LANGUAGE is the only tool we possess to convey complex thoughts and emotions. When we preach, the language we choose and use becomes the boat that will carry our message to the world. The boat must always suit the cargo, and the boat must also suit its destination — which is our audience. If we speak and those who hear us cannot understand our message, because we have chosen the wrong style of language, then we have failed.
The proclamation of the gospel has two wings, and it is important to know the difference. The use of language in teaching is different from that used in preaching. We must be like St Paul, who spoke in the Areopagus in a totally different way from when he spoke to the farmers.
One of Jesus’s main methods of using language in his teaching ministry was to build stories. He was what would be called in Arabic “al-Hakawati”, the storyteller. He mastered the art of storytelling, and he filled his stories — his “boats” — with social, theological, and cultural content.
The world of first-century Syria and Judaea was one of stories: a common cultural element that bound people together and gave them a shared verbal currency. Even in the 21st century, our world still revolves around the concepts of story and storytelling. Every day, we encounter stories on the TV and radio, in newspapers and social media. Stories are all around us, and storytelling still shapes our identity.
Preaching is a very special form of storytelling. As preachers, it is our responsibility to breathe life once more into the story of the Lord. To be able to reignite this story, we need to understand and explore it again and again and again, so that our understanding becomes ever deeper.
Preaching is sharing our own journey in exploring that story and its impact on us. You cannot preach and not reveal something of yourself, because preaching must come from the heart, and this will have much more impact on those who are listening. When God communicated with us, he came to us and his message was nothing less than himself: “And the Word became flesh” (John 1.14).
As we preach, we communicate our own relationship with the Lord, and we share it with our people. We should not just “teach” when we step into the pulpit.
THROUGH language, we received the wholehearted, passionate, living stories of the Gospel narratives. Those narratives are themselves sermons and personal testimonies, and the writers tell us about their journey, their joy, and their struggle with the story of the Lord, in their writings.
My mother is Byzantine Orthodox, and my father was Presbyterian, and I had the privilege to worship and to experience God in those two very different Christian traditions. Liturgical language was very strong and effective in the Orthodox tradition, but very weak, if it existed at all, in the Presbyterian church in my home town, Lattakia (a Mediterranean port in Syria). In the Presbyterian church, however, the language and the art of preaching was very strong, deep, and impactful, while that was very weak in the Orthodox church. I grew up with the awareness that both languages form our spiritual identity and faith; for worship to fly, we need good sermons and good liturgy.
In the West, it is easy to overlook the great importance of religious rhetoric in our lives because of the aggressively secular nature of media and politics. Many people are embarrassed about their Christian roots, and the roots of their culture, to the extent that they are unable to differentiate between those Christian cultural roots and faith itself. The result is that many misidentify Christianity as a “Western” faith.
The inculturation of Christianity in the West has gone so far that Western Christian rhetoric does not take into consideration the impact of the original, Near Eastern, cultural background of the faith, so that it becomes more and more divorced from its true roots and much of its true meaning.
TO BUILD a solid preaching boat, we need to understand three cultures.
The first is the culture of the text, which involves deep exploration of the culture of the time in which the text was written, to discover why it was written as it was, who was the intended audience, and what was the purpose of the text. If we understand the culture of the text, then we do not burden it with misunderstandings.
For example, when Jesus told the parable of the widow and the judge, a woman was seen as sacrosanct only if she possessed one of two things: her virginity or her husband. A widow possessed neither, and was therefore seen as without protection and vulnerable to sexual advances. So, the widow in the parable is not a respected pillar of the community, which is what so many Christians today assume. The parable is not, therefore, a story of the widow’s persistence being rewarded by God — and therefore being a lesson to pray harder for what we want — but, rather, about how even a cruel society (personified by the judge) will help the marginalised and the rejected if they are persistent; and the lesson is that God will be much more generous than human society.
The second culture that we need to understand is our own. The more deeply we understand and love our own culture, the more we find bridges to build between Christ and the scriptures and the people to whom we are preaching. Then we can present Christ as he really is: relevant, exciting, and life-changing.
The third culture is the culture of God — the culture of the Trinity; the culture of love. Through our preaching, we are working to empower people to have a better relationship with God and with those around them. We need to understand who is the God whom we worship — the God who came to us in Jesus Christ — and what it means that he revealed to us that he is a community of the Trinity. The Trinitarian God provides us with the best model on which we can build our communities, and this should be reflected profoundly in our preaching and ministry.
THE culture of the Trinity exemplifies generosity (through God’s decision to become one of us, and to experience all that we experience), hospitality (through his invitation to all of humanity to enter into a covenant of love through the cross and the resurrection of Christ), and love (as the most powerful way of living as a community). Love empowers every community to go beyond the selfishness of “Me”: it emphasises the verb “to be”, not the verb “to have”.
My relationship with others should not be based on how much I gain from those relationships; it should be based on how much I can contribute and share with others. This is love in practice and in action. Preaching is a way of unpacking this, and showing the beauty and the power of living the culture of God in our own society. Preaching is demonstrating the love, generosity, and hospitality that are lived fully by the Lord himself in his own earthly culture, transforming it for ever.
Preaching is not about pushing what I want to say, but about proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, and empowering those who come willingly to listen and to worship. Through preaching, we can empower people to transform their lives, and take this transformation into their own communities.
Preaching is nothing more and nothing less than communicating the risen Lord, who is alive and in communion with us all in that bond of peace and love.
The Revd Nadim Nassar is Executive Director of the Awareness Foundation.
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in Preach magazine, and is reproduced with permission.
The Church Times Festival of Preaching takes place between 8 and 10 September at Christ Church, Oxford. It is sold out, but some of the talks will be streamed live on the Church Times Facebook page and available afterwards to watch.