Every Pastor is a Translator

It was my first extended vacation from the first church I served.

I really didn’t want to take the time off. But, wisely, the men insisted.

With my first Sunday off, I decided to visit Grace Community Church to hear Dr. John MacArthur, Jr. I would often attend the Sunday evening service at Grace. But I had never been there on a Sunday morning.

That morning, Dr. MacArthur was preaching about the family. The conclusions he drew from the scriptures affirmed convictions I already held.

However, for some reason, I became angry as I listened to the message. I felt that Dr. MacArthur, whom I had (have) never met, was being harsh, insensitive, and uncaring.

These feelings startled me. Biblically, he did not say one thing I disagreed with. So why was taking this message the wrong way?

My mind began to drift. Rather than listening, I started looking around.

All of sudden, it seemed that I was surrounded by families. A husband, wife, and children sitting in front of me. Sitting behind me. Sitting on the pew beside me.

I then began to understand what I was feeling.

Dr. MacArthur preached a strong word to challenge the families of his congregation to stay together and be what the Lord orders Christian families to be. I felt he was being insensitive because he was not factoring in the issues represented in my congregation.

But my congregation was not there. His was. And he was doing what he was supposed to do. He was preaching to the congregation the Lord had assigned to him. It was my job to explain the word to congregation and to exhort them to live it out.

John MacArthur was preaching to families that needed to be challenged to stay together. I was preaching to single parents, broken families, and young people who had never met their fathers.

We were both heading for the same destination. But we had to begin at different starting points, considering the different people we shepherded.

That day, as I sat in worship, I learned an important lesson: Every pastor is a translator.

Truth is truth, whether I experience it or not. And we can and should learn from anyone who is teaching the truth.

But all preaching is venue specific. We must interpret, translate, and apply the word for the people the Lord has called us to.

As a result of that experience, I determined to learn everything I could from John MacArthur and his church and then go home and “color” what I was learning to speak directly to my congregation.

This is what every pastor must do, no matter what context in which you minister. Be yourself. Start where you are. Use what you have. Preach with confidence in the sufficiency of the scriptures. And trust God to do what you cannot do.

We do not need to abandon the word of God to meet people where they are. There is no reality our people face that the word of God cannot reach. But we must speak the word to our people where they are, believing that God’s word will never return to him void.

Do you agree? Join the conversations in the comment section. 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • psalms1man

    I believe the Word of God is what changes people and through the Holy Spirit with divine prompting we are able to discern how God wants us to translate his word without compromising the Gospel message.

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  • Phil

    I can accept this only to a certain point, Mr. Charles. I believe that — in so far a human agency plays a role — congregations built as we build them, and preaching is arguably the most influential building block. What you preach is what you will build. As has been observed many times: What you win them *WITH* is what you win them *TO*. Preach moralism, you’ll get moralists. Preach self-help consumer spirituality, you’ll build a church of consumers. Right?

    Likewise, if 99% of your preaching presumes an audience of traditional nuclear families with still-married parents who have kids, then eventually that’s who will come to comprise 99% of your congregation. For everyone else, their perception (not an unfounded one) will be that there’s nothing there for them. But if you preach to marrieds, singles, re-marrieds, divorced, widowed, never-married, blended families, etc., then you’ll reach and attract those people, too. Why? Not consumerism, but because they, too, will be fed from the pulpit. Simply put: your congregation will only be as diverse as your preaching.

    So, rather than assert that MacArthur is tailoring (or “translating”) his message to his congregation, I would contend that decades of preaching to a target audience has in fact attracted that target audience. Everybody else just goes to churches where they talk about everything else.

    I believe homogeneity is a warning sign of a church that, by it’s very make-up, does not express the the diverse “body of Christ” comprised of all peoples of all races, cultures, and life stages.

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  • ofthetruth

    I believe that sound biblical teaching is applicable to all congregations at all times. A sermon about families staying together may not suit a fatherless person at a certain point in their life but if the sermon is biblical and sound, it is something they probably need to hear so that they understand what Gods will for the family is. It gives them sound biblical teaching so that when it comes time for them to have their own family, they have a clear understanding of Gods will for the family. God bless!

  • Mark

    “I felt he was being insensitive because he was [not] factoring [in] the issues represented in my congregation.”

  • Mark

    I think this might be a typo and I only point it out because it seems to be the crux of understanding the post. “I felt he was being insensitive because he was [not] factoring [in] the issues represented in my congregation. Hope it might make it more clear for others who read the post.

    • hbcharlesjr

      Thanks. Corrected.

  • A diligent hearer

    I find this so-called “translation” preaching dangerous, because as listeners we also “translate,” as is evident from this discussion. A pastor may feel the need to address certain sins or issues in the congregation, but I’ve heard sermons where I felt the pastor’s remarks or specific application to his congregation were way off the mark. Or he seemed to single out specific people, and I became angry, as pastor Charles did. A pastor is not omniscient. He has to be very careful when “translating” in a sermon. Above all, when a minister does feel the need to do so, it should be done with a pastoral heart, as the apostle Paul does in his epistles to the churches. It is better to let the Lord speak His Word through the pastor and pray that the Holy Spirit will do the convicting by applying the Word individually to each hearer.

    • hbcharlesjr

      Good thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bibchr Dan Phillips

    If I’m understanding you, that’s real “contextualization” you’re talking about: one unchanging message, varying targets/receptors.

    • hbcharlesjr

      Yes sir.

    • Angela

      Like Paul being all things to all people, so that, by God’s grace, he might win some. Makes sense to me.

  • whoopless

    What you experienced is one of the reasons I have difficulty with the whole idea of posting messages on line.

    This statement is classic:
    “But all preaching is venue specific. We must interpret, translate, and apply the word for the people the Lord has called us to”.

    It makes my Lloyd Jones start to acting up.

    • hbcharlesjr

      Good thought, Whoopless.

      However, I do not think posting a sermon is a bad thing. I can be treated as a commentary, mined for what may be helpful in your own preparation.

    • http://paulwilkinson.wordpress.com/ Paul Wilkinson

      Interesting point. Originally, only the larger churches embraced the technology to post sermons and they were speaking to a somewhat broader audience, but now it is de rigeur in each and every assembly. You wouldn’t have a heart-to-heart talk with one of your children and then post it, would you? Perhaps churches should pick and choose what goes out online.

  • EL Smith

    Does this apply to the member who sits there week after week hearing a moral message about what to do or not to do. A moral inner city weekly self-righteous check & by the way Jesus is your only hope.

    I guess that helps most but in my opinion no depth of Scripture.
    What does this pew member do?

    • hbcharlesjr

      I am not sure what you are referring to, E.L.

      I am simply making the point that your preaching should speak to the condition of your own congregation.

      I would not endorse the promotion of self-righteousness in any way.

  • C.J. Lubin

    Amen Brother!