as the means to satisfy people’s felt needs. However, this way may potentially lead to various deviations from the gospel, such as social gospel, liberation gospel, or prosperity gospel. We must never ignore or downplay the chief purpose of the real gospel, which is the eternal salvation of human souls.
There is a much better way to make our gospel perceptually relevant without changing its essence or purpose. We can simply put human needs and problems into a biblical context, which can be outlined as a causal chain: godlessness – sin – need. Everything dysfunctional about humanity and every legitimate personal need are caused by the sins of humanity in general or by personal sins in particular. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 1:18–32, blames humanity for its godlessness that produced in people a depraved mind, which leads them to all kinds of sins. Sin, in turn, brings with it a world of hurt, need, and ultimately death. The problem with your listeners is that they do not see the big biblical picture or any connection between their godlessness and their felt needs focusing only on the latter. Because of this tunnel vision, they expect you to somehow satisfy those needs and feel no need in anything else, including God. They do not realize that even if you were able to solve all their problems, they would quickly create more of them again because of the same remaining root cause. They will still continue living without God in sin and suffer its consequences. The only way to really deal with anything dysfunctional about humanity is to first deal with the root cause. Since sin is the cause of both actual and perceived needs, the gospel is the only way to deal with any of them. Further, as sins are consequences of the inherited godlessness and willful rejection of God by humanity at large, the only way to ultimately solve any ill is to bring the human race back to relationships with their Creator through forgiveness of their sins.
My personal conviction is that every single sermon must present the gospel to both believers and especially unbelievers as the ultimate need of all human beings. Because the big picture of the entire Bible is God’s redemptive story that culminated on the cross, anything from Genesis to Revelation can be preached as a part of this redemptive story.
To make our gospel presentation perceptually relevant to our listeners, we can begin with finding common ground. This can be any commonly realized problem or a need, of which there is no shortage. Then, we can show which sins cause these problems and present godlessness as the primary cause of the sins of humanity, of which each individual is a part. Then, we present the cross as the only way, in which God reconciled humanity to Himself (2 Cor 5:19), and offer our listeners a chance to end their godlessness by repenting of their sins and reconciling to God in Jesus. This decision will become the beginning of their life with God and transforming humanity from godlessness to godliness by helping others to be reconciled to Him as well (2 Cor 5:20).
Can I get an Amen, like, or maybe share?
Anatoliy Orgunov is a Ph.D. student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, majoring in Church Vitalization and minoring in Preaching.