Preaching the Truth to Secular and Religiously Diverse Audiences
By Seth Zielicke
“Thank you so much! I felt your message was just for me.” This, and many other overwhelmingly positive responses, was not what I expected to hear after preaching a message about Jesus to a crowd of several hundred Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, Atheists, Catholics, and Protestants. For months afterward, I received e-mails and phone calls from those conference attendees, asking for prayer, salvation, and guidance.
This journey began several months prior to this conference when one of my business coaches told me about his annual business retreat scheduled for August, 2007, at a 5-star resort in Palm Desert, California. The previous three pastors he asked turned him down. Out of desperation he asked me if I could do him a favor and speak a message that would apply to people of all faiths, or no faith at all, during his Sunday morning worship service.
At first, I expressed some hesitation because I consider it not only an honor, but also a high calling to faithfully preach about Jesus, who is the Truth. As I prayed about this message, though, I sensed the Holy Spirit telling me He would rather have me preach than someone who doesn’t know Him at all. (I didn’t know if that response was meant to encourage me, or to humbly put me in my place!)
During the summer of 2007, I had been studying the life of Joseph and Daniel — two of history’s greatest dream interpreters — because God had been speaking to me every night in dreams. I sensed that at the retreat the Lord wanted me to speak about dream interpretation from the life of Joseph. I humbly asked for confirmation because I knew this was an extremely important message. It humbled me to think some of those people would never step foot into a church. I also knew I needed to be respectful to my host and preach a message that would apply to a diverse group of people, and, as he requested, have an application that didn’t involve an altar call.
Over the course of several days, I kept seeing New Age books and hearing psychics talking about dream interpretation. One day I was going into a coffee shop. On the dashboard of the car parked next to me was a book in Spanish that was titled, “Your Dreams and the Relevance They Have to Your Life.”
I took this as a confirmation from the Holy Spirit, because I knew dreams play a vital role in the spiritual lives of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people in the New Age. I also knew Jesus still appears to people in their dreams. One lady, who had never heard the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, said, “I had this dream where I was standing by this well, and this man, dressed in a robe, came up to me and started talking to me. What does it mean?” Normally I don’t have to pray for very long to interpret dreams like that!
This journey of learning how to proclaim the truth to secular and religiously diverse audiences began when I was a student at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. I would go to various public places and engage people in non-threatening spiritual discussions so I could better communicate the truth about Jesus. Over a period of 5 years, those spiritual discussions — and a lot of street evangelism —helped me develop three distinct principles that have aided my preaching.
First, I have had to learn what a witness is. In a court of law, a witness isn’t the judge, or the prosecuting attorney. Rather, God is the Judge, Jesus is the Mediator (or defense attorney if you’re a Christian), the Holy Spirit is the Jury because one of His roles is to call and convict people, and Satan is the “accuser” or prosecutor.
Witnesses testify. When I’m around men and women of God who are known for the having the presence of the Holy Spirit in their ministries, I notice how often they are sharing testimonies. Often, they can’t stop testifying about what God is doing.
Likewise, when I preach to an audience with secular or religiously diverse people, I remember that I am a witness who testifies. Yes, there are times when the Holy Spirit may lead you to more forcibly talk about the consequences of an eternity without Christ. But generally speaking, I have found common ground in the fact many people from diverse spiritual backgrounds enjoy discussions that involve spiritual experiences and seeking the truth.
I am often humbled when I think about the fact I could be one of those people in the audience. So many New Age people I meet are sincerely trying to serve God and honor Him with their spiritual journey. So, rather than viewing them as my enemies, I tend to view them as my friends because we both have a common enemy — Satan.
Second, when I’m preaching to secular and religiously diverse people, I tend to view us as seekers of the Truth. I have learned a lot about God from other faiths, but I have learned more about God from Jesus, who is The Truth. For Christians, “truth” is not just a propositional statement such as, “The sky is blue.” No, Truth is a person, and His name is Jesus.
