Several years ago, our teaching team sought feedback about our preaching. The overwhelming response from our people was, "We want deeper messages." The trouble was they differed widely on what "deeper" meant. Further analysis showed that "deeper" meant at least five different things. We began thinking through how we could deepen each of these areas. This revolutionized the way we plan series and develop messages.
No matter how thoughtful, passionate, or persuasive our messages may be, they are only as powerful as our ability to connect the hearer to the heart of Scripture. Developing biblical depth involves processing the richness of the original context, leading people through nuances of the text and helping them connect the passage to other parts of Scripture.
While people aren't particularly interested in the conjugation of Greek and Hebrew verbs and the opinions of commentators, they do value exploring the world of the biblical writers and connecting the broader themes found in Scripture.
We recently preached a series called Kings, using a Discovery Channel approach to understanding the kings of Israel and Judah. We handed our people an oversized playing card that contained the name of each king, placed on a timeline, with pertinent information and a simple visual reference to the trajectory of their spiritual life (i.e., a spade represented a king that turned away from God). This made biblical history both understandable and fun.
My tendency is to focus on what a passage means and then move quickly to application. I easily neglect the "why" questions—Why is this important to God? Why do we struggle with this? Intellectual depth means reflecting on the main idea of a message, thinking through the questions raised by the text.
Last fall we spent several weeks exploring what Philippians says about joy. We asked: Why is joy so rare these days? Why do Christians battle against depression and anxiety? Why do Christians, who believe that joy comes from God, often choose to look for it in other places? Exploring what lies behind our struggles transformed this series from a pep talk into a voyage of discovery.
Strong preaching not only comments on what God had to say long ago but also invites him to speak in the moment. People need to experience God. This experiential depth can be achieved in a time of reflection, a moment of prayer, or an activity designed to draw people into the immediate presence of God.
We have a Good Friday tradition that does this. As part of our service, everyone reflects on and writes down specific ways we have failed God over the previous year. After processing the list with God and asking his forgiveness, everyone carries it to a wooden cross and drives a nail through these sins, connecting each of us personally to Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. It is a transcendent, sacred moment in which we deeply experience the gospel.
Cultural depth provides insight into current cultural issues. Too often Christians have a knee-jerk reaction to culture—either embracing it uncritically or rejecting it without taking the time to understand it. Thinking through our time and place in history is an essential part of contextualizing the message of Christ.
Last fall for our series Lost in Suburbia, we understood that though most suburbanites live in close proximity to one another, we are relationally isolated. We are all alone—together. We explored this phenomenon and how it connects to Jesus' teachings about relationships and community.