On preaching the dangerous sermon

September 13th, 2022

I would like to suggest a few lessons that I have learned attempting to preach dangerous sermons. Many of these suggestions are the result of dialogue in many diverse settings after lectures, teachings, and presentations on how to preach dangerous sermons, and I am deeply indebted to audiences, colleagues, mentors, preachers, students, teachers, and conversation partners who helped me to marshal my experience and clarify my thinking. I am deeply appreciative of the fact that clarity often comes in dialogue.

Every Sermon Cannot Be Dangerous

It is not possible, and definitely not advised, to make every sermon a dangerous sermon when one is the pastor of a congregation. Homiletics professor Kenyatta Gilbert helps preachers everywhere when he highlights the “trivocal nature” of black preaching in his book, The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching. The preacher, in the totality of the preaching ministry, is prophet, priest, and sage. Some Sundays, as sage, we offer deep and profound wisdom, the wisdom of scripture combined with the wisdom of human experience. Other Sundays, our sermons serve the priestly and sacramental functions of being God’s voice to bind up the brokenhearted and comfort the afflicted. Every now and then, when the forces of evil hold sway, the preacher must adopt the prophetic mantle and afflict the comfortable with a dangerous sermon. If one never preaches a dangerous sermon, or if every sermon is a dangerous sermon, the preaching is living in the land of unhealthy extremes.

I cannot give a target percentage for the number of dangerous sermons one should give, nor can I specify what occasions might demand a dangerous sermon. For me, I preach them when I am deeply outraged in my soul, when something is morally egregious, and when I need to speak against unjust dominance hierarchy. Sometimes I change my preplanned sermon in response to immediate events that demand a moral response and sometimes I do not. Sometimes, the subject is best addressed from the pulpit and sometimes in other forums. I cannot even tell you what subject matters should ignite dangerous sermons, because what is dangerous in one congregation and for one preacher might not be dangerous to another congregation and preacher. I can also tell you that there have been preachers who were preaching something that they did not think was dangerous at all, only to be surprised to find that it stirred up a hornet’s nest. Dangerous sermons are contextual (the biblical text in the context of church and culture) and relational (the relationship between preacher and people and preacher and God).

There are many more subjects than I have raised herein that have the potential to be dangerous, such as issues of same-sex relationships and marriage, abortion, immigration, racial bias, domestic violence, police violence, divorce, rape, and molestation, to name a few. Each congregation has issues that they would rather the preacher not speak about, and when a preacher discusses these issues, the sermon is considered dangerous.

Many women preachers tell me that in many settings, by the very nature of them being female and functioning in a place of male authority, their sermons are already dangerous. Before they have said a sermonic word, because of their gender and audacity to preach or lead, they upset the moral order and dominance hierarchy. When one’s very presence upsets the dominance hierarchy, never—and I do mean never—apologize for being the preacher. When confronted by such, it is a question of authority. By whose authority do you preach? I would hope that as the preacher is standing in front of the people, she would not be dependent upon human authority to preach.

I have found great authority in the fact that the text makes an exegetical and theological claim on the preacher and the people to whom the text speaks. The claim of the text is my authority. Press the theological claim of the text and leave the rest to God. People and the dominance hierarchy are not the source of my authority. I read a tweet by Renita Weems that sums up authority perfectly. She was invited to preach by Pastor Gary V. Simpson at Concord Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York, which is the pulpit of the late and incomparable Gardner C. Taylor, agreed upon by many as the “Dean of Black Preaching.” After the sermon, on social media, there was discussion as to whether or not Taylor supported women preachers. After having an awesome time and delivering a powerful ser- mon, Weems wrote that she admired his preaching even though she suspected and found out later that he did not believe in women preachers, and she said this: “I did not need his approval. I was fascinated with his gifts and skills and studied that.” Not needing approval opens up space to make the choice to appreciate the gifts of a person who does not agree with you and to learn from someone you might not agree with, or not.

