A good sermon should not be afraid to tackle tough issues
A Methodist pastor reflects that sermons should confront dangerous social topics, but warns against controversy for its own sake.
Of all John Wesley’s memorable lines, my favorite is from his April 2, 1739 journal entry, about having preached for the first time outside the confines of the pulpit:
“At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…”
Wesley’s decision to take his preaching on the road has reminded me more than once that preaching is ultimately a missional task. This is an easy thing to forget, sheltered as we are by a denominational institution and listeners who come to worship not necessarily expecting God to show up. Wesley’s decision reminds me that preaching is always the declaration of news, and so it fulfills its primary function best when it speaks a surprising word to unsuspecting hearers. Unfortunately for introverts like me, who do not like conflict, this means rethinking both the way we preach and what we cover in our sermons.
In the last four years, I have submitted to be more vile—not only preaching sermon series outside the lectionary, but tackling things I never heard in church. I now begin my sermon preparation in the world my listeners inhabit. And to keep myself from too easily preaching what folks want to hear, or remaining in my own canon of beloved Scripture, I have peppered my preaching calendar with things I don’t want to talk about: Sex. Violence. Politics. Money.
Our congregation is not some hip church plant, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, nor do I wear “product” in my hair. We are a 120-year-old charge, having started our ministry when this town was a mining village, not a busy suburb. We have many older adults in our congregation (who would rather sing out of the Cokesbury hymnal), and we are in the middle of the reddest county in one of the reddest states in the union. In short, we have as little business being “edgy” as any church in the connection.
But the lovely thing about the age in which we live is that the unchurched expect nothing from us. It is much easier to surprise them than it used to be. Like every other church in this country, we have one of those marquees in front of the church. A few weeks into my appointment here, I decided that the sign needed to be a conversation with the unchurched. As I asked myself what would grab their attention on the sign, I became convicted about what they needed to hear from the pulpit. A catchy sign outside needed to be backed up by a relevant word inside. So here is what I have learned.
1. Let Scripture speak.
Like all faithful preaching, missional preaching must be grounded in Scripture, and for me, that means often ignoring the lectionary. I recognize that abandoning the lectionary for a sermon series can be a painful process for many (it was for me), something like a proper Anglican spouting homilies among the hay. The lectionary, at its best, pushes us to address Scripture in the broadest sense. At its worst, however, it is a fence that keeps us safe from difficult texts.
I’ve come to realize that, many times, the lectionary keeps us out of Scripture’s bad neighborhoods and assumes that the Sunday listeners are reading the rest of the Bible on their own. In sterilizing the most violent and passionate scenes in the Bible, the lectionary leaves its scripturally illiterate listeners thinking the Bible is mostly a docile collection of spiritual reflections. There are exceptions to this, of course, but as I found when I did a recent series on the book of Judges (pairing each of the judges with increasingly flawed modern comic book heroes), the lectionary only gives us one lesson from that profound set of stories, and it is an uncharacteristic one, whitewashed of Judges’ bloody gore.
But preaching sermon series, especially controversial ones, is never an excuse to ignore Scripture. We must remember that we are modeling the theological task for our hearers as we preach. They are not only hearing our answers, they are paying attention to the way we approach the questions. Wesley stepped out of the pulpit, but he took God’s story with him. For his homiletical descendants, Scripture is never seasoning for the sermon—it is the main course, regardless of whether or not we begin in the lectionary.
2. Don’t preach controversial subjects for controversy’s sake.
Tackling tough subject material alone is not enough to reclaim the missional nature of the preaching task. The story of John Wesley is instructive again, reminding us that, while Wesley took several risks in his ministry, those decisions were never made for shock value. Preachers who choose to preach on controversial topics believing that controversy will cover up a weak sermon will be disappointed, as will those who have to suffer through their preaching.
Source: Ministry Matters
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