What's Needed to Preach to a Culture of Skeptics?

A professor of preaching says that pastors need more moral courage to deliver the Gospel message in today's skeptical world.

Haddon Robinson, who currently serves as the distinguished professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., told The Christian Post Thursday that the media is much bolder in its criticisms of the church than it used to be, and in many ways it builds upon the skepticism already found in the culture. This dramatic shift in attitude toward the church and the Bible means, to some extent, preachers may have to adjust their approach to preaching.

"When I started preaching years ago, the church had home-field advantage. People respected it. They may not have lived up to its teaching, but they would think, 'Church is certainly a fine moral example'...that's no longer true," Robinson said.

"I think the thing that is needed now is moral courage," he said.

Robinson was the featured speaker at the first annual National Ministry Conference last week. The conference, which focused on the topic of "Preaching Into the Wind: Biblical Preaching in a Skeptical Culture," was held at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif.

Robinson was named among "the most effective" English-speaking preachers in the world in a Baylor University survey in 1996.

Today's pastors, Robinson said, not only need to have moral courage to speak to a skeptical world, but also to speak the Word of God to their own congregants, who have the power to fire them or reduce their pay if they say something unpleasant.

But just because preachers sometimes feel led to share a point of view that opposes the secular culture doesn't mean they should take a "bombastic" tone when preaching, he cautioned.

"It takes moral courage to speak to people a word that is compassionate, concerned, that speaks the truth about serious serious matters," said Robinson.

When he spoke at the National Ministry Conference, Robinson pointed to 1 Kings 22 to illustrate what moral courage looks like. In the text, Micaiah the prophet warns Israel's King Ahab of his impending destruction, but Ahab chooses to believe false prophets instead and throws Micaiah into prison for telling the truth.

When asked what style of preaching is most effective today, the respected preacher said a conversational tone seems to be becoming more prevalent. Years ago, before good sound system technology was developed, preachers had to speak loudly just to be heard by their congregations. That loud style of preaching carried over into the Christian culture, but with modern day sound systems, pastors can be just as effective by speaking with their normal voices.

"The important things aren't said in a large, loud voice. The importance things are said...quietly but thoughtfully," he said. He also stated that he likes the style of preaching used by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, who doesn't try "jamming [the message] down your throat" but rather makes a point and lays out supporting evidence for the listener to consider.

When preparing their sermons, pastors should also remember that even Christians are immersed in a culture of skepticism. Someone who attends church for a little over an hour on a Sunday, Robinson says, might watch dozens of hours of television in a week, and is "surrounded by media that just ignores God."

"We better know that we're not playing at home, we're playing on the road for the most part," he said. "The people, even in the pew, who listen to us are affected by the secularism of our day."