Preaching that Understands the World

January 30, 2007

John Stott famously claimed that preachers should study for sermons with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. His point was that good preachers are not only adept in their “Word study” but also in their understanding of the world around them. In today’s Classic Materials, Don Carson offers some practical pointers towards this latter aim.

1. Most preachers ought to devote more time to reading, to reading widely. It is never right to skimp in Bible study, theology, church history, or excellent biography; but in addition, we must read books and journals and news magazines that help us understand our own age and culture.

Without here taking time to provide my own list, perhaps I may mention several principles that govern my own reading (outside of Scripture, commentaries, theology etc).

First, I try to read material from competing perspectives. I may subscribe for two or three years to the left-of-centre New York Review of Books and Sojourners, and then cancel the subscriptions and subscribe for a while to right-of-centre Chronicles.

Secondly, certain authors I regularly skim: Os Guinness, George Marsden, Thomas Sowell, James Davidson Hunter, Paul Berger, and others – not because I agree with all they say, but because they are trying to understand the culture.

Thirdly, ocassionally I read ‘blockbuster’ books, simply because so many people are reading them that I think I must find out what is shaping the minds of many fellow citizens.

Fourthly, ocassionally I devote a block of time – six months, say, or a year – to try to get inside some new movement. For instance, I devoted a considerable block to reading the primary authors in the various schools of deconstruction.

Fifthly, I have sometimes subscribed for a period of time to a first-class literary journal such as Granta. Sixthly, I ocassionally subscribe to reports from reputable pollsters, to discover drifts and trends in the nations – Gallup, Yankelovich, and others.

Not everyone reads at the same rate; not everyone’s ministry requires the same extent of reading. Some manage far more than I. At no time should such reading ever squeeze out the primary importance of understanding the word of God. But selective rapid reading of many sources can help preachers better understand the world in which they serve.

2. Discussion with friends and colleagues with similar interests isa great help. This may be formal, for instance an agreed eveningonce a month to discuss book X or film Y in the light of Christian commitments; it may be informal, depending, of course, on the structures and friendships of one’s life. No-one understands everything; thoughtful, widely read and devout friends are to be cherished and nourished.

3. Nowadays there are some good tapes. I sometimes drive substantial distances, but never without tapes. The Mars Hill Tapes offer good value for money. In addition, many ministries today are recorded, and preachers do well to listen to other preachers who are particularly gifted in the handling of the Word and in applying it to life.

4. It is essential to talk with non-Christians, whether one on one, in small groups, or in large crowds. There is no more important avenue towards understanding our world.

The above exerpt is from the book “When God’s Voice is Heard.”



  1. Thanks for another beefy post, Colin. Are you sure that was Stott about the bible and newspaper? I associate it with Spurgeon, though maybe many people have said it!

    Seredipitously, I was just reading Keller on preaching to the postmodern city in the last day or so. He has a bit that resonates strongly (underneath bullet point: “Ground teaching in cultural references and authorities your listeners trust”) with the passage you cited from Carson.

    Shalom! David Reimer

  2. Great stuff from Carson (as usual).

    I always thought that Bible & newspaper quote came from Barth!

    -Matt Mitchell

  3. I think that’s a good point that many Christians miss today. Francis Schaeffer said we should start at where the person is befor ministering to them. How do we expect to have any way of them caring about what we have to say if we are detached from the world? Very nice point.


  4. David, I think you’re right – many people have probably made this point (though I got it from Stott)!

  5. A very good reminder from Stott. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Great insight! Unfortunately, there is a puritanical (in the worst sense of the word) movement within the larger body that will label this approach “postmodern” and reeking of “moral relativism.”

    If scripture was ever relevant beyond the days when it was first penned (even the Gospels were after-the-fact recountings), then it was because God inspired people to translate the words and ideas in a culturally relevant way. The biggest risk, from my view, for most churches (not for the body as a whole), is that we are becoming culturally irrelevant.

    We have… maybe 5 or 10 years to figure out how to change that. If we keep doing the same things, and expect the world to conform to our present-day interpretation of “the church,” God will simply move on. Our days of attempting to “broker God” are numbered. – Tim

  7. I pretty much do what you recommend, but one of my favorite preachers is Smith Wigglesworth who did the opposite and it worked well for him. He was illiterate until his wife taught him how to read from the Bible. It was the only book he ever read his whole life.

    Lester Sumrall, who passed on a few years ago, said that when he first met Wigglesworth, he was not allowed to enter his house unless he left his newspaper outside. A bit extreme for sure but many people were saved and healed under his ministry.

    Someone advised me years ago to spend two hours before the Lord for every hour I spend ministering to people. That seems to work quite well.

    You have an excellent blog. Thanks for making all this material available.

  8. While I agree with reading materials that one will probably disagree with, I think it is better to put more empbasis on better literature than popular literature. Most, but not all, news magazines and popular books are written at a 7th grade reading level. Reading classics, ancient or modern, gives preachers a better command of thelanguage and I think makes them more effective preachers.

    Culture or not, some themes and problems are eternal and ubiquitous.

  9. Neat points for relative preaching! I try to stay up to date here on my campus so when I do preach back home it’s like I know whats happening in the real world.

  10. On the “bible/newspaper” connection (you set a hare running!): I turned up attributions to C.H. Spurgeon, D.L. Moody, John Stott, Billy Graham, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Reinhold Niebuhr. But of course, pride of place goes to Karl Barth (as Matt noted above!).

    In Stott’s I Believe in Preaching, in the chapter on “Preaching as Bridge Building” (on p. 149, and the point of the Carson extract!), Stott cites … Karl Barth as the source for this quote, and links it to Spurgeon’s “little shilling book”. 🙂


  11. Helpful stuff. Thanks.

  12. Gentlemen:
    Great stuff indeed…..however, the mystery remains:
    the quote attributed to Barth (by many if not all) is NOT found in any of Barth’s work………no one can cite the reference. Only others citing Barth can be cited….hummmmm
    Lastly: I leave this to ponder(ment):

    “A Bible and a newspaper in every house,
    a good school in every district –
    all studied and appreciated as they merit –
    are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” *Benjamin franklin 1778)….

    Excellent concept, but as Professional Clergy perhaps we should know the exact citation….

    Great peace….

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