A Dangerous Sermon and an Already Difficult Relationship

It is difficult to place dangerous sermons on top of an already difficult pastoral relationship. If a pastor has a conflicted relationship with a congregation or key leaders of said congregation, and then preaches a dangerous sermon, undoubtedly the sermon will become the focal point of the discontent. In many cases, the sermon is not the issue, but rather than deal with complex relationship issues, the sermon becomes the easiest and most tangible way to express discontent. I have painfully learned that the dangerous sermon is only the presenting issue and not necessarily the real issue. Usually, the real issue is somewhere embedded in the breach of some false or real expectation in the relationship. The wise preacher who would preach dangerous sermons would be astute to ascertain, as best as one can know, whether the relationship between pastor and people is on solid footing. When faced with criticism about the sermon, at least suspect that it might be a red herring. Probe for the real issue.

False Separation between Dangerous Sermons and Pastoral Care

I left seminary thinking that prophetic ministry would be tough and that I would have to be a “bull in a china shop” to make things happen and get prophetic ministry done. After many pitfalls and several painful miscues for all involved, I learned the connection between priestly care of the people and dangerous sermons. I learned that the preacher has to shepherd the people at hospital rooms and grave sites; officiate weddings, baby dedications, and anniversary celebrations; and offer counseling and support in times of tragedy—in other words, in times of joy and sorrow and celebration and grief that occupy the daily lives of congregants and their families. I have discovered that it is through the pastoral care ministry that one earns the right to preach dangerous sermons. The preacher cannot come into the church and assume the right to preach dangerous sermons. The preacher has to gain the trust of the people such that the people can be assured that the dangerous sermon, in Kaveny’s words, is not an oracle against the nation, but rather constructive chastisement within horizons of hope and possibilities of community renewal.

I once believed that there was a separation between the pastoral care ministry and the preaching ministry of dangerous sermons. The turning point was for me was after my second year of pastoral ministry in my first congregation. After a rocky prophetic start preaching dangerous sermons, one of my major mentors, Henry H. Mitchell, published a sermon entitled “I Sat Where They Sat.” The sermon was based upon Ezekiel 3:10-12, 14-15 (CEB):

He [God] said to me: Human one, listen closely, and take to heart every word I say to you. Then go to the exiles, to your people’s children. Whether they listen or not, speak to them and say: The Lord God proclaims! Then a wind lifted me up, and I heard behind me a great quaking sound from his place. Blessed is the Lord’s glory! . . . Then the wind picked me up and took me away. With the Lord’s power pressing down against me I went away, bitter and deeply angry, and I came to the exiles who lived beside the Chebar River at Tel-abib. I stayed there among them for seven desolate days.[1]

Mitchell suggested as the focus of the text that the prophet went and sat among the people for seven desolate days and witnessed and was a part of their devastation. Once the prophet saw, felt, and heard the devastation of the people, then the prophet could speak. From that sermon, I went and metaphorically sat for seven days among the people whom God had given me to pastor, and it changed my understanding and my approach. I was no longer a “bull in a china shop.” I was a pastor who loved the people deeply and saw, felt, and heard their desolation, and I ministered to them. As I “sat where they sat,” they allowed me to preach dangerous sermons.

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A Dangerous Sermon and “Getting Stuff Off Your Chest” 

There is a vast difference between a dangerous sermon and venting, which is attacking people from the pulpit and abusing people through the sermon because one has been hurt or angered and needing to get “stuff off your chest.” One of the tactics of choice is to preach a “white washed tomb, ye workers of iniquity sermon.” In this sermon, the preacher takes one of the “Woe” sayings of Jesus in Matthew 23, such as in verses 27-28 (NIV): “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” The preacher will wax long and hard about hypocrisy and hypocrites until it is painfully obvious to all that the preacher is talking about church leaders, people in the congregation, or maybe some politician, leader, or personality. When the preacher is confronted about the fact that the sermon was targeted, the preacher will respond, “I was preaching what was in the text.” Such hiding hostility behind the text is abusive and cowardly. Dangerous sermons are not abusive and cowardly.

