I’m a middle-class lad working and preaching in a housing scheme. I often get asked the following from other middle-class preachers: How do I communicate or preach in a housing scheme? Do I have to change things to preach into a non-literate culture? Do I have to dumb things down? Do I have to shorten my sermons? How does someone prepare a sermon when they are trying to get into the community and spend time with unbelievers too?
Let me start by giving a definition of preaching so that we’re all on the same page: Preaching is the act of heralding the truth of God’s Word. It’s working out what God is saying through His Word and communicating that to His people as His authoritative messenger. Given that definition, we at Niddrie Community Church believe in expositional preaching. This is where we make the main point of the Bible passage the main point of the sermon. Simple as that. We tend to preach through books of the Bible systematically—going verse by verse, passage by passage.
This means that our preaching at Niddrie takes up the main part of the Sunday service. Depending on the text, we preach for about 30–45 minutes. People are sometimes shocked that we preach for this long in a housing scheme but, contrary to popular opinion, our people love it. They listen intently. This is, after all, the one time during the week where we have people—both our congregation and unbelievers from the community—giving us their undivided attention. We want to fill it with God’s Word rather than anything else.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think the problem in poorer areas concerns the length of the sermon, but rather how we handle and communicate God’s Word. With that in mind, here are eight principles for faithful preaching in a housing scheme/estate.
A key principle I’ve learnt about preaching in a housing scheme is to use language that people can understand. That’s the art of good preaching. Sometimes preachers/Bible teachers assume that because someone has dropped out of school, can’t read well, or even is completely illiterate, they therefore can’t take in the great truths of the Bible. But that’s simply not true.
People in housing schemes are not stupid. They just don’t know the language of the Bible, and they’re unfamiliar with the theological language thrown around by many Christians. That doesn’t mean when we come to words like propitiation, justification, glorification, sanctification, or even the Trinity, that we ignore or gloss over them. We use these words, and we must teach people these great truths by defining what they mean.
For example, if I’m preaching on Romans 3, I’ll explain the word justification by saying, “Justification is probably a word we haven’t heard before, but it simply means to be declared righteous in God’s sight.” Once I’ve clearly defined it, I’ll then unpack what it means and why it matters. And when it comes to justification, it’s actually a simple word to illustrate because we can use the imagery of a courtroom, which many in the schemes are familiar with.
The same is true of language that we find in commentaries. The problem with many reformed sermons is that preachers have been ‘living’ in commentaries and theological books all week, and so they start to sound like them. They use really long theological words or sentences that just go over the heads of our people. When preaching, we need to use the language of the people in front of us.
For example, here’s a line from a Stott commentary on Ephesians: “Their influence is pervasive. People tend not to have a mind of their own, but to surrender to the pop-culture of television and the glossy magazines.” A middle-class preacher may understand what this means, and he may even be able to quote it to his congregation. But if you bring something like this on Sunday in a scheme, then you’re going to be talking right past people.
So I’d say something like: “As humans, we think we’re free, but we’re not. Television and social media have a hold over us.” I’ve made the same point, but without the complex language. This applies for all ministry. We should strive to use language that people in our context understand. It’s possible to say things simply without being simplistic. We should simplify, not dumb-down. This is central to any good teaching.
One area that many preachers struggle with in general is illustration. This is due in part to life experience, but also to the fact that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking intentionally about it. But consider how Jesus communicated. He used illustrations and parables to help teach big theological truths. They packed a punch because He used everyday language to illustrate His points. We need to do the same.
Thomas Guthrie said that using illustrations transformed his preaching. He recounts that in his first pastorate he preached his heart out, but found that people would just zone out. But when he used an illustration, his listeners would suddenly tune in. One resource that has helped me in my preaching is a book called Expository Preaching with Word Pictures by Jack Hughes. Hughes helps preachers to develop a culture of thinking through how to illustrate sermons.
The important thing in schemes or council estates is to use imagery that people can relate to. I remember when I first started preaching at Niddrie and I wanted to illustrate grace from Ephesians 2. So, in my middle-class naivety, I told the story from Les Miserables—where the main character Jean Val Jean steals two candlesticks from the priest he is staying with. Jean Val Jean gets arrested, but the priest tells the police that they were a gift to him and that he is free to go.
It’s a nice story, but our guys were like: Les Miserables? What’s that? John Val who? The illustration was completely lost on them. If I had told a story from Eastenders (a popular UK soap), then they might have understood a bit more about what I was trying to communicate. But my cultural naivety led me to use a poor illustration.
This is why it’s so important to take time to understand the culture we’re preaching to. We need to know where people are coming from. We need to ask questions like: What are people watching? What are they reading? What do they fear? What do they laugh at? What are the major influences in their lives? If you’re from a middle-class background and are struggling with illustrations, then spend time with someone from your area and go through your illustrations with them. Ask them if they resonate with them. Ask them if they understand.
At Niddrie, one of the most important meetings we have during the week is ‘sermon feedforward’. This is a time when we go through our sermons with our pastoral/ministry team. In the room are people from both middle-class and working-class backgrounds; we talk through the sermon and give each other feedback.
The problem in this meeting is hardly ever the preacher’s grasp of the text. More often than not, they need to work on their language or their lack of good, contextual illustrations. We help one another think through these things and share ideas to make sure that the sermon hits everyone and that the illustrations are contextualised.
The key to any good sermon is application. This vital part of the sermon takes nuance, wisdom, and understanding of your audience. But good application won’t come apart from spending time with people. Sermon preparation shouldn’t just be the preacher sitting in an office by himself all week. Sermon preparation includes watching the news, pastoral visitation, being out and about in the community, and spending time with non-Christians. It’s in these times that we find out where people are at, what they’re struggling with, and how God’s Word interacts with their lives.
