I still remember one afternoon in my college life. The American brother who I respected was having a serious conversation with me in his dorm with an open Bible in his hand. He quoted several verses from the Bible, mainly Exodus 20:15, and tenderly but firmly stated that using pirated software is equivalent to stealing and must be corrected. I was listening with a smile, but not willing to take the application he suggested: stop using all pirated software and purchase licenses for Windows, Office, Visual Studio and all commercial software that I need to use as an undergraduate student majoring in Computer Science. My mind continuously told me one thing while I was listening: “He is a rich American. This is the American mindset as to copyright. Moreover, there was no copyright law in the ancient Middle Eastern world. ”
a. Challenges for the preachers: “What’s in it for them?”
Before joining seminary, I was a professional trainer for Microsoft. The training for trainers provided by my company always emphasizes “WIIFM”, which means “What’s In It For Me.” And the company asks every trainer to have this in mind while preparing training. Church ministers call it “application” in their sermons. It is a vital part of the sermon. In a modern fast-paced urban setting, everyone who comes to church and sits there for two hours wants to get something when they leave. We as the preachers also want them to have something to take away; not only the truth but the ways to apply the truth in their lives. Thus when preparing a sermon, I always remind myself “WIIFT” – What’s In It For Them?
However, there are always places in the Bible where it is harder to make connections with the audience. In my 10 years of preaching ministry, I got stuck several times in Pauls’ teaching on women’s role in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), God’s commandments on food and days (Book of Leviticus), the curse in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 109), and even Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4) and the Greek woman (Mark 7:28). Even though I can interpret the verses very well with authoritative answers to all difficult hermeneutical challenges, it’s hard for me to find connections to the audience’s world. How can these illustrations and commandments from an ancient agricultural society be applied to a modern industrial society?
b. Challenges to the audience: “I’m not convinced!”
The story mentioned in the beginning revealed one reality in the world of preaching: the gap between the biblical world and our modern world, and the gap between the preacher and congregation. In concept, according to the modern legal system, using pirated software is a type of stealing. When Bill Gates was speaking to an audience at the University of Washington about software pirating in China, he said: "And as long as they’re going to steal it, we want them to steal ours.”  However, it is not a concept from the Bible, but a concept from the modern legal system regarding copyright issues. Can the commandment of “Thou shalt not steal” in Exodus 20:15 be applied to software piracy directly? For educated American people, I think the answer is positive, but it might not be true for an audience in the developing world because they don’t see the connection between stealing and using cheap software.
It will be a waste of time if one sits in the audience but cannot see anything in the sermon that is applicable or actionable for him. However, even if the preacher tried very hard to deliver an application in the sermon, the audience might still struggle to accept it. One of the reasons for their struggle is that they are not convinced. They are not convinced partly because they don’t agree with the connection between the Scripture and the problem, or they don’t think the preacher understands their problem correctly. Of course we can argue that it’s a sinful nature for humans to resist and reject the truth, but there is also something that the preacher can improve or make changes.
Preacher’s role as both the bridge and the bridge builder
There are several metaphors used for the preacher’s role in various preaching books. However in this article I would like to emphasize the role of both the bridge and the bridge builder. Earlier in this article we identified two gaps in the preaching. One gap lies between the ancient biblical world and the modern world, another gap lies between the preacher and the audiences. Both of these gaps both need bridges. The first gap needs a bridge built by the preacher, while the second gap requires the preacher himself becoming a bridge.
a. Preacher as the bridge builder
Preachers are not inventing new ideas. Instead, they are proclaiming the good news from God. They are sowing the seeds that were given to them by God. We can find in the New Testament that in all metaphors the preacher is a servant under someone else’s authority and the communicator of somebody else’s word. The preacher’s task is to convey the message from the Bible to the modern world, and to enable God’s revealed truth to flow into the heart of the audience. Solid exegesis is the foundation of excellent application. If the exegesis is wrong, the application will not be the exact thing that God wants us to deliver, even if the application is right and biblical.
