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Interview with Ed Stetzer: Preaching in a Changing Culture

  • Michael Duduit
  • Published Dec 31, 2008
Interview with Ed Stetzer: Preaching in a Changing Culture

Ed Stetzer is Director of Lifeway Research, where he is developing critical data to help church leaders interpret the culture and the future of the church. Prior to that role he was at the North American Mission Board Center for Missional Research. He has been a pastor, a church planter, author of several books, and is one of the cutting-edge guys in terms of what’s happening in the contemporary church. Preaching editor Michael Duduit visited with Ed in his Nashville office.

Preaching: You’ve written a lot about the
missional church—the issue of being missional. I suspect there are still some pastors out there who are saying, “That term missional is kind of like postmodern. Everybody has their own definition. What does it mean?” So, Ed, what does it mean for a church to be missional, as you understand it?

Stetzer: It’s important to put that caveat “as I understand it” because there are
different impressions. I did a series of posts at, kind of unpacking what missional means to different people; and there are surprisingly diverse ideas. For me, being missional has to do with being focused on God’s mission, living as a
missionary. And it has to do with the fact that the church doesn’t have a mission—the church is joining God in His mission.
God, by nature, is a sending God. Francis DuBose wrote a book in 1983 called God Who Sends, where it has the first use of the term missional. Ultimately God is a sender. He sent Jesus. Forty times in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “I am sent.” And then at the end in John 20:21 He says, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” That’s us. So we’re sent to people.
And that has a vast impact on the church and its ministry when you understand it as part of the call of the church—central to the call of the church is to be on mission. It has to do with the way we do ministry. It has to do with [the fact that] we don’t exist for ourselves. The church must not and cannot be a dispenser of religious goods and services where picky Christians go and look, as if it’s a cafeteria to serve their own spiritual buffet. Instead it is focused on God’s mission. It’s
engaging its culture so there’s a cultural relevance to it. But ultimately it’s focused on the kingdom and the mission of God for His purposes.

Preaching: If I’m in a missional church, what are the implications of that for me as a preacher of the gospel?

Stetzer: That’s a fair question. I think
ultimately one of the shifts we have to begin to see take place in missional churches is really the shift from attractional to
incarnational. Much of the church growth movement was built on the idea that if we did certain things we’d attract certain
people. And I don’t think that’s inherently wrong. I don’t think attractional is necessarily sinful.
But there are two reasons we probably need to reconsider that in our preaching. Number one: it doesn’t work like it once did. These aren’t in any order of priority but perhaps in order of interest for some pastors. You know, 10 years ago if you put out a sermon and said, “We’re going to have 10 ways to do blank,” and it’s practical and meaningful, you’d send out mailers; and unchurched people might say, “You know, I might like to go and hear that. Church has been irrelevant to me. This seems relevant. I’ll come. It will meet
my needs.”
Well, the reality is that really anybody who wants to go to a cool, contemporary, cutting-edge church—whatever language you want to use—anybody who wants to go to a church like that already is. The reality is that our task is now to ask the question, “How do we engage a culture that already knows that there are great, cool, exciting churches and still has rejected them?” So number one, it doesn’t work.
But number tw it presents a picture
of a gospel that I think is probably
problematic. The picture of the gospel is that God wants you to come rather than God wants you to be, do and tell. And so it’s built on the wrong idea. Our churches, for 20 or 30 years, have revamped their services. They’re cutting edge. They’re
creative. And that’s great—I’m pro all of that stuff. But at the end of 30 years we’ve spruced up the buildings and spiced up the sermons, and the culture’s more lost and people who go to church are less committed. So I think ultimately we have to ask: “How do we retool our preaching to teach people to live on mission so that they see it as
central to what it means to be a Christian?”

Preaching: Many of our churches have
identified their worship style through music and think of themselves in generational terms. If that is a valid position to take, should it then make any difference in our preaching? Do you preach differently to a Baby Boomer generation than you do to the millennial generation?

