Preaching: To Challenge or Comfort?

There is a certain weightiness to the word "bacon" these days and it's for good reason. If bacon is in a meal, it is regularly the dominate taste. It is the x-factor. Bacon is not an ingredient among others. It is the ingredient all others try to point to. When included, recipes often revolve around the taste of bacon. And bacon is not just enjoyed in the moment. The lingering taste of bacon in your mouth can hardly be beat. 

This may not have been taught in your homiletics classes in seminary, but the gospel is often to preaching, or always to preaching, what bacon is to eating. Can you imagine if your sermons were so sweet to the taste that listeners wanted to savor the lingering taste for as long as possible? To most preachers, listeners longing to hear them preach and savoring their sermons seems like a reality that is just too good to be true. But it's not. You do not have to be a masterful communicator to make listeners look forward to your preaching and savor it when it's done.

Every sermon leaves a taste in the mouth of a listener. In the preaching world we most often talk about whether or not content is memorable. Will listeners remember your second main-point? Will listeners remember the call to action at the end of the sermon? And on and on we wonder. Rarely do we talk about what listeners can't help but remember: the way your sermon made them feel; its taste in their mouths.

By "feel" we are not implying there is inherent value in the emotion a sermon conjures up. You can make people mad, sad, or happy with content that has nothing to do with the Bible. Emotional shifts are not the goal but are an effect. We are merely using "feelings" as a starting point to really talk about content, so bear with us. The reality is that listeners may often can recall how your sermon made them "feel" rather quickly. It is normal that listeners cannot quickly recall what the sermon was about last Sunday. Heck, even you, the preacher, can't remember. But if you ask listeners how it made them feel or what it "tasted" like, they might be able to remember. 

Now, there are two basic ways listeners will feel after a sermon. They will either feel challenged or comforted. By challenged, we mean listeners will sense, taste, or feel called to action by the preacher's message. The lingering taste will be about accepting a challenge, getting something done, becoming someone new, or living in a new way. Many (probably most) preachers see "challenging" their listeners as the primary purpose of their preaching. The pulpit exists to explain who listeners should be or what they should do. Listeners are called to have affection for Jesus, love others, and/or behave according to God's Law. These challenging sermons can be Christ-centered or not, but they are still about challenging listeners. 

By comforted, we mean listeners will sense, taste, or feel relieved by the preacher's message. The lingering taste will not be about accepting a challenge, getting something done, becoming someone new, or living in a new way. The lingering taste will be about accepting an accomplished reality outside of them. The lingering taste will not be one of a soldier who just received new marching orders but a townsperson who just heard that the soldiers won and the war is over.

Most preachers see their job as either challenging or comforting listeners. Preaching is either about marching orders or news that the war is over. What do you think? Why do you preach? What's your goal every Sunday? The real question is, what is the Bible's goal?

The Bible contains both calls to action and good news that the war is over; challenge and comfort; law and gospel. God's Law calls us to be certain people, do certain things, abstain from certain things, etc. This Law is for every single human being, Christian or not. We all must answer to the Law. If you see your main job on Sunday as challenging listeners to be, do, and abstain, you major on the Law.

God's Gospel comforts. It does not challenge us to be, do, or abstain. The Law makes clear that no single human begin, outside of Jesus Christ, obeys the Law. The Gospel makes clear the comforting reality that Jesus Christ obeyed the Law for us. If the Bible only contained the Law, we would all be doomed, damned, and without hope. But praise God, the Bible has another word, a piece of news for us. The war has been won! Jesus Christ has paid the price for our sin and there is nothing left for us to do. If you see your main job on Sunday as comforting listeners, you major on the Gospel. 

So, should you major on challenging or comforting? 

Well, the Bible majors on comforting. Both the word of the Law and the word of the Gospel are equally God's Word. However, as God's words they do totally different things. The Law guides us in how to live but because we fail it, it condemns us. Not only that, in our failure to do the Law, the Law offers no power to change us into the kind of people who can begin to obey its commands. The Law can't save us or change us. A preaching ministry that majors on the law majors on a word that continually condemns and leaves that taste as the dominant taste in listeners' mouths, week after week.

Listeners need to hear preaching that majors on a "better word" (Heb. 12:24). We need a "new" word; a "new covenant". We need a word of "life", not "death" (2 Cor. 3:6-7). Ultimately, the Bible is about a war being won and all of us being invited to join the party, drink the wine, and sleep well. When we see we are condemned in the sight of the Law, the Bible offers us a Gospel, leaving a good taste in our mouths. 

The Gospel is not majored on to the exclusion of the Law. The Law is needed to drive us to the Gospel and to guide us in life. However, the Law is not the point of the Bible. If you challenge your listeners, you need to comfort your listeners. Jesus Christ and His finished work is the point of the Bible. Listeners need the Good News week after week. When you give it to them, they will live secure in the love and grace of God and will actually be changed, if ever so slowly, by the better word of the Gospel.