Preachers need places outside of the pulpit where they can vent frustration, hurt, pain, and anger. It could be many different kinds of support, but one source that was always critically important to me was a preacher friend whom I could call once I had finished writing the dangerous sermon to ask for feedback. That friend would be honest with me and tell me if I was venting, unloading my frustration, and taking my unresolved feelings out on the congregation. One Saturday night my tears flowed as this preacher friend told me that my dangerous sermon was negative. I had been deeply hurt and the wound of the pain came out in the sermon. In the midst of the tears, my friend said: “I will stay on the phone with you and you can say whatever you need to say, for as long as you need to say it, but in the pulpit tomorrow, preach the gospel.” This relationship was priceless in my life, and even though the truth hurt, it saved me from even more hurt. A preacher who has to vent in the pulpit can access spiritual directors, counselors, clergy friends, family support, and other support systems to express their feelings. I once exposed my raw pain in the pulpit, and my “enemies” feasted on my brokenness. When I heard the things that they said, the total disregard for my pain, I was even more broken. I learned that getting stuff off of my chest in the pulpit is not a dangerous sermon. Getting things off my chest is a matter of private and personal well-being and not the responsibility and business of the people. The church and people are not responsible for our personal well-being.

The Dangerous Sermon and Intellectual Sloppiness

If the preacher is going to preach a dangerous sermon, the preacher cannot engage in intellectual sloppiness and laziness. One of the characteristics of preaching in the internet age is that people with smart phones and tablets can almost instantly research the preacher’s assertions. Dangerous sermons have to be fact based, and preachers have to do their homework with accurate and up-to-date information. Sloppy preparation and the quoting of information that a preacher has not appropriately vetted will land that preacher in all kinds of trouble and indefensible positions. The preacher must assume that based upon the nature of the controversial sermon, the sermon will be closely scrutinized. If the sermon has intellectual sloppiness or laziness, it will be undoubtedly detected and exposed by critics. The preacher must have thought through carefully the issue(s), done the homework, considered various sources of information, and placed the issue in its appropriate context.

The dangerous sermon is not the place for what Henry H. Mitchell called “clever negativity.” Sayings such as “God did not make Adam and Steve, but Adam and Eve,” an obvious verbal assault on same-gender-loving people, garners laughter and far too often audience support and encouragement. At its heart, clever negativity disdains and demeans people. We can beat up on LGBTQI people, gun owners, the rich, the poor, adulterers, sinners, immigrants, black and brown people, whites, and whomever we choose with clever negativity, but in each and every case, it is intellectual laziness and sloppiness. If one is going to disagree, at least have the respect and decency, to present a reasoned, well-thought-out, and compassionate argument. Name-calling, sloganeering, scapegoating, and clever negativity are evidence of a lack of preparation and intellectual sloppiness and will come back to haunt the preacher each and every time.

My goal in a dangerous sermon is to have an issue so well thought out in a balanced presentation that a person had to think carefully and research broadly and deeply to contest me. But despite all of my best efforts, some sought to counter me with pure emotional and ad hominem arguments. There are always those who will not be persuaded. I can be contested, and as much as I do not like it sometimes, I appreciate fair and constructive criticism. However, some criticism is not fair and constructive and must be disposed of in the garbage can, figuratively and/or literally.

An example of criticism that I immediately put in the literal garbage can is anonymous letters. I simply would not read them. If people do not have the courage to put their name on their thoughts and opinions, I do not waste time reading or responding. I learned this after reading an anonymous letter and spending the entire Sunday morning service scanning the congregation, trying to figure out who wrote it. It was a waste of time and energy. I communicated to my staff not to even give anonymous letters to me. My team stopped reading them as well. I communicated to the congregation that they were not being read and encouraged them to put their name on their thoughts and feelings and they would be responded to. The anonymous letters stopped. The preacher has to read them for them to matter.

Build a Ramp for People First

Far too many times in my ministry, when I preached a dangerous sermon, I was neither lazy nor intellectually sloppy but was still misunderstood. I analyzed what the Bible had to say with careful exegesis, read several theologians to get the pros and the cons of the textual argument, prayed over the matter to discern what God would have me say, and talked over my ideas with clergy friends, trusted mentors, friends, and family to have as broad a perspective as possible. I then went to the pulpit on Sunday morning and in a dangerous sermon announced my position.

