Summary: Preach a sermon that attacks evil or heresy
Learn how to preach a sermon that attacks an evil or other inadequacy.
Stephen the martyr's sermon was a fight. It was an attack on stubborn and disobedient religion that resists the Holy Spirit. It cost him his life.
We are going to examine the sermon of Stephen the martyr and see what we can learn from it as an example of a fight, an attack sermon. We will also briefly discuss other methods of attack and give an example.
Choosing a Subject
There are many subjects that deserve a proper response of anger today, such as the holocaust suffered by defenseless unborn children, the lax attitude that Søren Kirkegaard noticed among churches of his day and still exists in our time, religion that emphasizes form yet denies the power of God, and a host of other issues. Righteous anger is without sin, and is an attribute of God himself.
If you are a relatively young or inexperienced preacher, stick with a topic that your audience can easily be righteously angry about as well. Only if you are a very brave and seasoned preacher could you dare tackle a topic that chastises the hearers directly. One way to present such a blunt and potentially offensive topic, however, is to use inclusive "us/we" terminology, that lets the audience know that, "We'd better listen to God, because we're in this sin together."
Begin with Common Ground (Acts 7:1-38)
Notice Stephen's wisdom in beginning with common ground. I don't know if he knew ahead of time that his attack would result in martyrdom, and I don't wish to evaluate the wisdom of the timing of his attack. However, his beginning with common ground was very wise. When we are going to say something that we know people will disagree with or be offended by, it is good at least to start on the right foot, so they will at least listen.
Have you ever noticed how a lion will stalk its prey for a long time before beginning the final attack? Jesus is sometimes described as like a lion. Notice too, the length of time Stephen used to build common ground. He did not just say a few words, but spent most of his entire message building a bridge to his audience. This too is important, especially when we know, that this is all preparation for a fight. Stephen was a master fighter who lulled his target into a sense of security before launching the attack.
The Principle of Distraction (Acts 7:39-50)
In basketball this is called the fake, not that a Christian would want to be deceptive. Think of it more as a distraction. A basketball player makes a quick move in one direction, so as to throw his opponent off, and then just as quickly makes his move in another direction entirely. Stephen then begins by distracting his audience, who were his ultimate target, by highlighting the sins of their common ancestors, who were disobedient to God.
This is also similar to a principle of Judo, which I studied to some small extent when I was young. The idea was to pull or push on your opponent slightly so that they countered your force. Then, when you were ready for your move, you suddenly switched direction 180° so that the opponent actually aided you with some of their own inertia in the direction of your attack. It was actually fun for me, a rather light guy compared to some of my sparring partners, to flip a heavier guy over my head and shoulders onto the soft mats.
The principle of distraction is to prepare for your final move so that when you are ready for the attack the audience is already going with you to some extent, or focused on something else. I imagine that some members of Stephen's audience were reluctantly agreeing with him that yes, some of their ancestors were disobedient to God, but they certainly weren't, were they?
Take the Attack Home (Acts 7:51-56)
Stephen then takes the attack home. In this case it was his audience who needed to realize that they were just like their ancestors, stubborn, resisting the Holy Spirit, and disobedient. The preparation for this attack was extensive, almost 50 verses long. His specific attack was only a few verses, yet he hit his target head on, without shame or equivocation.
Most of the people you and I will preach to are different. They have not denied Jesus. They are a softer target, and so our attack will not have to be so direct and blunt. Most of the time, it will be concepts not people that we will attack. Only rarely will even a seasoned preacher attack his audience personally like this. Most of the time, when there is a need for righteous anger in our sermons, it will be false ideas that we attack, not people. When we attack people, wise preachers will include themselves among the sinners, and allow God (through the Bible) to do the talking.