I’ve thought very much lately about the idea of contextualization or relevance in the pulpit. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding in this area. I was thinking about this today and I came up with these thoughts:
Preaching effectively consists of 2 basic principles. 1.) Interpretation and 2.) Application. Interpretation consists of careful exegesis (including background, overall context, original language, setting, author, etc.) and exposition (arranging the text in sermonic form, ease of understanding, logical flow of thought, etc.) Application, on the other hand, deals with the understanding and usefulness of the sermon for the listener. If you interpret but don’t apply, than you’re not a preacher but merely a historian and/or a researcher. If you apply without interpretation than you are simply opinionated with little or no justification. Therefore both ends of the spectrum are essential in tandem. We must have careful study and then our study must be translated into relevant thought in order for it to be important to the hearer.
I think what is happening is there are two groups, those that major on interpretation and those that major on application and each group is reacting to what they see as the others’ faults by overreacting and overempahsizing their favorite aspects. For instance, those that maintain that an emphasis on relvance ruins good preaching (i.e. John MacArthur, one of my heros, who lists in his book “Rediscovering Expository Preaching” that the “…negative byproduct of a focus on relvance in preaching is innatention to God’s revelation…”) must themselves pay attention to relevance otherwise nobody but scholars would listen to what they have to say and what they have to say would have no bearing on day-to-day life. I think that they fear, however, that if they allow that relevance is a necessity, they therefore will encourage too much emphasis on it and allow for the other extreme to come into play and that being topical/textual preaching with little/no concern for God’s original intent.
The end result is that both sides of the argument are wrong. We must be true to the text! However, we must present the message in a relevant manner, both in form of communication and illustration, in order for the message to genuinely be received and understood by our audience. I could preach the gospel to my church in French all day every day but unles someone in my congregation happens to speak French nobody will respond to this message, no matter how true or how beautiful. If they don’t understand it they won’t respond to it other than to tune it out. Let’s get it right guys, and stop bashing each other up over it! Please!