One of the things I’ll do as I prepare to preach is ask the people I meet throughout the week about the topic I’m preaching on. I’ll ask them what they think about it and how they would apply it to their lives. If any key things come up, I’ll type them into my notes. These key conversations help me ‘land the plane’ instead of merely circling around in the sky. Joel Beeke writes: “The preacher of the word must ask: ‘Does my preaching help people to walk closely with God in real life? Or does it simply set up a beautiful world of ideas disconnected from their experiences?’” This may seem obvious, but our preaching needs to connect with people’s real-life experiences.
I’ve heard pastors say: Well, I don’t have time to spend time with people. I have two sermons and a Bible study to prepare. If this is you, then can I humbly suggest that you are doing too much in your week? Perhaps you could give an evening sermon to a young man in the church (a good way to raise up young preachers). Maybe you could turn the mid-week Bible study into a prayer meeting so you’re not stuck in the study so much.
You need to get out into the community you’re serving. There’s no substitute for spending time with people. Here’s the thing: the Lord always blesses me when I prioritise people. He always gives key insights and helps me apply His Word.
4. Black and White
One of the middle-class cultural sensibilities that we bring with us is being polite. The middle-class Christian thinks it’s better to be polite about things than to offend someone. This gets carried into our preaching. However, in housing-scheme culture, people appreciate the truth. They communicate in black and white.
Early on in my time at Niddrie, someone visiting our café asked me if I thought they were going to hell. I was stunned, and I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t used to being asked such a direct question. And I kind of fudged the answer. And then Mez just came in and told the person: “Yes. You are going to hell, unless you repent and trust in Jesus.” To my surprise, the person—far from being offended—was happy to have a straight answer. In housing schemes, we need to communicate like this from the pulpit. We need to put things in black and white terms. It might sound rude to some middle-class people, but it’s the way people communicate in the schemes.
Now, let me be clear, this doesn’t mean you should try and be someone you’re not. I’m not Mez. Mez is not me. We preach differently. We have different personalities. But as I’ve lived and ministered here in Niddrie for the past decade, I have adapted my preaching. I say things straight instead of beating around the bush. In some ways, there is less nuance.
We need to preach the truth as clearly as we can, and we must do it in love. This is something that some middle-class preachers need to learn from our working-class lads. People are rat-bag sinners. They’re going to hell. The only way to be forgiven is through Christ. People need to repent and believe. Preach that.
Humour is a big part of housing-scheme culture. Scheme-people like to laugh. And this, I think, can be incorporated into our sermons. Now, I’m not talking about taking the sermon lightly or getting a cheap laugh to make people like us. I’m not talking about dirty jokes or being irreverent. But, some of the Bible is funny, and we need to bring that out.
Sometimes, humour can help us land a point of application. A laugh can lighten the mood of the room and get people to concentrate on what is being said. Some preachers lack any sense of humour or personality, which makes it hard for people to connect with them. But the Lord speaks through people and their different personalities. If humour can help to amplify a point, then we should use it.
People in authority (police, social workers, politicians, etc.) in the scheme are often looked down upon. They aren’t trusted. The same can be true of a pastor. It’s important, therefore, for the preacher to be transparent, to talk about his struggles and be real—both in the everyday and also in the pulpit.
If you’re stiff laced and unapproachable, then you’re going to struggle to connect with people in the scheme. You’re going to put unnecessary distance between you and them. This doesn’t mean you have to share everything with those you’re ministering to, and neither does it mean that you use the pulpit as a self-pity party. Rather, it means you’re humble and you share your life with people.
One of the biggest struggles for middle-class preachers is preaching narratives. We’re often taught to preach forensically and logically. We outline our three points and top it off with a good Spurgeon quote. This works when preaching an epistle, but it can’t always be replicated when preaching a narrative.
In a narrative passage there’s often one point, and we have to walk through the passage and bring that out. Again, this is important because in the schemes, people tell stories. It’s a narrative culture. So when we preach a narrative, they are going to really pay attention. We need to walk through the story and bring out the main point. But this will be lost if we try to impose three points on the text. We’ll lose the thrust of the story.
We need to listen to men like Mez McConnell and Ian Williamson, as well as other pastors from poorer backgrounds. We should pay close attention to their preaching, seeing how they walk through passages and bring out the main points. We don’t all have to preach like Cornhill graduates, using the same mode and style.
Ian Williamson says that one of the key factors for preaching in a working-class context is passion. Working-class listeners want to feel and hear passion. I think this is true across the board. If the preacher doesn’t believe what he is preaching or hasn’t preached the sermon to his own heart, that will come across in his delivery. We need to feel what we are preaching.
As the puritan Robert Burns writes: “Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied.” We need to be passionate about Jesus. Our preaching concerns matters of life and death, heaven and hell. Our sermons shouldn’t be boring. They should come from hearts and minds that have encountered the living God.
Preaching in a housing scheme isn’t difficult, but it takes a willing preacher to humbly learn how to contextualise his sermons. People from housing schemes and council estates aren’t aliens, but we do need to understand that we middle-class people think differently. We operate from a (largely) different worldview. Therefore, we should seek to adapt our language and illustrations in order to preach God’s Word faithfully in this context.
We want to make much of Jesus. And to do that, we must know the sheep we’re preaching to. God will be glorified as we preach His Word faithfully in housing schemes all over Scotland, and in poor communities around the world.