Do you ever feel like the frog in this picture-something needs to be said but you don’t know how to say it to the real, intimidating, or frustrating people around you? While I am a big believer in expositional preaching, there are rare moments when God gives to His preacher a singular sermon that is faithful to the text but may be needed to provoke the assembly in a specific and jarring manner. This could also include tough conversations that need to be had in other areas of influence such as the home, work, and community. Having just recently gone through months of build up in my heart and mind to just such a sermon (Probably won’t garner many views) in our dear church, here are a few takeaways that I am learning:
Things To Avoid
Reacting to a passing or personal issue by “getting something off your chest”
If you really itching to preach this kind of sermon, YOU SHOULD NOT! A tough sermon, by it very nature, should be tough not only to the hearer but also to the speaker. Reactionary preaching eliminates the sacred pause between the problem and the solution where God meets with and refines His spokesman before the rest of His people. Timing is everything not just for those who hear you but also for the one they hear-you! To imitate the greatest communicator to ever grace this planet, Jesus Christ, we must slow down and listen to His Spirit more than our spirit.
Jn 16:12-13 “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.”
Prematurely preaching it with underdeveloped truths and tone
A tough sermon or even conversation that God truly wants you to initiate will almost always develop over a lengthy period of time. It is during this slow burn that the Spirit will give you not only the right position on a given issue but also the right disposition. Every attendee will be able to sense whether what you say is raw or refined, from the gut or from God! To clarify, notice this analogy: much of the resistance in a given service has nothing to do with those dining upon the Word and everything to do with the waitstaff that has forgotten the intentions of the Divine Chef. To get it right so that the message alone is centerstage requires a marination of sermon’s “meat” that only happens with your time and patience.
Ga 1:15-18a But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem…”
Focusing too much on human audience’s expected response instead of God’s eternal revelation
If you are not careful, the focus will be more upon “how it is playing in the pew” than how faithful you are being to the tough passages of Scripture. This dilutes and weakens the message in a way that misses the divinely-sanctioned opportunity for reproof and rebuke that occasionally needs to be in the local church pulpit. Key Thought: A faithful preacher will, now and again, force his congregation to RESENT HIM as the messenger or REVILE THEMSELVES as the offenders. (I have to risk the former to make the second possible!)
Je 1:7-8 “But the LORD said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the LORD.”
Letting your post-sermon emotions shape the “success or failure” of the sermon
After you are engaged in an intense, stress-inducing exercise, the tendency is to feel down or empty in a manner that distorts your post-assessment. Those regretful sensations are usually brought on by negative or apathetic feedback from others as well as inner feedback from yourself of things you wish you had said or done differently. Remember that a confrontational message is disruptive by nature; therefore, be prepared to not have warm and fuzzies in immediate, emotional processing that follows. That is often part of the process God uses to us all process His “hard sayings.”
1 Ki 19:10 “And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Things to Add
Requesting your wife, ministry confidants, and the church leadership (pastoral staff, deacons, core) to pray for and contribute to this sermon
Too many fiery sermons have been preached without the essential tempering (not “tampering” 🙂 )that a spiritual leader’s team can provide. (I am still growing in this discipline, but many senior leaders are now wisely allowing their team into the sermon formation process with feedback and input.) No sermon needs teamwork to be involved more than the tough ones! Letting them know also “boxes you in” so that you cannot balk or bail in fear on what you know God wants you to preach. It creates some consensus and support that you can lean upon when the moment to preach it arrives. (This may look like an “amen,” nod, or smile while you are preaching or a supportive comment behind your back that occurs in lobby afterwards.) . While you cannot wait until you have full consensus to proclaim a challenging message, you should enter the moments with a collaborative buy-in that makes it “the message of the church” as much as a “message of the pastor.”
Ph 1:3-7 “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ: Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace.”
Using a stirring picture or mini-video that sets up the sermon before it is preached or solidifies it afterward
Truly a “picture is worth a thousand words.” Too often the preacher in me wants/feels the pressure to overly rely upon my limited ability to paint moving concepts with my words. A video can say effectively and powerfully what would sound melodramatic or “over the top” at best coming out of your lips. I challenge you to take advantage of all of the solid multimedia resources that are now at our disposal.
La 3:48-51 “Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people. Mine eye trickleth down, and ceaseth not, without any intermission, Till the LORD look down, and behold from heaven. Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city.”
Making conciliatory remarks
I have found that most disruptive message must be preached when the Sunday-morning-only crowd is present. With that setting comes certain elements and motivations that must be clarified. Make sure to consider how visitors, who have no skin in the game at the moment, will process a difficult, confrontational sermon into which they unknowingly stumble. Concede that they are not a part of any problem confronted and invite them to be a part of the solution in your church or the one from which they are visiting. Also be extremely precise in affirming those in the congregation who do embody the correct position of faith and practice within the area in question. One of the best ways to preach a tough sermon is to spend less time condemning the offenders and more time inspiring all through the edifying examples in your midst.
