When I was a student at Liverpool University, a group of us from the Christian Union attended a Sunday service at a Baptist church. The minister spoke with us afterwards. He told us how a woman in his congregation had taken him to task the week before because his sermon had been on a difficult subject. “I want to be encouraged and made to feel good when I come to church, I don’t want to be challenged!” I don’t know what he said to the woman but he made it clear to us that he believed that it was his moral duty as a Christian minister to preach what people needed to hear.
Twenty years later I was due to preach at my church in Bury, Lancashire. It was Christmas, and I had written a sermon well in advance. Then news came of the tsunami. Day by day the death toll rose. It reached a quarter of a million. I realised that I could not ignore such a momentous disaster; I could no longer preach the sermon that I had prepared. So I wrote a new sermon where I set out how God interacts with the world that he created. After the service a couple of people were very angry with me. The noise attracted three others who said it was the best sermon they had ever heard; one of these said “I heard a Bishop on the Radio. I thought great, he’ll answer my questions about the tsunami, but what he spoke was evasive, meally-mouthed drivel, I was very disappointed”.
Should a hard-hitting or honest sermon ever be preached? Is it right to preach what the Bible says? Is it better to avoid certain subjects in case someone gets upset? Motivation is a key thing. If the intention of the sermon is to wound and to hurt, then clearly this is wrong. But if the motive is good, if hearing the sermon answers questions that members of the congregation have brought with them that morning, or prevents someone from doing something wrong that coming week, then that is good.
Practically speaking, if a preacher decided that it was a good policy to avoid causing upset, what issues and subjects would have to be avoided? The list would be very long, and it would keep growing. Yes, some people’s feelings would be spared. But there are two sides to this; what of the harm done in neglecting to teach the things that people need to hear? Sometimes the truth hurts, but hearing the truth can lead a person to turn their life around.
What becomes of people who grow up in a church where serious issues are not dealt with, where the weekly sermon-slot is a form of light entertainment, words designed to make them feel good? The crunch can occur when some personal tragedy hits a member of the congregation. I meet people like this from time to time, shipwrecked souls who have lost their faith because they were taught a lop-sided Christianity that did not prepare them for real life. The lies and half-truths that were their weekly diet did not enable their spirit to grow strong and healthy. When disaster came, their faith was not strong enough to withstand the storm and stress of life.