by Brandon Haan, 3rd year M.Div.
Zip codes—those seemingly random five digit collections at the end of an address that designate different towns and localities. Often they seem indistinguishable. One zip code melts away right into the next, and we hardly know it. 49546. 49506. 49508. And so on, and so on. Little looks different to the average person passing from one to another.
In some parts of the country, though, a zip code can signify a lot. That’s certainly the case around Sacramento, California. One zip code indicates the ‘burbs. Another warns of the hood. A third carries a kind of spray-tanned status. A fourth identifies a college town. Around Sacramento, one to two streets can change everything. Nice, quaffed lawns quickly transition into gangland. A prison facility slumbers in the midst of symbols of wealth. An intellectual haven lies at the feet of mountain weekend getaways.
How do you preach the Gospel in such a disparate landscape? How do those various contexts nuance the way you might present the good news about Jesus to such different people? How do you talk to drug dealers about Christ? How do you convince “post-Christian” undergrad engineers that the Bible holds truth? How do you challenge comfortable, wealthy suburbanites with the message that there’s more to life than the next big screen TV?
Those were the questions five of us CTSers wrestled with for a week and a half while out in the Sacramento area. We were there for the Gospel Preaching interim course led by Pastor Kevin Adams of Granite Springs Church, but we quickly realized that our class was going to be about much more than a simple study of preaching. Over the next ten days, our time together became more of a laboratory space for experimenting with different ways of reaching people with the Gospel. As we listened to those who live in and do ministry in the various communities around Sacramento, we became part of a discussion that touched on everything from church planting to the liturgical calendar to dramatic monologues to reciting the Psalms—the goal always being what would work best to help this or that context and group of people come to know Christ as Lord and King.
It was a thrilling and stretching week and a half, and it certainly gave us a lot to think about, especially since we knew that we were going to be preaching in these various churches and communities at the end of the trip. And so we talked. We listened. We read. We prayed. We worshipped. We listened some more. We wrote. We talked again. We practiced sermons, and finally we committed all our actions to the Lord, rested, and prepared our hearts to deliver the Gospel message to people we barely knew but had done our best to understand.
And the Lord worked. The Spirit moved, and by the end of our whirlwind trip out to California, we’d come to a better understanding of the incarnational and contextual nature of the Gospel. Put simply, what “preaches” in established churches in West Michigan doesn’t necessarily work all that well in the intellectual haven of Davis, CA. The notes of the Gospel that sing in community churches throughout the East Coast sound rather out of tune on the low-income, crime infested streets of South Natomas. The open hearts that welcome a pastor’s powerful and convicting preaching on sin in the Bible Belt are absent in Sacramento’s superficial suburb of Folsom.
But it’s still the same Gospel, and, as Christians, we believe that the good news about Jesus Christ is indeed good news for all. So how do we preach it in such a way that people can actually hear it in the midst of the thousands of other voices distracting them and demanding their attention? We have to begin by listening. Listening to the people around us. Listening to the murmur of need and fear and despair plaguing whatever community God has called us to. And then we must go to the Gospel for the comfort, assurance, and hope that God offers such needs. Finally, we proclaim that grace, trusting God to take our feeble efforts and grow them into faith in those around us.
And that, my friends, that is gospel preaching.