After far too many instances of being misunderstood, I learned this: build a ramp for people, first. Let’s say one of the members who was listening to my dangerous sermon on Sunday morning was a parent who had three small children. The kids throw him off schedule as he prepares to come to church. He gets the car loaded and notices that one of kids has wasted the drink from breakfast all over his shirt. He has to take him and the others kids out the car, change the shirt, and get them all back in the car. He is now running late and his anxiety is rising. He gets in a hurry because he does not like to be late. He takes the kids to children’s church. He enters the sanctuary, sits down on the last pew, breathes deeply, and prepares himself to worship, though late and unnerved. Just as he brings his full presence to worship, one of the ushers comes and tells him that one of the children is a disturbance in children’s church. He goes down to get the kid, finds out what happened, and marches her back upstairs to sit in adult church with him. He is sitting there fuming, trying to calm down, and the preacher rises and preaches a dangerous sermon. He could not hear the complexity of the message because he was not prepared for the message. His life had been too cluttered, too filled with child care to explore the height and depth of theological issues. For many people, their lives are filled with complex concerns and they do not have the luxury of theological consideration and reflection. While this is an extreme exam- ple, the preacher would have helped him if the preacher had built a ramp.

What if the preacher had taken Wednesday night or a couple of Wednesday nights and explored the issue? Maybe brought in a professor to give the depth of interpretation around critical biblical verses and oth- ers to talk about the full dimension of the issues from a social perspective. What if the preacher would have had discussion in small groups? What if the pastor had allowed him a chance to ask questions and dialogue in a safe setting before hearing the sermon on Sunday morning? What if the pastor had communicated with the leaders prior to preaching a dangerous sermon? Just because we have thought about the issue in depth does not mean the people have had the same level of engagement. Several times I made a mess of the situation because I did not give the people time. I did not prepare the people. I gave the dangerous sermon and did not build a ramp.

Some of my conversational preaching friends such as Ronald J. Allen and O. Wesley Allen would have probably suggested that I did not involve the people.[2] They would have said that I operated out of the traditional solo holy-person model, in which the preacher goes up to the mountain, like Moses, to get the word from God, and then returns and to give the word back to the people during the sermon. What if pastor and people went up to the mountain together to hear the word? There is great value in the discussion of the dangerous sermon and conversational preaching, but to limit the scope of our inquiry, I will keep moving.

Get Your Bible and Go to the Sanctuary

In the 1990s, I went to study with Rabbi Edwin Friedman of family systems theory fame.[3] Friedman held seminars in Bethesda, Maryland, for clergy who wanted to learn family systems theory and apply it to the church family. In the mornings, Friedman would teach and discuss theory. In the afternoons, he would seek volunteers to present a congregational situation church that the theory could be applied to for teaching purposes. I remember one afternoon a clergyperson presented a very difficult situation. After an extended discussion time, after the situation had been analyzed from every angle, Friedman said this: “Get your Bible and go to the sanctuary.” I was not satisfied with that response. I was there to learn systems theory and I knew about the Bible and the sanctuary before I went. It worried me that day and all the way home. I called Friedman, gingerly expressed my frustration with his response, and asked him exactly what did he mean. He said that sometimes after all the theory has been said and done, one has to get one’s Bible and go the sanctuary and sit and talk with the One who called you. He told me that at some point, it goes back to the call. The One who called you will keep the preacher. Even after all these pages of theory and application herein, my reflection at the end is that I needed to have said a whole lot more about prayer, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the call, and the voice of God in preaching dangerous sermons. I found that time after time after time, I had to get my Bible and go to the sanctuary and talk with God. It has been my most valuable resource.



Excerpted from Surving a Dangerous Sermon by Frank A. Thomas. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] The sermon “To Sit Where They Sit” was the fourth of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in 1974. Transcribed in Henry H. Mitchell, The Recovery of Preaching (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), 1–10.

[2] The “conversational school” of preaching believes that the future of preaching is contained in the dialogue and conversations about preaching among many varied constituencies and perspectives, and not the solo act of one preacher. The main proponents are: Lucy Atkinson Rose, John S. McClure, Joseph M. Webb, Ronald J. Allen, and O. Wesley Allen Jr. See Ronald J. Allen and O. Wesley Allen Jr., The Sermon without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015).

[3] Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Synagogue and Church (New York: The Guilford Press, 2011).

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