“Preaching to Unbelievers”

Ortberg, John

a lecture in the Calvin Theological Seminary Series on Expository Preaching, given in March, 1998, in summary from a listener

We live in an unchurched culture, so that preaching to unbelievers is cross-cultural ministry. We don’t mind preaching to the raven-haired Presbyterian women, aged forty-five, who look good in their sweaters and wool blazers. But who will talk to the SOB’s? Remove every barrier except the scandal of the cross. Preaching is crucial in addressing unchurched people, and they’ll listen to 35-40 minute sermons. Nothing is out-of-bounds, not even hell. (Start with justice: we can’t wait for justice to be done. Maybe hell is the best God can do for some people, and maybe the doors to it are locked on the inside). The old issues–love/hate, life/death, sin/salvation, i.e., the heart issues, are the same for everybody, but the ways of approaching them, and the language we use, and the assumptions we make–all those things have to be thought through in advance. Seekers have certain biases that we have to keep in mind: The Bible is irrelevant to my life. (Note that Jesus spoke in a common idiom, and that sometimes he comments on the news–as in the Luke 13 case of a tower falling on some people.). Ministers are sometimes clueless about the real world. We need to demystify the clergy, cleanse people of their docetic belief that we only seem to be human. Some folk think that ministers belong to a third gender. There are mistakes to make in demystifying, including cussing a lot. Bias 2: Ministers do not share my struggles. So we need to do an appropriate level of self-disclosure. But the Fred Craddock rules apply to ministerial self-disclosure: No “humble boasting of weaknesses and quiet confessing of strengths.” And do be self-deprecating. [And do keep it short.] Ortberg: ask yourself whether you are telling this because people need to hear it, or because you need to tell it. Don’t burden them with your therapy needs. And don’t assume that everybody is more interested in your family than in anybody else’s. Bias 3: Ministers don’t know my real issues. Jesus was “a friend of sinners” and was proud of it. We ministers should know some unbelievers. Bias 4: I can never catch up on Bible or religion. There may be a basis for this bias. The reason is that ministers are always saying, “Do more. Pray more. Serve more.” Also some unbelievers don’t know Bible books at all, and don’t know what the 3:6 means when you say “Turn to Galatians 3:6.” That doesn’t make any sense. Why would the minister say “3” and then say “6”? An unchurched person once asked Ortberg whether Jesus and Jesus Christ were the same person. Bias 5: Church sermons are for shaming and for inducing guilt. Ortberg: yes, we ought to feel shame and guilt, but not as a steady diet. No ungracious grace please (Lewis Smedes) in which we feel worse after grace sermon than before. Fight the feeling that if it’s joy it can’t be church. Get some delight into the Sunday sermon. [Ortberg is himself a champ at that.] Yes, if God is, there will be justice. But it’s coming for us too.