Preacher and Hearer Challenged

When I preached away last month, I was challenged afterwards by a visitor. Unlike previous generations who attended church from custom and had a generally sympathetic world-view, an increasing number of Britons are spiritually illiterate and ignorant of Christianity’s basic claims. The lady was well-travelled and educated. With some self-confessed courage, she sat down with me afterwards to share her displeasure.

First, she wanted to know why she had to listen to me for so long, without being invited to raise her hand and object.  

Secondly, she suggested it was too much of my opinion. What I say should be more academic.

Thirdly, she thought it judgemental to denounce ‘sins’ such as drunkenness and gluttony; people were entitled to do such things.

Fourthly, the other people listened too intently. Was I aware of how powerful my words could be and the influence they might have on people.

Fifthly, she objected to my claim that we humans have an in-built desire to worship. Where was my evidence for this?

She confessed to wanting to walk out, but then, by way of back-handed compliment, said it was far more interesting than anything else she’d heard in churches, which normally sent her to sleep.

I do not expect this lady, whom I respect and whose sincerity I do not doubt, to read this blog, but I address her points lest other share her concerns.

Preaching a sermon is not leading a debate. People are entitled to respond to what is said, but courtesy asks they do so afterwards. A chapel is not the House of Commons, nor a Sixth Form Debating Society. Bible-based preaching should expound God’s word and explain and apply it to our lives. One cannot do this if people interrupt with questions, the answers for which may not be sought by others in the room. When the preacher knows he stands on the authority of God’s Word, let all others be silent as the lively oracles hold forth. This also behoves preachers to avoid controversial trivia and to reckon themselves more severely judged when they give account to the Master.

Preaching should be soundly Biblical, and commentators and scholars should be consulted when a text is being prepared. Yet a sermon is not a lecture, nor a speech for which a vote of thanks may be given. Whereas an interesting homily may address the mind, a sermon also addresses the heart. It seeks its hearers’ submission to Christ and acceptance of His gospel. This doesn’t mean that it should be anti-intellect or thoughtless drivel, but unlike a lecture, it speaks to the hearts of all listening, regardless of intelligence and formal qualification. 

Sermons should not be about denouncing sin but preaching Christ and His great salvation. An understanding of sin is needed to appreciate its wonderful remedy, and this might mean highlighting the excesses and failings of the culture of which we are part. When certain sinful actions are touched upon, we may smart and stiffen as our own wickedness is described and exposed. Our pride rises to the fore, and we despise the preacher as nothing but a judgemental kill-joy. So let the dying drown their sorrows and the dead seek their pleasures. But let those who would find life repent of such things, and find pleasure in their Saviour.

Looking around an evangelical church, one might see faces smiling with pleasure as the gospel is proclaimed; intent expressions as believers discern the still, small voice of God in the preacher’s lisping syllables; a look of serious thoughtfulness with accompanying nods and whispered amens. Is this evidence of brain washing or spiritual feasting? A subtle and crooked minister may well sweet-talk his flock into wrong theology and unrighteous living. How else do the money-preachers drive such fine cars? But a Bible preacher invites his hearers to be Bereans, looking up a text and comparing its meaning to the pulpit’s transmission, to see if the two be wed. In a good restaurant, once might see diners loving the food they are served. While appreciating the chef’s skill, they do not smile because of his taste and looks, but that of the food he provides. Devoted listeners in a church are not yielding to the preacher, but the God whose Spirit inspired the text being preached. 

Humans have an in-built desire to worship is evidenced by religion’s perennial popularity. Sure, we in Britain and Western Europe have replaced our gods with the emptiness of secularism, but we are not typical. In South America, Asia and Africa, religious expressions thrive and multiply. In the UK, we cannot quite bring ourselves to reject all that is spiritual. Our garden Buddha statues and hanging crystals testify that our spiritual yearning cannot be ignored, that our need to commune with One greater than ourselves is as strong as ever. 

It’s good that a preacher be challenged. It’s even better than a hearer be challenged by the gospel’s clarion call.

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.”

Acts 17:32

Image by Vicki Nunn from Pixabay