Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Preaching: Soft and Hard

Pastor John MacArthur was preaching on what makes a good church on his radio program this morning and came up with this: "Soft preaching makes hard hearts. Hard preaching makes soft hearts."

He is on to something. If a preacher (male or female; MacArthur doesn't believe in female pastors and preachers, sadly) preaches the deep and difficult things of Holy Scripture, even the painful things, people may, through the Holy Spirit, repent and embrace those things and do mightly exploits for God. I recently heard one of our senior preachers, Kiara Jorgensen, do just that in chapel at Denver Seminary. She carefully unpacked a text that taught that God's people must reach out to the unlovely, the outcast. It was hard, good, challenging, and right.

Contrariwise, when preachers (or, better, pulpiteers) preach an easy word, give a soft and comfortable message, the congregation is not challenged to the root of their being to be holy as God is holy. They then become hard, complacent, comfortable. This, tragically, is most of North American preaching.

Jerram Barrs reflects on the preaching of Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) this way:

I will never forget some of the sermons I heard him preach. The fact that his voice was high and often would crack as he emphasized a point, the reality that no-one could describe him as ‘charismatic’ or ‘strikingly handsome’ in appearance - these things were completely unimportant. I would listen to a message, often for well over an hour, and be captivated by the truth from God’s Word that was communicated with such clarity and power and with such relevance to our own moment of history and such immediate application to my life. One sermon on Rahab often comes back to me: ‘we are all harlots’ Francis declared, ‘we have all prostituted ourselves constantly to other gods.’ There are many others of his sermons that have left this same indelible impression on my mind.

That was hard preaching.

Oh, Christians! Expect more from your preachers. Don't settle for "the pillow prophets" (as David Wilkerson puts it). Don't heed those who cry, "Peace, peace when there is no peace," those who purport to "heal the wounds of God's people lightly." Expect more. Pray for more. Demand more.

O preachers! Forsake all pulpiteering, people-pleasing, culture-aping, dumbed down and entertaining "messages." Whose message is it? Not your own, but God's. As Paul said:

10 Am I now trying to win human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. --Galatians 1:10.


RobH said...

I definitely agree with you that we need to preach more on the deep, and often difficult things of scripture, challenging God's people to move forward and to grow; but I think there is a need for balance. My father, though he is not a religious man, taught me from a young age that balance is important to life.

There are times when the hammer must fall from the pulpit. But, like Jeremiah (who is one of the most convicting preachers that I have ever read), we must also deliver messages of hope, and comfort to the people. Though Jeremiah didn't comfort them by lying to them about the present danger, he did comfort them by revealing that God had plans to prosper them, to give them hope and a future (Jer. 29). So I agree with you up to a point. I just believe we need to find a balance in the pulpit.

At times in ministry, God's people come in lazy, self-assured, and impotent (as Christ followers). It is then that they need to be challenged, and cut by the word of God, not as with a bloodied cleaver, but as with a scalpel at the hands of a master surgeon. Other times, they limp into the meeting place bleeding, sore, tired, and scared. It is then that they need to hear the words of a "God of all comfort" and be bandaged and encouraged by a tender heart.

You probably meant this in the first place, so this may have been wasted on my part. I am new to the whole blogging thing. By the way, I wanted to thank you for some of the resources you provided on this whole Jesus Tomb issue. I found them most insightful and helpful.

In Him,
O Luwv

Danny Wright said...

Weak sermons, I think, are also an indication of what the preacher thinks of his congregation. If he is constantly trying to coddle and apply salve, then he must see his congregation, not as an army of soldiers at war with the enemy of their souls, but rather as wounded, broken and defeated patients in a hospital ward. Meanwhile the lost soul is never confronted with his condition and eternal destiny because that confrontation might cause him to feel "un-peaceful" which in turn might make everyone else feel a little un-peaceful, thus defeating the reason for showing up in the first place. But what else should we expect I suppose when churches (not all) become nothing more than another diversion?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

"Brother Wesley, were there any additions to the church?"
Wesley: "No, but there were some blessed subtractions."

Yossman said...

Always speak the truth in love. Preachers with a prophetic mind might be tempted to use harsh words that lack love. However love lacking truth is no love at all.

Having said that, speaking the truth in love may lead to some radical statements. I'm reminded of the exalted Christ's letter to the Laodicean church: 'Because you are neither warm nor cold I will spit you out of my mouth'.

Yet in my life I have opened my mouth and hurt people by what I said.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I would add that preaching from the Scriptures does not guarantee that one's sermon will be "hard." In other words, one can preach soft sermons that are exegetically sound week after week after week. A preacher, as I see it, must not only exegete the Scripture, but must exegete the congregation. And perhaps her/himself as well. We might call this exegesis a deconstruction, of sorts.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

To preach well one must exegete the Bible, exegete the culture, exegete the congregation (which means you have to be there in the flesh, not just on a jumbotron), and exegete one's self.

Preaching does also involve "comforting the afflicted," but even then the comfort is based on the deep and vast things of God. It is never pedestrian, never light, never truth-less.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan: I agree whole-heartedly. Ultimately the issue in preaching is not hard or soft, but that which fits the Spirit's definition of the need of the particular congregation. The problem, as I see it and I think Doug would agree, is that too many assume a position of preaching to felt need over the real need of the congregation.

In 40 years of visiting perhaps at least 40-50 churches, I have only found 1 church who's preacher consistently exegetes both the Word and the congregation with self-reflective integrity. If you have the opportunity I would suggest visiting New Day Covenant in Boulder.

Ha...I was ready to hit the "post button" and Doug just posted my thoughts.