Let’s think about preaching for life change. One of the great temptations is this idea of seeking to be known as a great preacher, more than seeking to make our great God known. It leads to what I call the Mars Hill problem. You might be thinking, what’s the Mars Hill problem? Many of us, when we were taught how to teach the word of God, were pointed to the Mars Hill experience that the apostle Paul has in Acts 17. I had some classes on preaching and they had us turn to this passage and look very carefully at it and noted all the great things that the apostle Paul did to connect with the culture. How he brought in contemporary philosophers of that day, how he communicated with their culture and all the various gods and idols they had, and how he made this incredibly wise and smooth connection to the one and true great God.
A number of years later, I was reading through that passage and connecting it to Paul’s missionary journeys and his letters to the churches afterwards. I saw something that I’ve never seen before and it pretty radically changed my approach to preaching. When we look at Mars Hill and use that as our model, sometimes creativity and innovation can become the major things that we’re seeking to tie into, rather than just the clarity of the word of God. What actually happens when you read the end of his Mars Hill message, you find a couple of things.
First of all, you find out that very few people responded. Yes, that was a clever message, yes, he did a great job, but very few people responded. As we’ve already seen, that’s not always our fault. That can be hardened ground. What really blew me away as I studied the book of Acts, was what happened next. We’re told in that passage, as you move on to Acts 18, that he went onto Corinth as his next destination. I looked at his letter to the Corinthians to see if there was any indication about how things went in Athens and Mars Hill, not from our viewpoint, but from Paul’s. Here’s what I found.
I found that when he writes about the trip, he has a very different mindset. In 1 Corinthians chapter 2 Paul says, “As so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you…”
(Right after Athens, right after Mars Hill.) “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved…” (He had made up his mind. He had made a change after this Mars Hill experience.) “…to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, and with great fear, and trembling…” (Because he had a pretty miserable response in Athens and at Mars Hill.) “…and my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with the demonstration of the spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
It’s pretty amazing when you step back and ask the question, how did the apostle Paul view all of his cleverness, all of his creativity? We find out he didn’t quite view it the same way we do. Something to think about as you try to figure out along with me how do we preach for real life change.
Larry Osborne is a pastor at North Coast Church in Vista, CA. Larry has a passion for leadership, spiritual formation, and discipleship. Larry’s leadership books include: Lead Like A Shepherd, Sticky Church, Sticky Teams, Sticky Leaders, Mission Creep, and The Unity Factor. For more resources visit larryosbornelive.com.