Friday, September 14, 2012

Convicting or Encouraging?

For my post on preaching today, my topic will be the question of whether a message should be convicting or encouraging, or if it can be both.  A sermon that I heard a while back comes to my mind.

I heard this sermon over a decade ago, when I was visiting a Christian college.  The college was holding a conference whose theme was Romans 1:16, in which Paul emphatically declares that he is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  As I looked at the brochure, the conference appealed to me (for whatever reason), and so I took a couple of college days from high school so I could attend it, while also learning about the college, of course (and I did, since I got to talk with some of the students there, plus I took a tour).

At the conference, I was on a spiritual and a religious high, as I heard inspiring messages, saw a drama about the life of Jesus, attended interesting seminars, and (most importantly) sang beautiful, sentimental praise songs.  But there was one message that sort of ruined my spiritual high.  Actually, I think it was the main message of the event, since the brochure advertised the guy who gave it as the speaker.  This speaker was essentially telling us that the true test of whether we are ashamed of the Gospel or not will come after we have left the conference.  At the conference, he said, of course we're not ashamed of the Gospel, for everyone around us is unashamed!  But will we stand for Jesus Christ when we go back to our regular lives, when there are pressures not to stand for Jesus Christ?

I didn't care for the message, to tell you the truth.  One reason was probably that I didn't like my religious high being questioned----as if I felt the way I did simply because people around me felt as I did.  I mean, shouldn't I be commended for being in an attitude of worship, rather than being asked if that attitude was sincere and would last after I've left the conference?  Second, after a period of sentimentality and "God loves you" messages, the speaker's no-nonsense, confrontational (albeit not pounding-the-pulpit) style somewhat took me aback.  I didn't find this speaker's message particularly inspiring!

But, to my surprise, when I was eating breakfast at the cafeteria the next morning, what I was hearing was that other young people at the conference actually liked the speaker's message.  A lady was coming around to each table, asking us what we liked about the conference.  Someone replied that she liked the message from that one speaker, and the lady responded that she heard others say that they liked that speaker's message.  The speaker must have left an impression, for he spoke at the conference the following year, and (if I'm not mistaken) the speaker became a part of the campus' faculty.

What did people like about this speaker's message?  I didn't hear specific reasons that they liked it, but I'll hazard some guesses.  I think one reason was that he spoke with authority, and I've discussed the issue of speaking with authority over the last few days.  But another reason was probably that he was challenging people to live out their faith.  There are many people who want a faith that is real, and they like being challenged to go out there and to show their devotion to Jesus Christ.  It's like being in the marines----there are people who want to commit to something (or someone) greater than themselves.

I tend to be turned off by those sorts of messages, however.  One problem is that, when I'm told to do something for God, I fear that I'll do it wrong.  Another problem is that I can be rather timid, and so the prospect of going out into the real world and being unashamed of Jesus Christ frightened me, a bit.  I much preferred messages that soothed my soul----messages about Christ's love for me.  In my opinion, the way for me to become unashamed of Jesus Christ is for me to be reminded why I love Jesus Christ----because he is good and loves me.  Having a no-nonsense, confrontational message thrown in my face doesn't really do the job.  I wished that I saw more tenderness in the speaker's message.

There was one thing that I really liked about the message, though.  I remembered this last night while I was doing my daily quiet time in Leviticus.  I was reading Leviticus 19, and v 19 says that you shall not put a stumbling-block in front of the blind.  The speaker was telling us a story about students at a high school who were putting a stumbling-block (desks and chairs, I think) in the path of a blind person, and he was stumbling around.  The speaker was asking us what we would do in that situation: Would we speak out or try to do something to stop it, or would we be silent?  I appreciated his point because, in this case, one did not have to proclaim a bunch of dogmas to be unashamed of Jesus Christ; rather, one could show one's commitment to Jesus by standing up for what is right----and by empathizing with someone in a position of vulnerability.  I'm not into telling people that they'll go to hell unless they sign onto a creed.  But I do hope that I will stand up for the right way to treat people.

In my sermon this coming Sunday, will I be confrontational and convicting, or will I be encouraging and inspiring?  God's love will be a significant aspect of my sermon, and so there will be a sense in which it will be encouraging (or at least that is my hope).  But I will also share some insights and thoughts that are hopefully practical---spiritual challenges, if you will.  But I won't be in-your-face, for behind even the challenges should be the conviction that God is love.

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