Eight principles for faithful preaching among people experiencing poverty
From an article by 20schemes
Andy Constable is co-pastor of Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. The church is located in a housing scheme which are strong and vibrant Scottish communities with a rich history, but are often hit hard by complex social problems. 42% of Niddrie’s 4400 population are recorded as being ‘income deprived’. It is the most deprived scheme in Edinburgh and ranks as the 31st most deprived area in Scotland, according to the government’s deprivation index. The schemes also happen to be the places least likely to have a gospel church or indigenous Christians.
Andy admits he is a middle-class man working and preaching in a housing scheme. He often gets asked by other middle-class preachers: How do I communicate or preach in a housing scheme? Do I have to change things to preach into a non-literate culture? Do I have to dumb things down? Do I have to shorten my sermons? How does someone prepare a sermon when they are trying to get into the community and spend time with unbelievers too?
At Niddrie Community Church, they believe in expositional preaching. This is where they make the main point of the Bible passage the main point of the sermon. Simple as that. They tend to preach through books of the Bible systematically—going verse by verse, passage by passage. Depending on the text, they preach for about 30–45 minutes. People are sometimes shocked that they preach for this long in a housing scheme but, contrary to popular opinion, their people love it. They listen intently.
Andy doesn't think the problem in poorer areas concerns the length of the sermon, but rather how we handle and communicate God’s Word. With that in mind, he has developed eight principles for faithful preaching in a housing scheme/estate. Here is an abridged version:
A key principle I’ve learnt about preaching in a housing scheme is to use language that people can understand. That’s the art of good preaching. Sometimes preachers/Bible teachers assume that because someone has dropped out of school, can’t read well, or even is completely illiterate, they therefore can’t take in the great truths of the Bible. But that’s simply not true.
People in housing schemes are not stupid. They just don’t know the language of the Bible, and they’re unfamiliar with the theological language thrown around by many Christians. That doesn’t mean when we come to words like propitiation, justification, glorification, sanctification, or even the Trinity, that we ignore or gloss over them. We use these words, and we must teach people these great truths by defining what they mean. For example, when it comes to justification, it’s actually a simple word to illustrate because we can use the imagery of a courtroom, which many in the schemes are familiar with.
When preaching, we need to use the language of the people in front of us. We should strive to use language that people in our context understand. It’s possible to say things simply without being simplistic. We should simplify, not dumb-down. This is central to any good teaching.
One area that many preachers struggle with in general is illustration. Consider how Jesus communicated. He used illustrations and parables to help teach big theological truths. They packed a punch because He used everyday language to illustrate His points. We need to do the same.
Thomas Guthrie said that using illustrations transformed his preaching. The important thing in schemes or council estates is to use imagery that people can relate to. We need to ask questions like: What are people watching? What are they reading? What do they fear? What do they laugh at? What are the major influences in their lives? If you’re from a middle-class background and are struggling with illustrations, then spend time with someone from your area and go through your illustrations with them. Ask them if they resonate with them. Ask them if they understand.
The key to any good sermon is application. This vital part of the sermon takes nuance, wisdom, and understanding of your audience. But good application won’t come apart from spending time with people. Sermon preparation includes watching the news, pastoral visitation, being out and about in the community, and spending time with non-Christians. It’s in these times that we find out where people are at, what they’re struggling with, and how God’s Word interacts with their lives.
One of the things I’ll do as I prepare to preach is ask the people I meet throughout the week about the topic I’m preaching on. I’ll ask them what they think about it and how they would apply it to their lives. You need to get out into the community you’re serving. There’s no substitute for spending time with people. Here’s the thing: the Lord always blesses me when I prioritise people. He always gives key insights and helps me apply His Word.
4. Black and White
One of the middle-class cultural sensibilities that we bring with us is being polite. The middle-class Christian thinks it’s better to be polite about things than to offend someone. This gets carried into our preaching. However, in housing-scheme culture, people appreciate the truth. They communicate in black and white. It might sound rude to some middle-class people, but it’s the way people communicate in the schemes.
As I’ve lived and ministered here in Niddrie for the past decade, I have adapted my preaching. I say things straight instead of beating around the bush. In some ways, there is less nuance. We need to preach the truth as clearly as we can, and we must do it in love. This is something that some middle-class preachers need to learn from our working-class lads. People are rat-bag sinners. They’re going to hell. The only way to be forgiven is through Christ. People need to repent and believe. Preach that.
Humour is a big part of housing-scheme culture. Scheme-people like to laugh. And this, I think, can be incorporated into our sermons. Now, I’m not talking about taking the sermon lightly or getting a cheap laugh to make people like us. I’m not talking about dirty jokes or being irreverent. Humour can help us land a point of application. A laugh can lighten the mood of the room and get people to concentrate on what is being said. If humour can help to amplify a point, then we should use it.
People in authority (police, social workers, politicians, etc.) in the scheme are often looked down upon. They aren’t trusted. The same can be true of a pastor. It’s important, therefore, for the preacher to be transparent, to talk about his struggles and be real—both in the everyday and also in the pulpit. This doesn’t mean you have to share everything with those you’re ministering to, and neither does it mean that you use the pulpit as a self-pity party. Rather, it means you’re humble and you share your life with people.
One of the biggest struggles for middle-class preachers is preaching narratives. We’re often taught to preach forensically and logically. We outline our three points and top it off with a good Spurgeon quote. In the schemes, people tell stories. It’s a narrative culture. So when we preach a narrative, they are going to really pay attention. We need to walk through the story and bring out the main point. But this will be lost if we try to impose three points on the text. We’ll lose the thrust of the story.
Working-class listeners want to feel and hear passion. I think this is true across the board. If the preacher doesn’t believe what he is preaching or hasn’t preached the sermon to his own heart, that will come across in his delivery. We need to feel what we are preaching. We need to be passionate about Jesus. Our preaching concerns matters of life and death, heaven and hell. Our sermons shouldn’t be boring. They should come from hearts and minds that have encountered the living God.
Preaching in a housing scheme isn’t difficult, but it takes a willing preacher to humbly learn how to contextualise his sermons. People from housing schemes and council estates aren’t aliens, but we do need to understand that we, middle-class people, think differently. We operate from a (largely) different worldview. Therefore, we should seek to adapt our language and illustrations in order to preach God’s Word faithfully in this context.
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From an article by 20Schemes, 07/01/2020