Preaching Articles

In seminary, I was given two contradictory bits of advice regarding sermons:

  1. 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.
  2. Stirring up a little trouble 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, it is not our job 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 percent 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, I suppose I did.

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 been lectured by churchgoers and never heard the truth in a way that comforts them or even makes sense.

Our job as preachers is to tell the truth: 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.

Nathan Aaseng serves as pastor at St. John's Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, WI. He has had more than 170 books published, sacred and secular, for readers from 8 to adult. His latest work is The Five Realms, an epic fantasy based on 1 Corinthians 1:27.

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Pastor Herbert W. Roshell

commented on Apr 20, 2015

I really enjoyed this post. It was to the point and we'll said. To many times we get lost in their faces. This is what Paul was addressing with Timothy. Love this one. ,

Jerry Burns

commented on Apr 20, 2015

I guess my gray hair lets me say things that a younger man may not be able to. When I accepted the Pastorate, I made a promise to always tell the truth. I have kept that promise by always telling the truth in a loving spirit, even when it is painful. Our people appreciate that. They know that I live for an audience of ONE. They know that I would rather have one of the Saints mad at me than having GOD upset with me! Good article Nathan!

Lawrence Webb

commented on Apr 20, 2015

If "they" are providing you and your family a living, there's the real question of how far to go with some biblical concerns. I recall a Bible professor in the long ago telling an all-male class, "Boys, you can shear the sheep every year, but you can only skin 'em once!" Someone else has said, if you keep your pastoral ministry going with sickness, bereavement, and other life crises, and they know you love them, you can say 'most anything you feel needs to be said.

E L Zacharias

commented on Apr 21, 2019

Lawrence, I agree that when a loving pastor is alongside his flock in their sickness, bereavement, and life crises that they, in turn, will hear the pastor's concerns, exhortations, and rebukes. On the other hand, I disagree with your premise that we tune down the message because "they are providing your family a living." Pastors are called "self-employed" for a reason: they are ministers that receive income from the assembly but are INDEPENDENT because they speak for the Lord. Pastors never fleece the sheep nor skin them; they nurture them with the Word and lead them through life to heaven. Anything less is prostitution and enforces every evil stereotype of the bubba brethren.

Ronald Johnson

commented on Apr 20, 2015

My experience has been that you can say whatever you believe needs to be said as long as you love the people. Sometimes the people need a message the affirms what they already believe and know and do. You can find some of that in the Epistles, when the author's tell the churches, "Here's what you're doing right." Sometimes that people need to be confronted with what they are doing wrong, or failing to do. You can find some of that in the Epistles as well. In either case, if you do not love the people, you need to work on that first. Preach bland until you love the people. If you cannot love the people, it's time to move on.

Jonathan Hughes

commented on Apr 20, 2015

When people say evil words or do evil acts to Homosexuals or interspecies people they break love works no ill to your neighbour effectively burning the whole KJV cambridge edition bible. People do that soooo easily.

Mike Spencer

commented on Apr 22, 2015

Interspecies people!?

John Pistorius

commented on Apr 20, 2015

The article sounded great. However, I was puzzled by the reference to fighting the "powerful present-day religious current of narrowness, intolerance and judgmentalism." Where is that relevant to the article and what is Nathan referring to there?

E L Zacharias

commented on Apr 21, 2019

(See below)

David Posey

commented on Apr 25, 2015

So what was your "heretical" statement about "blessings" that got people talking?

Mark Ampofo

commented on Apr 21, 2019

Great one there

E L Zacharias

commented on Apr 21, 2019

John, as Nathan is a prophet for the ELCA, it might mean that he is ready to afflict those who are biblical and comfort those who are not. Preach the blessing of rainbows and unicorns and you are okay; preach against homosexuality and interspecies * and you are judgmental, narrow-minded**, and intolerant. [[ Key: * illegal aliens **Matthew 7:13-14 ]]

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