Something I noticed in my own preaching years ago was my tendency to argue through the sermon. What I mean is, I would write the sermon in such a way that instead of making a point, I would win a point, at least in my mind. It’s a small distinction, but an important one. To make a point is to search the text for its meaning and message, and to share how those things are always an invitation to know the grace and mercy of God. To win a point is to search the text for its meaning and message, but to do so with an eye for what’s bothering you about the world, about your church, about someone who’s bothering you, and to use the text as a way to argue against those things.
It’s tricky, I know, because there are times when direction should be given for everyday life, because the Scriptures are filled with pathways for us to consider, not to forget how the role of the pastor (by its own definition) is to shepherd people towards the unfolding of God’s ways in their lives. My concern is how we do that, not whether we should. There is a real tendency towards the sermon as an argument against something instead of it being for something, and this reflection is about that.
Another thing to consider is how our current cultural climate is one of argument and conflict, especially around social and political issues. These two things can be key drivers of the depressing back-and-forth on social media, the yelling that happens on news channels, and of course the hellscape of almost any comments section. (Bill Maher said that Twitter goes from “Zero to Homicide” real fast.) Even the phrase “A Friendly Reminder” can be unsettling, because what follows is normally some sort of push against something, or someone. It’s a passive way of arguing, of making a point, and its main feature is the posture of moral rightness. And the way so many commentators freely claim that we are “more divided than ever before” says something about how we’re perceiving the state of communal affairs, even if it is hyperbole.
If what’s happening in the world concerns the pastor – and there are plenty of things that should concern the pastor – it can be tempting (and quite easy) to turn the dial on the sermon so that it aims back at the world in a way that it, too, becomes just another voice in the arguments that are all around us. And I’m not convinced it works. The church in America has lost its place as a trusted voice in the public square. I’m not a historian of American Christianity, but from nearly 30 years of pastoral work I can say that in no small part this has been because of the church’s tendency towards social control. It’s fixation on monitoring and changing peoples’ behaviors has hollowed out its message of grace and mercy, and has, in many places, rendered its work ineffective and unattractive. To many, we are inaudible.
Perhaps what’s best for the church right now is to be a place where this sort of tension is not present, or even allowed. I like to think about the Sunday morning service as a time that is much different than the world we’re living in during the week, a kind of alternative moment for our people that isn’t marked by the need to win or to be right, but by its counter-cultural ideals that are only present in the Gospel, and in the Gospel-oriented community, a “colony of heaven in the country of death”, as Eugene Peterson once said.
Say what the text needs you to say, but do so with gentleness. Don’t allow the sermon to be another side people have to choose from; instead, render a compelling picture of what it is to come. Church is practice. We are practicing heaven on earth. Approach the sermon with that in mind and see what happens.
Grace and peace,