In seminary, I was given two contradictory bits of advice regarding sermons:
- Your job is to proclaim. If they don’t listen to you, tell them again. If they don’t listen, tell them again. And again.
- A little heresy is better than boring your congregation.
If we take the first admonition seriously, we’re going to violate #2. If we take the second admonition seriously, we’re going to violate #1.
My inclination is to take both admonitions with a large grain of salt. No, our job is not to entertain; and yet effective communication requires taking the audience into account. Effective preaching requires learning to negotiate the perilous waters between those two strategies.
Behind this dilemma lies a deeper question: how much should we be influenced by the reaction of listeners to what we proclaim? What sort of response do we expect or desire from those who hear the sermon?
Are we aiming for 100% agreement with what we say? Because we are proclaiming the unalterable Word of God, do we expect that? Are those who do not concur with what we say part of the “if they don’t listen” crowd?
Is there room for disagreement with some of my proclamation? Or should my sermons be the basic, standard boilerplate speech that most people have heard before so as to prevent against any possibility of valid disagreement? If so, can we really expect people to listen to it?
I recently gave a sermon on blessings that provoked responses that went way beyond the polite, “nice sermon, pastor.” People were talking about it, even debating it. One couple told me that they discussed it at home, with one of them agreeing with what I said and the other disagreeing. Some told me stories of how they had secretly thought along the lines of what I was saying but had thought they weren’t supposed to think that. They found that incredibly freeing.
Did I speak heresy in my sermon? There appear to be some who thought so, although we’re less inclined these days to rush to extreme reactions by crying heresy. Did I spark some division in the congregation? To some extent, yes.
So why does it feel as though that sermon finally accomplished what I’ve been trying for years to get a sermon to do?
For me, the answer goes back to Martin Luther’s synopsis of the two polar opposite tasks of a sermon: comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
If we can accomplish these two things while speaking the truth, we will have done exactly what the proclamation of the Gospel is supposed to accomplish.
The reality is we don’t often get pats on the back from people we afflict, nor will we get unanimous agreement from them with what we say. If everyone “likes” the sermon then it didn’t do much afflicting, did it?
At the same time, comforting the afflicted often means telling them something they are not hearing anywhere else, not from their friends, society in general, or even religious experts. They may have heard sermons or read books or gotten lectured by church-goers and never heard the truth in a way that comforts them or even makes sense.
Our job as preachers is to tell the truth, that God loves us, and the best evidence of that is the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This will require afflicting the comfortable even if the comfortable are wildly popular and well-loved religious figures. It will require comforting the afflicted even if this means fighting against a powerful present-day religious current of narrowness, intolerance, and judgmentalism.
We’re not looking for agreement or admiration or approval of our words; we are looking to change lives with the truth as God has given us to see it. If we hold that in mind, that should give us the courage to be bold in proclaiming the message God has put into our hearts.