The Bible is relevant. We don’t need to “make it relevant,” but we do need to demonstrate how it is relevant. Here are seven quick points to consider:
1. There is a logic to the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy. Logically we do explain the text before we can apply the text. This means that the traditional idea of taking the final few minutes to offer some applications makes sense. However . . .
2. There is a flaw in the traditional Application-at-the-End strategy. If people don’t feel that the message is relevant to life, then they are unlikely to listen through half an hour of distant and theoretical material in order to still be listening by the time the relevancy is demonstrated.
3. Generally look to demonstrate relevance throughout the message. As a general rule, seek to demonstrate relevance throughout the message. This would include:
A. Introduction – take the opportunity to show that you are not a Bible history lecturer, but someone who is aware of real life. Show that the message will be relevant to listeners’ lives. Point out that the passage itself is relevant. Three hits before the message has even begun!
B. Message Idea – make sure the wording of your main idea is contemporary. You can support it biblically, but word it for us, today.
C. The wording of every point – word the points “us” and “we” rather than historical labels for Biblical content.
D. Explanations, Proofs and Applications throughout – traditionally called “illustrations,” make good use of contemporary experience and applicational description rather than offering lots of historical (and therefore distant) anecdotes and quotes.
E. Transitions – between each point you can offer a glimpse of the relevance of the message again.
F. Conclusion – see point #1, above.
4. Recognise that there are exceptions to #3. If you are telling a biblical story with tension, then you probably don’t want to break that tension for an overt contemporary illustration. Know that the story will grip people if told well. And know that little asides can keep listeners subconsciously aware of the relevance of the message even as you tell the story. (For instance, a passing comment that the woman who found her lost coin texted her friends to invite them to celebrate with her won’t break the story, but will show you aren’t stuck in another world.)
5. Know there are many ways to demonstrate relevance in preaching. Forget the simplistic idea that relevance comes from exhortations to behave a certain way. There is more to relevance than to-do lists. It includes your attitude and manner as a preacher, perhaps even your dress sense. It includes vocabulary. It includes delivery style. And then there are numerous potential approaches to explaining the text, proving the truth, and applying the message.
6. Prayerfully pursue the motivation for relevance. That is, pray for God’s heart for the people who will be listening to your message. If you love them, you won’t be aloof, distant and irrelevant.
7. Never dismiss the importance of this issue. In some circles it is fashionable to abdicate this aspect of preaching with a super-spiritual idea that it is God who makes the message relevant to listeners. You can’t change lives, God does that. But preaching is communication of Biblical truth that is intended to change lives. Fully preach in line with the goal, and fully rely on God to be at work in listeners. It is thoroughly biblical to preach relevantly . . . watch the prophets, Jesus and the apostles. Most of them were spiritual in their approach.