Stetzer: Let’s take a step back philosophically. This is a big issue, and how to figure this out is not easy. We’re really the first generation in the history of Christendom where there are three generational
expressions of church. You’ve got Builder churches, Boomer churches and then whatever the next generation is called. People used to call them Gen X, but the only people who still use that term are
pastors and seminary professors. So
whatever that last generation is—the emerging, postmodern generation.
Ultimately I don’t think it is tenable or healthy that the church would be split in a tri-generational approach. But the reality is what it is. One of the reasons for that is there seems to have been a shift in the way people understand preaching. You and I can walk into a church, and we can tell if we walk into a Builder church. Preaching tends to be much more of a text-based, running commentary. Maybe a Boomer church might be sermons with five points built around, hopefully, some scriptural themes. If we went to an emerging church reaching more of a postmodern generation, then it might be narrative preaching, kind of working through and threading a stacked narrative. And so I do think that there are some shifts.
I think what we’ve got to do is realize that people do learn in different ways. And if the academics and philosophers are right, then we’ve experienced the biggest worldview shift in 200 years. From the Bastille to the Berlin Wall, we had
modernism; and now we’ve entered this postmodern age. We would expect that preaching might change in some ways. I think we need to be careful about what those ways are.
We need to always see the Bible as
the norm of our theology and of our preaching. We need to let the Bible set both the structure and the agenda of our
messages. But I’ve found that in many churches that are reaching emerging
generations, they tend to be more narrative. They’ll preach through stories of Scripture, and they’ll build. And they’re OK with the mystery—they’re OK with the unresolvedness of some text. I think that’s healthy. I think probably in some Boomer preaching we overemphasize that everything ended like a sitcom—in 30 minutes everyone’s happy and everything’s worked out.
And so I think there is a sense that there is a shift in preaching. I think the challenge is—the shift we need to see take place in all those contexts is—more focus on biblical teaching that leads to the transformation of lives. That can be universally applied.

Preaching: Effective preaching is typically culturally contextualized. We preach out of and to the culture in which we live. So it’s natural that there would be some adaptation to the way postmoderns hear because they do hear differently than Boomers do, don’t they?

Stetzer: There’s a book by Paul Hiebert—a great missiologist who recently died—called Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts, which I think me and eight other people bought! It’s a fascinating book. And it asks those questions: How do we learn? What are the epistemological shifts, and what are the missiological
implications of that? I think we have to think through those issues. If we were reaching the Pokat in East Africa or
preaching to Quechua in the highlands of Peru, we would ask how we could best
communicate the message and the Word
of God.
I think the order you ought to bring a message to is to start with an understanding of where the people are. Typically where we start is: “The Bible says it. That’s important. You should do it.” But I suggested that we ought to ask: “Why is it important, and how does it relate to me?” Then: “What does the Bible say about it?” And then: “And what am I going to do with what the Bible says about it?” Some of my readers challenged me, and I’m OK with the
challenge. They said, “Couldn’t you say, ‘What does the Bible say? Why is it
important? And how does it relate to me?’” But I think the answer is no. I think
ultimately that truth can be irrelevant.
What we have to do is recognize the Bible is relevant. I get a little worn out by people saying we’ve got to make the Bible relevant and God relevant. God is relevant. The Bible is relevant in every culture. The problem is we have to help people to see that’s the case and then let the Bible set
the agenda to that. So in my sermon
preparation, I put Scripture first—I let it shape the agenda and direction of my
message. But after that and before I’m about to speak I ask, “Why should these people care about this?” So I start with Scripture but introduce the beginning with, “Why should I care to listen to what the Scripture has to say?” I think that’s true in every culture, and we have to figure out how people learn and how they think to communicate to them in biblical and transformative ways.

Preaching: It’s interesting that you say that because for a long time we’ve talked about the “so what?” factor. In your preaching
you have to have a “so what?” factor—a demonstration of why what I am saying matters. In sermons for earlier generations the “so what?” factor came near the end. Perhaps now the “so what?” factor needs to come at the beginning—that you have to connect with some of those listeners early on to help them understand why they should even be engaged with this topic.

Stetzer: Yeah, I think that’s just a missio-
logical reality. We did a study recently at Lifeway Research; we looked at teenagers who had dropped out of church. We
found certain factors became statistically
significant to their staying. (Your readers can see it at It’s all free, and they can download it.) And one of those things was that they found the
sermons at their church relevant. There were a few other factors, like having parental involvement, having married
parents who went to church. But there were only four or five that really rose to the level of being statistically significant, and relevant sermons was one of them.
Part of the problem is that some who have called for relevant sermons have
de-emphasized the role of the biblical text. We get concerned about that. So we want to go the other way. Well, let’s not make it a pendulum. Let’s not make it an either-or but a both-and. We’ve got this tyranny of the “or.” Is it culturally relevant, or is it
biblically faithful? How about “and”? I think ultimately what we’ve got to ask is: If we have this message that’s relevant in every time, what’s keeping them from
seeing it? The answer is probably us and our communication of it. So I think it’s really important that we take the time to learn to communicate in those ways.

Preaching: Some argue that our culture has fallen victim to the “tyranny of the therapeutic.” The mistake we sometimes make is to put the emphasis on the therapeutic element when, in fact, if we’re biblically focused, Scripture always is healing. Scripture takes care of
the therapy if we will just be faithful in
expressing it.

