The Myth of the Relevant Sermon

Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from Mark Howell’s third lecture at the 2012 Northcutt Lectures on Preaching at Southwestern Seminary. Audio of the 2012 Northcutt Lectures on Preaching, given by Mark Howell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Fla., can be accessed at under “Lecture Series.”

It is not the responsibility of the preacher to make the Bible relevant. Instead, it is the responsibility of the preacher to show his congregation that the Bible IS relevant. John MacArthur states it quite bluntly when he argues: “Preachers are not chefs. They don’t cook the meal. Instead they are waiters who deliver the meal to the table without messing it up!”

So, the question is: How Do We Show the Relevance of the Bible?

1. Ask God to help you see things the way that He sees things: Before the prophet Amos preached to the Northern Kingdom, he first had to see things from God’s perspective. God gave him the ability to see with his heart what he could not see with his eyes (Amos 1:1). There is a big difference between felt needs and real needs.

2. Always keep one finger on the text and make your congregation see/read the text:  Don’t talk about the Bible; preach from the Bible. Don’t be preachy; be prophetic.  Your words are not the relevant words that your congregation needs to hear. Let them see clearly that your words are not your words at all—they are God’s Words.

3. Have a firm grasp of the biblical text and a well-planned message from introduction to conclusion: Be the expert in the room. If you do not know what you are preaching about how will anyone else? Let the text govern the message, guide you in your outline and give you the clear points of application.

4. Preach to your people (think about how the text you are developing might be heard by different people in your church): Spurgeon puts it this way: “People in the marketplace have not had the privilege to learn the language of the academy. So, people of the academy must learn the language of the marketplace.” Don’t wait until the end of the message to give application. In your preaching show your congregation how the real truth of the text intersects with the real world in which they live.

5. Develop your message in the present tense whenever possible: Remember that the biblical principles are universal truths. Though they were written to a different culture in the past, they are every bit as relevant today. Though grounded in historical-grammatical exegesis, don’t leave your message in the past. Show how it speaks to the present.

6. Keep an eye on your congregation: As you preach, keep an eye on your congregation to be sure that they are connecting with what you are saying. After all, the word “communication” means to share meaning. You may be speaking, but is your congregation really understanding what you are saying?

7. Preclude objections: A helpful exercise in your study is to consider how various people would respond to the text and then to seek ways to preclude those objections by providing cogent and sound biblical arguments as you develop the text. Remember that you are not trying to convince them that you are right. Rather, your goal is to show them that God’s Word is “true and righteous altogether,” and as such, it must be obeyed.

8. Use illustrations wisely and appropriately: You cannot illustrate what you have not explained. Make sure that you have fully explained the text and then use illustrations to shed light on the truth that you have developed. Caution: the goal is not for them to remember the creative illustration but rather for the illustration to put a spotlight on the relevant text. They will forget the illustration. We want them to remember the text.

9. You must be “on your game” for 52 weeks a year: The temptation is always great to neglect study and preparation, especially on an “off” week or because of inevitable distractions. But every Sunday must be our best. If God’s Word is “living and active” there is never an excuse for our study and our proclamation to be dead and lethargic.

10.  Show how every passage relates to the central theme of the Bible…God’s revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ.: W.A. Criswell called this the “scarlet thread of redemption” that runs throughout the Bible. Jesus could have used any means possible to make Himself known to the two disciples on the Emmaus road. Yet, He chose to proclaim a Christ-centered exposition (Luke 24:27). We should do no less. Bryan Chapell states it well: “The gospel comes into play no matter where you are in Scripture. By identifying [man’s] fallenness, you are forced to come up with a divine solution and that divine solution is going to force you to think redemptively about the text and that ultimately is [to show how] Christ must provide something that humanity cannot provide for itself.”