by Mark Gutman
One of my company’s associate directors was recently conducting a training session with the team at my office. He had planned to conduct the session in person, but a bicycle accident changed his plans, so he resorted to the phone. Phoning saved money but it had its disadvantages. Communication was more awkward. Every few minutes he would ask, “Any questions on that?” or “Anyone having any problems doing that?” His questions were usually followed by long periods of silence. At one point he told us about an enthusiastic preacher who was preaching to a rather quiet congregation. Frustrated at their apparent unresponsiveness, the preacher burst out, “I need to hear some amens.”
I can sympathize with the comment. I gave a talk at a school gathering recently and struggled with the lack of feedback. Humorous lines barely seemed to draw a smile, although smiles may have been hard to see because I had trouble seeing the listeners very well. I think I’d have given a better talk if I had heard a few amens, or something similar. My concern, though, is not that we want feedback; it’s a problem that can accompany the wish for amens. Needing people to say or holler, “I agree with you” can limit your topics and even what you say in the topics you choose.
A column I wrote a few months ago, “Reading into Isaiah,” is taken from a sermon I preached in a small church. Not a good idea. Oh I think the sermon was a good idea, but preaching it in that church that day apparently wasn’t. They haven’t asked me back, whereas before they wanted to line me up to speak often. More caution on my part would have probably helped, so I’m not blaming people for reacting in an understandable way, but where do I draw the line? Should I make sure all my messages pass the “safe” or “popular” test? Do I filter my sermons so that they are unlikely to offend anybody? A Your Church article reported that over half of pastors could name one or more topics on which they would preach little or none because hearers might be less likely to attend church in the future.
I could have preached from a different passage in Isaiah. In Isaiah 30:10, the “congregation” is quoted as telling the prophets, “Tell us pleasant things (NIV).” People will overlook a lot of problems with a sermon or a message if it is “pleasant” or humorous or reaffirming. We like to hear speakers who tell us that what we thought is true is true. We want to hear reminders that people who have a viewpoint differing from ours are either stupid (or ignorant or uninformed) or wicked. We prefer familiar music, books, friends, and sermons (and articles).
The Ellen White comment about many things to learn and many to unlearn and giving up cherished views is apparently not considered to be a guideline for sermon topics. Of course people should be willing to change their views, but don’t expect me to change a religious belief. Especially not by your talking about it in a sermon. (Or an Adventist Today column.) We listen to sermons in church to be encouraged, to be confirmed in our beliefs, or to be entertained. Being confronted with the idea that we might be mistaken is not one of our reasons for church attendance. We can listen to sermons that say we aren’t perfect as long as they don’t touch on how our theology might be mistaken.
Some people in Nazareth felt that way one time. Luke 4:15 (NIV) says that Jesus “was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.” And when he started his sermon in Nazareth, the congregation “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (verse 22). But the amens quickly turned into “We’ve had enough of you!” Where did Jesus go wrong?
If Jesus had planned on ministering to that congregation for another year, I suspect he would have started out with a different message. He may have figured that he wasn’t going to be around Nazareth very much, so he might as well cut to the chase. Maybe the ones who give “tough” messages should either be visitors or people who have ministered to (or written for) a group for years and won the right to say things that would be considered offensive if spoken by anyone else. Or should tough messages just be dropped into sermons a bit at a time?
“Birds of a feather flock together.” We stick around people who are similar to us, which makes it easier for us to think that everyone thinks as we think. After all, we don’t know people who think differently. And it’s irritating to have someone tell us (or remind us) that our way of thinking might not be put together as well as we think.
The problem of needing amens works two ways. Preachers (and writers) who want amens will sometimes fail to speak out on topics that need voicing. And people who only want to take in what they can happily say amen to will avoid what might challenge them or stretch (or change) their thinking. Some people limit their listening to right-wing radio stations (or television programs), while others limit it to left-wing. Of course the folks in each group think it sad that the other group won’t listen to the other side.
What are some topics that might not be preached from pulpits for fear of a Nazareth replay? How about overweight (which is a less safe preaching subject than smoking and drinking)? How about time wasted on the internet (a matter which is ignored in favor of warning about the danger of movies and television)? How about helping people in need of money or time (rather than a focus on calling for money in the offering plate, freeing us to otherwise ignore hurting people around us)?
Sermons on any topic need to present hope. A listener who is stunned at the change represented by a message might not notice the hope. And we find ways to explain away or forget messages we don’t like. But if I’m suggesting that you should see things the way I do instead of the way you do, I will probably make my case better if I can show how my belief can help you in everyday life.
On the listening end, if you want to grow and improve, you’ll probably be more willing to listen to someone who sometimes makes you uncomfortable. If you’re only listening to “safe” material, you’re probably missing out on growth opportunities. (Same thing for reading material.) On the teaching end, if you only preach harmless material, you and your hearers will miss out. Preaching challenging material may force you to find new angles, and the process alone means stretching your brain, not to mention the new thinking that comes from such pressure. As Dag Hammarskjold (former Secretary-General of the UN) put it, “It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity.” We need to hear amens, but let’s show some courage.