Paul did this in an uncompromising way in Acts 17:16-34. Day after day, he reasoned in the synagogue. He and the religious leaders dialogued back and forth about spiritual matters. This dialogue must have been mutually respectful, or he would have been asked to leave. But Paul had an urgency — he knew he had the truth, and he was “greatly distressed” (verse 16) because they were worshipping idols.
Many people become interested in what I have to say when I start sharing my spiritual journey and my pursuit of truth. I am surprised at how many people consider themselves “seekers” of the truth — they just don’t know the Truth is Jesus. Thus, when I’m preaching, or dialoging with people, I am sincerely interested in the revelations they have about God, and, in turn, many of them are interested in the revelations I’ve received.
We often find common ground when we view ourselves as coming alongside an unbeliever rather than opposing them and their lifestyle. People have repeatedly told me how they don’t want to be another notch on some Christian’s belt. One person said it so succinctly when he said, “Christians just want me to receive Christ so they can feel good about having another convert, but they always abandon me then, and they no longer show interest.”
In the Gospels, sinners loved sharing Jesus’ personal space. And Jesus was a friend to sinners, while not becoming like them. So often, people perceive that Christians are holier-than-thou, or judgmental. When secular people — or people of other faiths — hear about Christians, they often don’t think, “Oh yea, those are the people with all the love.”
But when I consider that we are all seekers of the Truth, it makes me want to love people who haven’t received the grace I have. But more important, people can feel I have a respect for them, and I genuinely love them. No matter how good my preaching is, people today can spot a phony a mile away. It is hard to convince people I’m a seeker of the truth when I’m closed to every idea that doesn’t fit into my theological box. And people can feel those intangibles. One of Jesus’ secrets to evangelism and discipleship was His genuine care and concern for people who were seeking the Truth.
Third, I have found that when I’m preaching to secular and religiously diverse people, the power of the Holy Spirit is essential. Christianity loses its credibility if I can’t offer what the psychic, witch, or Muslim cleric can offer. One reason people should chose Christ over other religions is the fact only Jesus can solve our sin problem. Only Jesus can solve our love problem. One of often overlooked parts of the Holy Spirit is His fruit — what other religion can fill us with the love, peace, and joy that the Holy Spirit can?
In Colossians 2:15, Paul wrote, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” In other religions, the only way to get someone free is to have a more powerful spirit come in and get rid of the person’s existing demon. The problem with that is the person ultimately becomes more in bondage — to a more powerful demon. But Jesus has triumphed over every principality and power, which means that it is only through Jesus people can find healing and deliverance.
I grew up Pentecostal, but it has taken me many years to completely agree with the fact Jesus does have complete power and authority. All I need to do is be a conduit through which His love and power can flow. The hardest part for me was my spirit of unbelief whereby I doubted if Jesus would really transform someone’s life the way the Bible says He will. Coming into agreement with that truth and accepting that the Holy Spirit’s power resides within me was the spiritual lesson that took me longest to learn — and I’m still learning it.
I find solace in the fact our society looks very much like the ancient world we see in the Book of Acts. When I read of secularism and religious diversity in Acts, I have often speculated that even 2,000 years ago, God was preparing the Church for the end time harvest. God knew that in the end times, there would be unprecedented spiritual diversity, and He knew we would need a blueprint for how to address it.
In the message I preached at this retreat, I simply shared my spiritual journey (witnessed), I respected and acknowledged the audience as fellow seekers of the truth, and I left the door open for Jesus to speak to them in their dreams (which involves the power of the Spirit).
In some ways, preaching is always a moving target. One day the Holy Spirit will have us confront sin, and the next we might be talking about how Jesus loves sinners. But I have learned that when I testify, respect people as fellow seekers of truth, and allow the Holy Spirit to demonstrate God’s power, people can feel the truth, and I am able to offer what no other religion can — Jesus’ love, power to forgive sin, and His power.
Seth Zielicke, Los Angeles, California.