The preacher’s role is to find out the principle based on exegesis, and apply the principle to the audience’s world. In many cases you would find no gap. For example, Paul asks the believers in Thessalonians to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Sometimes, there are gaps that need more illustration. For example, we need to find out what does eating food that was offered to idols means in our current culture while preaching (1 Corinthians 8). By doing this, we preachers are bridge builders that making bridge over the gap for the audience.
In Jesus’ preaching ministry, he always quotes the Old Testament when he preaches. We can find how he interprets the Old Testament in light of the struggles that his audiences have, and thus builds the bridge. For example, he built a bridge to connect the Ten Commandments to his audience and introduced new applications (Matthew 5:21-48). He also built the bridge to connect the creation story (Genesis 2:24) to the problem of divorce (Mark 10:8). Most importantly, while talking about himself, he always leverages the Scripture and builds the bridge to connect the gap, especially after his death and resurrection (Luke 24:27). Jesus showed us a very good model of how to build the bridge.
Paul built an excellent bridge in his preaching in Athens (Acts 17). He understands the struggles among the Athens philosophers. Thus he started his preaching with a question on their religious life. His opening questions and illustrations all used the language that Athenians are familiar with thus they were eager to listen. Though Paul stated that he only preaches Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2), he also says that his preaching evidently sets forth the crucifixion for the audience (Galatians 3:1). His preaching ministry shows the great bridges he has built for his audiences.
b. Preacher as the bridge
On the other hand, the preacher himself is a bridge for the gap between the pulpit and the congregation. For a moment, return to the story I mentioned at the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with that brother and his teaching, but as the listener I rejected the application because I didn’t feel he really understand my culture and struggle. That’s why Hudson Taylor not only preached in Chinese, but also lived with the Chinese, ate with the Chinese and dressed like the Chinese. He wanted to be immersed within the same culture as his audience so that his preaching would be heard.
Paul also understands how important it is to stay in the audience’s culture and to be the bridge. He made a very strong claim that he became all things to all men in order to save some people (1 Corinthians 9:22). In another words, he is willing to give up some privileges in order to understand the culture of his audience. While doing so, he himself becomes the bridge that can convey the message to the audience. What are the privileges that he gave up? He submitted himself to the Jewish law while among the Jewish (1 Corinthians 9:20, Acts 21:26), and he even gave up the privilege of receiving salary and lived as a tent-maker (1 Corinthians 9:12) in order to be accepted.
I’m not suggesting that all missionaries should live like Hudson Taylor and all guest speakers should live among their audiences for one year. For example, Paul did not live with the philosophers in Athens as well. What he did was really understood their language and their struggle so that his preaching sounded more acceptable to them. His quoting of Greek literature shows that he is very familiar with what his Greek audiences were reading (Acts 17:28). To understand the language and struggles of the audience, a preacher needs to speak the daily language they use, read the literature they read, care for the news and public events they care for, and communicate the struggles they usually have. Just like Jesus incarnated into the world in order to lead his people to God, we as preachers also “incarnate" into congregation’s world in order to connect them to the Bible.
Jesus provided a good model for us in his conversation with the women of Samaria (John 4). He knows the need and struggle of the woman; thus he starts with the daily need, then moves to the deeper need of the woman, and finally her need for the savior. His preaching established the bridge connecting the people in Samaria with their ancient ancestor. This is because he himself came down and incarnated to be the bridge. We as preachers should follow our Lord to be the bridge and build the bridge.
Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.
Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.
Richard, Ramesh. Scripture Sculpture. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.
Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001
Scharf, Greg. Prepared to Preach. Mentor Imprint, 2007.
Smith, Steven. Dying to Preach: Embracing the Cross in the Pulpit. Kregel Publications, 2009.
Stott, John. Between Two Worlds. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
 Speech at the University of Washington, as reported in "Gates, Buffett a bit bearish", CNET News (2 July 1998)
 John Stott, Between Two Worlds, (Grand Rapids: William B. Efrdmans Publishing Company 1982), 137