We pastors like it when our congregations love us. That’s not all bad. A healthy congregation should love and respects its pastors (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; Hebrews 13:7, 17), and godly under-shepherds shouldn’t domineer the sheep (1 Peter 5:1-3). But do you every find yourself aiming for the fondness of the church more than faithfulness to God? Courting the congregation’s love and loyalty can subtly affect our selection of sermon texts, which in turn leads to easy-listening sermons.
Our fear of man is then further compounded when we’re asked by those in the congregation to preach messages that essentially affirm what they already want to hear. We’re reminded of King Ahab’s messenger who approached Micaiah, the Lord’s prophet, in order to solicit his approval: “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably” (1 Kings 22:13, emphasis added).
The desire for easy, affirming preaching was a perennial problem for God’s people, and it eventually led to Israel’s exile. This problem still plagues the church today, which is why we need to hear Isaiah address it head-on:
For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions; leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 30:9-11; cf. Amos 5:10).
Even when when we are challenged to prove our pastoral boldness, we preach not against the church’s sins, but against the world’s. As a result, our people “go hungry,” and they are “parched with thirst” (Isaiah 5:13). Sure, the church may continue its potlucks, but God’s mouthpieces grow mealy-mouthed, and the souls of our people go starving.
Preaching Against the Choir
The human tendency to shy away from hard truths should serve as a warning to pastors and to congregations. The apostle Paul describes those who don’t want to hear the truth as having “itching ears,” and he says that such people recruit teachers to fit their own lusts (2 Timothy 4:3). No wonder he had to remind Timothy about the importance of faithful preaching:
Preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season. Reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)
But how can we reprove, rebuke, and exhort if we regularly avoid the texts that confront the sins of our own congregation? We need to ask ourselves whether we’re willing to the preach hard texts . . .
- the ones that call out not only atheism but also Christian nominalism
- the ones that rebuke not only the world’s excesses but also our own greed
- the ones that call out not only the world’s profanity but also our own sinful anger
- the ones that correct not only the world’s hatred but also our own lack of love
- the ones that reprove not only the culture’s sexual immorality but also our own lust, fornication, and adultery
Are you really being faithful to preach “out of season” if you avoid the texts that run counter to the spirit of this age? Preaching to the choir is easy. But preaching against the choir––now that takes biblical courage. Yet it’s required for pastors who want to hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). And if we need examples, God’s Word is filled with sobering cautions, admonitions, and warnings—many of which are drawn from the Old Testament—aimed at Christians in the church (see Hebrews 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:26-39).
To be clear, faithful preaching doesn’t mean that every sermon has to be hard to hear. However, the Risen Lord Jesus expects His under-shepherds to lovingly but firmly confront and correct His sheep through the preaching of His Word. But if we refuse to repent by continuing to ignore sin and false teaching, then, like the church at Pergamum, Jesus has a warning for us: “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). In other words, Jesus is not ok with pastors who pitch softballs from the pulpit week after week while bad doctrine and immorality infect His flock.
In the end, we must trust God to bless the preaching of hard texts just as we do with easier texts. We want to be able to say with Paul in Acts 20:29, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” And remember, that was to a group of Ephesian elders!
Paul didn’t shrink back from preaching the kind of confrontational, convicting texts that cut against the grain of his natural fear of man. He preached not only God’s goodness, but also His severity. He preached not only God’s promises, but also His warnings and threats. He preached not only mercy, but judgment. He preached not only heaven, but hell. And he preached it all, not only to unbelievers, but to Christians.
Pastors, does that kind of boldness mark your ministry? Or are you shrinking back?