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5 Keys to Preaching a Hard Message

I recently concluded a sermon series called “TEN.” It was a look at the Ten Commandments from the vantage point of the Gospel. As each week passed, people began to anticipate how I would handle the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery.”

I must admit there was some trepidation on my part because I love the people God has entrusted to my care and never want to hurt them. In fact, the Moses part of my message really wasn’t that difficult to handle, but the Jesus stuff is a sticky wicket to say the least. (You know, the lust in your heart, pluck your eye, cut off your hand, divorce makes adulterers of everyone stuff.)

I serve a congregation that has grown from 200 to 2,000 in 17 years primarily by reaching the formerly unchurched. A lot of these folks have very messy lives and I truly want to “do no harm” but thought it might seem conspicuous if I skipped an entire commandment (thus requiring me to change the name of the series to “NINE”). 

Here are some thoughts on how to preach the hard stuff:

1. Address the subject thoughtfully.

This is not the time to get all foamy at the mouth, highly emotional and what-not. Tough issues normally drum up plenty of emotion on their own; nervous people don’t need us adding to the energy overload.

2. Address the subject scripturally.

Good preaching drills down to the intent of the author and puts the material in its cultural and historical context. The idea is not to allow the text to support your position; the idea is to convey the position of the author and apply it clearly to our time.

3. Address the subject with good humor.

Providing some emotional release here and there in your message will be most welcomed by the listeners. 

When I assured everyone there would not be an altar call for “everyone who has committed adultery and feels lousy about it,” there was a lot of nervous laughter. I freed them to hang in there with me.

4. Remember the Gospel is good news.

Gospel preaching is always redemptive in nature. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, he came to save it. Always ask, “What is the good news I am bringing today?”

5. Offer a positive response time.

I asked married couples to come forward to recommit to God and to one another and seal it in prayer. Response was great.

Good preachers don’t go looking for difficult texts, but they don’t back down from them either. The relationship between a preaching pastor and a congregation is one of deep trust. Leading your congregation with steady hands through the “hard stuff” will deepen this trust and make everything else we preach more effective.