“Welcome to our church, pastor,” the elder said as he shook the hand of the twenty-four year-old, newly graduated pastor. “Preaching is not that hard,” he said encouragingly. “You just sit down and study the Bible passage, then stand up and tell the people what it says.”
That was fifty years ago, and I was that pastor. The advice was excellent since back in those days everyone used the venerable, but difficult to understand, King James Version of the Bible. Explanatory preaching was popular because it was necessary.
The KJV was translated 350 years ago into common English by the very best scholars of the day using a highly respected and accurate Greek text. After centuries of heavy use, however, the English language had changed so much, the Bible sounded archaic and obsolete.
One Sunday I preached from 2 Thessalonians 2:7. “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” I explained it like this: “Someone is holding back Satan’s evil work on earth. One day God will take that someone away.”
Preachers had to explain that the word let, which now means allow, used to mean hinder, the direct opposite. Only lawyers still used the archaic term without let or hindrance in the fine print to say nothing is to hold back an action.
English grammar and usage like sentence length had also changed during those centuries. In the KJV Ephesians chapter one has a doctrine-packed 214 word sentence. Some linguists say it is grammatically part of the next sentence which would make it a 269 word sentence! Explanations needed!
The New Living Translation is more readable using a dozen sentences averaging twenty-two words which matches the average length in today’s books and magazines. Now that people can read the Bible in the language they are used to hearing and reading every day, my elder’s advice, so relevant fifty years ago, no longer is.
An old African pastor who used to preach from a Bible in the national language had just received a Bible newly translated into his own indigenous language. After reading several pages, he asked worriedly, “But what am I going to preach? When my congregation reads this Bible translation they will understand it clearly. What is there left for me to explain?”
The answer: Don’t explain but apply the Word of God to today’s culture, and the congregation’s current situation. That’s what preaching is supposed to be.
Today an elder advising a young pastor would say “Preaching is hard. You will need to study the passage, think about the people in the story, or the people for whom this passage was written, and ask yourself, ‘What did God want them to learn, or say, or think, or do? What is the basic, ‘good for all times and occasions’ principle? How does this apply to my congregation and me today, in our church, homes, schools, and workplaces? Is there an attitude, or thought pattern, or habit, or belief that we need to change in ourselves? What could I and our congregation do right now to start changing?’”
A congregation that hears the answers to these questions is not going to walk out of church thinking, as many did fifty years ago, “I now understand that passage clearly, but so what? How do I apply it? What now?”