One Sunday in high school, my best friend took me to her Fundamental Baptist church. All I knew before going was that the denomination was more conservative than the SBC and that her family drove twenty miles out into a rural area to attend this particular church, passing countless other congregations on the way. All I remember about the experience was that the pastor preached fire and brimstone about our sinfulness, and I cried there in my seat.
That sure didn't happen at the Disciples of Christ church my family attended.
A few months ago, author-blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote about why she doesn't join a mainline church, even though her main problems with evangelical Christianity—that evangelicals are patriarchal, anti-science, and politically right-wing—are generally not problems for mainline churches. Her answer critiqued mainline churches for what amounted to their lack of passion and vigor when it came to expressing their convictions in the context of faith and scripture.
"While evangelical pastors may care too little about who they offend, mainline pastors may care too much, to the point that they are afraid to say anything of substance," Evans said.
She's mostly right, I think. You may see evidence of a lot of mercy and justice ministries at many mainline churches, but you're not as likely to hear an impassioned, convicting sermon about our specific communal sins that create injustice in our society. And you are even less likely to hear a penetrating sermon on personal sin.
So I was surprised when I attended my home church, Middletown Christian (Disciples of Christ), a few weeks ago and heard the current pastor, David Emery, preach about sin. What's more, I was very, very impressed by the way he preached about sin. It's a great example of how pastors who don't often speak about sin can do it firmly yet gracefully, and an example for anyone preaching on sin (no matter how often you do it) of how to do it in a way that connects with people in a real way.
Listening to Emery's sermon, I realized several things about preaching on sin, and how pastors can do it well. You can listen to the sermon audio above, but consider the following points, and how these tactics were embodied by this particular sermon.
Reassurance of Grace
While grace-filled theology isn't enough to bring Rachel Held Evans into the mainline fold, it is the absence of fire and brimstone that attracts many people to churches like Middletown. Emery began by acknowledging the bad experiences some have had in church and reassuring people (especially newcomers and visitors) that it is never, ever the strategy of this church to "scare the hell out of people." He was candid about how they rarely talk about sin—but also why that's a problem—saying, "sin is a good word because it helps us understand who we are, who God is, and why we need grace." The sermon was bookended with grace.
Feeling assured of grace frees people to wrestle with their sins, and giving such assurance frees pastors to talk seriously about sin.
Nine times of out of ten, when someone mentions sin, it's something to the effect of "everyone is a sinner." True. Humans are born selfish and just get more creative with our selfishness as we get older. But when we make blanket statements like that, it's a wet blanket on the whole issue. It doesn't get at the heart of anyone's real experience with sin. It glosses over our actual moral struggles and failures, offering an easy out to those who don't want to wrestle with their own issues and making the more pious among us wail on about their inherent wretchedness and unworthiness, but still without serious engagement. When preachers take this one-size-fits-all angle to sin, they may prompt some toward real conviction and repentance, but more often just make everyone feel like crap. Pardon my French.
By taking seriously the diversity of our sin, you connect with people where they are. By diversity, I mean that while all sins may be equal before God, sin affects and destroys lives at widely varying degrees.
There are those whose sin has been immensely destructive to many around them.
"There are some circumstances in life when the only words that work to describe it is the language of woe," Emery said, underscoring the need to recover words like woe and wretchedness, as used in the day's scripture, Isaiah 6:1-8, the prophet's "woe is me" experience in the presence of God.
By way of a sermon illustration, Emery described a young father of two little girls being truly convicted of his sin. The man had been a college football player, used to being revered by classmates and having his way with girls. Now as a dad of daughters himself, he realized the weight of his sin and was deeply grieved by the way he had treated countless young women, sobbing his confessions on the day of his baptism. It was a true "woe is me" moment, and Emery assured those who identified with such remorse, those who have left a trail of wreckage in the wake of their sin, that "that place of woe is where God can work. You can be born again through Jesus Christ because God is the God of second chances."
But most of us probably have not experienced such woe.
Emery made a deft turn to address the majority’s (perhaps less obvious) sinfulness in an honest and realistic way, without attempting to impose an exaggerated feeling of wretchedness: "For the rest of you, I have bad news: You are not as good as you think you are."
From that point, a preacher could go in several directions. You could address “silent killer” sins like pride and envy, that others may not notice, but that poison our hearts and our ability to love others. You could relate Jesus’ admonitions about anger and lust from Matthew 5 to address how sins of the heart give way to sinful actions. Or, as Emery did, you could address the “comparison game” we play, feeling righteous when we compare ourselves to people with more public, obvious sins, like John Edwards, Tiger Woods, or maybe the aforementioned football-playing player. Further, if we compare ourselves only to God, as we should, our sin will become obvious to us, as it was to righteous-by-human-standards Isaiah.
The Value of Woe
By speaking candidly about sin and our typical avoidance of the topic, Emery clarified that the woe we feel when we recognize our sin is not something to fear. Rather, recognition of sin shows us the true value of grace and prepares us for service.
"We need to be made uncomfortable so that God can use us," he said, comparing the discipline and discomfort a West Point student experiences, as they are being shaped into a certain kind of person. Through recognition of our sin and repentance from it, God shapes us into servants and prophets for Christ.
Preaching about sin gets a bad rap because of how depressing and manipulative it can be. Poorly done, sin sermons take people to the edge of despair so they will accept Jesus as "fire insurance" during a moment of heightened emotion. Rather than creating that feeling of woe right there in the pew, helping people face their sin honestly and personally opens the door for deeper reflection, true repentance, and ongoing refinement.