Re 2:2-5 “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.
Inserting timely humor
Preaching is unquestionably a surgical/scientific exercise in “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” but it is also an art to master. Nowhere in homiletics is that more important to understand than during the loving rebuke of a given congregation. If we are not careful, the tough sermons become too heavy and clumsy. A problem that is often resolved with well-place humor. As I wrote about here, “The closest distance between two people is a good laugh.” You must remember that you have been on this full-speed train of thought from God that has intensified over a lengthy period of time. In contrast, your people have the sensation of standing on the train station platform of personal life and load trying to jump on with you. Nothing bridges that contrast of thought more than humor! In my preaching, I have found that something antidotal or humorous is best for every 5 minutes of didactic content. In the tough sermons, that is especially true. While sin is no laughing matter, some of the most convicting moments of your preaching will come on the heels of a shared laugh together, not your amazing insight. Don’t waste the unique sense of humor already thriving in your church; use it to God’s advantage!
Pr 17:22 “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”
Expressing gratitude for consideration
Remember that no church service is truly a hostage situation. Those listening don’t have to listen to your admonition. Verbally acknowledging that with “thank you for sticking out this tough love” will keep more eyes, ears, and hearts open than any string of threats or manipulations. Gratitude on your part keeps the conversation on a spiritual level instead of a carnal one. If you cannot be grateful for the sheep God has graciously given for your oversight, you have no business preaching let alone pastoring. The “provoking unto love and good works” is why the church exists and why you are serving in leadership. Nothing diffuses the intrinsic, predictable tension God’s Word brings more than a grateful spirit on the part of its human messenger.
1 Th 2:13 For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.
Sticking with the exposition of God’s Word-nothing more, nothing less
One of the moves we make that undercuts our confrontational sermons is that we fail to use the Bible to do so. Too often we abandon the all-sufficient Word of God to spout off about our own hot takes and soap box issues. It is Scripture, what God breaths out, not your utterances that is alone going to produce authentic repentance and transformation! If you can’t find “the issue” addressed in the Bible, you have not business opening a conversation in the church that is to be exclusively “the pillar and ground for the truth.” If it is resoundingly a part of God’s inspired Book, than you are a hireling if you duck and weave on it out of pragmatic fear. To be faithfully expositional expands not only the understanding of the congregation but also the preacher who otherwise gets in a well-word rut of “harping” on any given issue. As one writer put it, “If someone happily accepts the authority of God’s Word, yet in practice does not preach expositionally, he will never preach more than he already knows.” Over my years in the ministry, I have found that one of the greatest unifying forces in a local church is the following response to its pulpit ministry: “Well, we may not prefer it or fully understand why, but it is clearly in the Bible.”
2 Ti 3:16-17 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
Integrating the sermon into the rest of the worship/sermon content that precedes and follows.
Influence, as a preacher, is never comprised of a singular moment; it is a process of which that tough sermon is only a part. Nothing will increase the “shelf life” of that I-wish-we-didn’t-have-to-go-there sermons more than viewing the ministry with the long-view. Ask God to give you wisdom on what to preach before and after that one you are dreading. This could be a expositional series from the broader text in which the rebuking/challenging passage is couched. It could be an additional topic or book of the Bible that unpacks the theological foundations or practical applications of this area of need in your church, families, or community. It is wise to think/pray as much about what provides additional context as the abrasive talk itself. (Paul models this tender tenacity with the believers of Corinth, a church to whom Paul directed several terse messages.)
2 Co 12:14-15 “Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.
By the way, the curious-looking bubble observed on frogs is not just for show. According to scientists, it serves a valuable purpose. The vocal sacs on a male expand when they call to females and when they are defending their territory from other male frogs. When the vocal sac expands into its bubble-like shape, it makes the frog’s voice louder. Frog calls are audible as far as a mile away from the frogs making the sounds.
Dear preacher/teacher friend, do you have some tough talk that God is calling you to make? That unspoken issue in your ministry, family, community that needs challenged? Know that the lump in your throat and weight upon your chest is shared by many faithful preachers down through the ages who have found the clarity and boldness that is still available to declare “thus saith the Lord.” The jury is still out, but it is a joy to already begin to see God working through the most recent practice of this post in my ministry. You too, as you embrace this sacred tension, can be God’s faithful mouthpiece with patient labor in the Word and bold unction in the Spirit that WILL MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUDER for God’s glory!