Two good people. They were regulars, for years. But one sermon sent them packing. What happened? I decided to be direct, to take on a poorly supported, terribly exegeted, yet popular view among many Christians. I rejected it and suggested it was a dangerous view. They didn’t like that, so they left.
Of course, I could put all the blame on them. I could argue that it is pretty sad if people assume that every week when they go to church that the preacher’s job is to simply corroborate their theological stances and that they are to leave unchanged, but somehow blessed week after week. I could argue that perhaps most church attenders (if not all) are looking for a place that simply confirms the way they already think and act, while allowing a very small space for very minor shifts. I could argue that our sanctuaries have lost their edge and no one expects an encounter with God to really mess with their idols.
I could also put the blame on myself. It wasn’t a great sermon. I could confess that my critique of that beloved viewpoint was not communicated with charity or grace, but rather was dismissive and critical. I could have admitted that I too held that view at one time but that as I carefully examined the evidence and looked at church history I had to leave it behind. I could have given them some space to hold to a divergent view. I could have recognized that some people, some good people, in my congregation probably still held that view. I could have spoken as if I was speaking to a friend across the table, rather than acting as I might on Facebook ranting about a view in the abstract.
So what does this say about “prophetic” preaching? I believe most genuine preachers want to be prophetic – they want to trust the Holy Spirit to use their sermon to speak into the lies and half-truths that infect people’s lives and inhabit our culture and even or especially our Christian culture. If that is the case, how do we do that well?
Well, from the congregation’s standpoint, perhaps we need to warn them a bit more. Perhaps we need to directly alert them to the fact that the word of God may not affirm their beliefs, even the beliefs that they believe are Biblical. Perhaps we need to remind them that each one of us is a fashioner of idols. If they forget that, and enter our churches to hear our messages and find those beloved idols being challenged, they will be shocked, and angry, and lash out.
From the preacher’s standpoint, I see a double call: we need to aim to be a centered church while also holding to the rule of charity.
A centered church: A centered church puts Christ at the center and aims for him in all things. A centered church does not fixate on boundaries and does not love to declare who is in and who is out by whatever standard of measure. A centered church preaches the gospel, a gospel center towards which all people can move, while a boundary oriented church cuts people out and declares there is no place for them.
A charitable church: Church is not meant to be a place where all people agree on all things. Do we allow space for people to hold some unorthodox ideas? (Can I admit that some of my own views are not spot on?) Can we have grace and tolerance toward people’s pet views and theological upbringings? In other words, will we love people in their shoddy-theological states and point them toward Jesus or will be rip on their views and tell them they have no place at the table of Christ if that is how they think?
I believe last week I failed on my part. I wrote a personal apology to one of the people for my failure – my failure in charity and in being properly centered. I don’t know if it will make any difference to that person, but it will make a difference to me going forward. Perhaps those who left our church also failed their own test. But until I learn how to deal with the log in my eye, I have no right to a holier than thou attitude toward those who choose to pick up their idols and leave.