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He doesn’t like happy sermons.

March 12, 2008

Recently I was privileged to sit in a physician’s waiting room.  Being outside my community and dressed in casual clothing, I was effectively camouflaged and not pegged as “Methodist Preacher-man.”  Under cover of street clothes and relative anonymity I overheard a conversation about a local preacher.

I think the preacher in question was Baptist.  I’m not sure if he was their preacher, their former preacher, or one who was simply well known in town.  But the detail that stuck with me was that he loved preaching sin.  Every sermon ended up with sin, no matter what the text.  “He always said he doesn’t like happy sermons.”

Now bear in mind that this wasn’t a critical conversation, it was loving in tone.  It made me think.

  • Do I like happy sermons?
  • Do I preach a robust enough understanding of sin and the human condition?
  • Does it really matter what kind of sermon the preacher likes and doesn’t like?
  • Could the folks I serve describe my preaching so succinctly?

Well, I suppose I do like happy sermons.  I don’t like sermons that leave the congregation feeling beaten up, and I have heard from multiple sources that these churches have had pastors who left them feeling that way.  But more than a happy sermon, I like an affirming sermon.  I like sermons that affirm our brokenness in the presence of a loving and gracious God.  I like sermons that affirm the strengths and gifts of the congregation.  In short, I think the best sermons acknowledge our brokenness, affirm our strengths, place our hope and trust entirely in God, and empower us for grateful discipleship.  That’s a tall order!

I try to preach a robust theology of sin.  I tend to favor the language of brokenness over that of sinfulness or depravity.  I use that language intentionally; not because I think it is softer or more palatable, but because I think it is more accurate.  These days I think most laypersons conflate sin with evil – and while all evil is sin not all sin is evil.  It is a falling short, missing the mark.  Sometimes we miss the mark on purpose, sometimes because we are misguided, sometimes because we got everything lined up perfectly and just as we let the arrow fly the wind blew.  We are imperfect, flawed, broken.  Full of sin: bad intentions, misguided good intentions, and even our best is less than perfect and often downright pathetic.

But I try to preach our sinfulness balanced with the unflinching goodness and grace of a loving God.  God whom we can trust.  God who deserves our favor and worship.  God who (apologies to Len Sweet – this comes from his “Trash Cans or Treasure Chests” sermon) picks us up out of the trash and says, “I think I can use that!”  No matter how dirty and broken we are.

I suppose it does matter what kind of sermon the preacher prefers.  I am self-aware enough to know that I will preach the kind of sermon I like more passionately and with more palpable conviction than the kinds I prefer less.  I am also self-critical enough to know that every sermon can’t be about what I like and what I don’t.  I have always connected with preachers who could engage a text by saying, “I’ve always struggled with this passage.  I don’t like what Jesus says here.  He’s really nailing me to the wall here, and I can’t find any way around it.”  So it does matter what we as preachers like, but we can’t stick with “Preacher’s Greatest Hits.”  Sometimes we all gotta squirm.  Jesus loves blowing apart our comfort zones.

Like many preachers, I wish I could be a fly on the wall when the parish talks about my sermons and my preaching, but I know that getting purely honest feedback is nearly impossible.  Everything I hear is very affirming and good for the ol’ (inflated) ego.  I suppose I won’t hear much critique unless I really tick somebody off.  So for now I will stick with my current process of attempting to discern the spiritual needs and desires of the congregation, critical and studious engagement of the biblical text, finding where I discern an intersection of the two, and preaching it with conviction.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2008 11:44 am

    aren’t preachers an anachronism?

    isn’t pastors (the ministering from soul to soul, individually) the way for today?

    groupthink is a trap for the unwary and the innocent.

  2. March 12, 2008 3:19 pm

    So long as churches have Sunday morning services and expect a sermon from their pastors, there will be preachers. I sincerely believe that the “preacher” segment of the pastoral office is quite important and that the preaching moment is a vital element in the life of the congregation.

    The model of pastoring that you mention is valid and important, but also limited.

  3. March 13, 2008 12:55 pm

    I like happy sermons and sermons that make me feel good about myself and of course sermons that totally agree with the way I see things.

    What I NEED are sermons that challenge me and motivate me and teach me.

    I’m sure yours are great, btw 😉

  4. March 13, 2008 9:38 pm

    great stuff.
    i enjoy your posts.

  5. March 20, 2008 2:12 pm

    I was raised up in a very strict church that favored hell and damnation sermons. I was scared to death every Sunday. I walked around all the time afraid that nothing that I did pleased God.

    Thank God (literally) that after I left home, I left that church. I now go to a Baptist church and I love my pastor. He teaches that we do sin as none of us are perfect. BUT, he teaches God’s love and grace. Seriously, growing up, I never knew that God loved me no matter what and that He is a forgiving God.

    I can’t recall a time when I have left church feeling unhappy or unworthy. do leave church knowing that I am a sinner but also, knowing that I am not a lost cause.

    I have a hunch, Will, that you would probably like what your peeps say about you.

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