Stetzer: I think that’s the key—the faithfulness. We think of fidelity as fidelity to the text—and I want us to—but I want us also to have fidelity with the context. So I think we need both a serious view of the text
and a serious view of the context. Unfortunately I can’t find many people who do both. And I think that’s got to be the future of biblical preaching.
David Finch, in his new book The Great Giveaway, talks about “The Myth of Expository Preaching”; and he sort of
challenges us. David’s a great guy, though I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says. But one of the things he says is that we kind of thought that if everyone preached expositionally, we’d end up with everyone sort of believing the same because we’d all rightfully handle the Word of God and peoples’ lives would be transformed because of that. Yet the reality is a lot of people have, at the end of the day, not been transformed even in churches that take seriously the Word of God because they don’t think it matters to them. They focus on the
information not the transformation.
I think the best form of preaching is expository preaching. Those ought to be redundant words, expository preaching—preaching ought to be just normatively exposing the truths of the text. But I think also we’ve got to ask the question, “Why does this matter?” And I think we ought to recognize that we have to help people answer that question.

Preaching: And just to clarify, when we talk about expository preaching we’re not
necessarily talking about preaching verse-
by-verse through a text in that kind of
classic model but preaching that’s driven by a biblical text.

Stetzer: I think that’s key. I probably, most of the time, preach verse-by-verse through the text. I have a view of the authority of Scripture, and I want to work through it verse by verse. But I think to say—and some do—that that’s the only form of
biblical preaching is a huge problem, since we don’t find it anywhere in the Bible and nobody does it until John Chrysostom in the fifth century. Chrysostom basically does it because someone came up with the tools to do it. I mean, nobody in the second century would have said, “We should work grammatically through a text.” It was just an historical impossibility. So I think we have to be careful to say, “This must be
biblical preaching.”
But again it’s that pendulum thing. I think many of the people who say that have seen so many preachers handle
carelessly the Word of God. You know, “Here’s five truths in Psychology Today that I read that I thought you should know,” with verses to proof-text them that were taken out of context from 17 translations. I would say that the key is: Is the text
shaping my message? There are some texts that I think demand to be preached verse-by-verse. There are others that need to be communicated differently.

Preaching: If you were to sit down with a pastor who is trying to make a difference for the Kingdom, what are some words of encouragement or counsel you might provide to him, based on the things you’ve learned through your research, writing and work?

Stetzer: I think, ultimately, most pastors like me need to first and foremost
recognize that there are certain key
relationships that matter. Some of the best preachers I know have flamed out. You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. You know, we’ve got to begin with that right relationship with the Lord. We love the pulpit; I get that. I love the pulpit, too. But ultimately we don’t have anything to bring to the pulpit unless we’ve heard from God through Scripture and through prayer.
And then secondly the family issue. One day every pastor who is reading this is going to leave the church that he’s
pastoring. Every single one of us. There’s only one group of people that’s going to go with them, and that’s the family. I think ultimately that you’ve got to spend time with the Lord, spend time with the family, have right relationships there. Then out of those right relationships overflows your preaching. It’s shaped by who God is and filtered to some degree by who we are. And ultimately we want to communicate from a position of right relationship with God and others.
And then I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’ve got to culturally begin to see that preaching the way that we like is not as valuable as preaching biblically shaped messages in a way that people can understand them. I think a lot of folks choose their preaching based upon what they think is best rather than engaging and asking the question, “How can I best
communicate the unchanging Word of God in this changing cultural context?” Biblically faithful and culturally relevant ought to be our communication style.
I was recently in San Antonio, and I attended a church where one of my
students was pastor. It’s a great church. He was preaching through an Acts passage, where Paul and his companions ended up having this call from Macedonia; and God was closing doors. They’d tried to go, and God kept closing doors. Great passage—I’ve preached that passage myself. But on the stage he had three doors. He was
working in a biblically faithful way through a text and showing door closing, door closing, door closing—how God opens doors and how He closes others. What a great mnemonic device.
This will probably get me in trouble, but I’m just going to lay it out there. We like to say the Word of God has all the power, but what we really mean is, “My
communication of the Word of God has
all the power.” No, the Word of God has all the power. You don’t. Most pastors think that if they just get up there and use their voice and bring that confidence that
hundreds will come and thousands will be saved. Well, at the end of the day it’s the Word, and what we need to ask is, “How can I best communicate the Word so that people will hear, people will understand, and lives will be changed by the power of the gospel?” That’s biblical preaching. v

This article has been edited for space. A longer version of the article will appear in the
January-February 2009 issue section of, available at no additional cost to current subscribers.