Chapter 68

Preaching That Opens Ears and Hearts

An interview with Haddon Robinson

When you think of positive and negative preaching, what comes to mind?

Haddon Robinson: The primary emotional element of many evangelical sermons is guilt. People leave feeling guilty. Seldom do they leave feeling they have succeeded.

We can take almost any passage of Scripture and turn it into guilt. Although 1 Peter 1:3-4 says, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope," the emphasis of our sermon can be, "But your hope isn't as strong as it used to be, is it?" Instead of leaving people with great hope and desire, we keep raising the bar beyond where people can jump.

The problem is people do not change much from guilt. It's not a good motivator.

If guilt is so ineffective, why do we use it?

If you want to learn how to hit a baseball, don't watch three .100 hitters; watch one .300 hitter.

Many people come from homes where they were seldom affirmed by their parents, or at least by their fathers. They can't remember a time when their fathers took them aside and said, "I think you're great. It doesn't matter to me whether you succeed or fail; you are the greatest thing that ever happened to me." If we grew up feeling we couldn't please our parents, we may carry that into the pulpit. We may think we can motivate others by constantly reminding them how far short they fall.

In addition, conservatives are not always comfortable commending people. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Mad Hatter if there's any cake. He says, "Cake? Well, no. We had cake yesterday, and we'll have cake tomorrow, but we never have any cake today." Similarly, we had cake in the past when God was alive and well and doing things; we'll have cake in the future when Jesus returns; but we treat today like stale bread. Somehow we have a hard time commending the people who are committed and loving and making a difference today.

And yet, the New Testament is filled with places where Paul commends individuals and congregations. For example, he says to the Thessalonians: "We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." He says to the Philippians, "I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ."

What is a legitimate place for negative elements in preaching?

The Old Testament prophets warned that if Israel did not turn from their sin they would be taken captive. You can't preach the Scriptures without pointing to where failure and danger lie.

But even when warning people, we have to say, "By the grace and power of God, you can be different than you are." And that is not just something to throw at the end of the sermon; it is inherent in the way God gives his message. He is always a God of grace and empowerment. He wants the best for his people. The warnings are given within the broader context of God's delight in and concern for his people.

God begins the Ten Commandments by saying, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." Even the Law begins with the affirmation of God's power and love and concern for the people.

What are some important ways we can include positive elements in our sermons?

Positive preaching shows up in illustrations. Rather than illustrating a virtue by talking about somebody who does not display it, positive preaching shows someone doing it. If you want to learn how to hit a baseball, don't watch three .100 hitters; watch one .300 hitter. Show someone doing it right. Positive preaching encourages people, shows them they can be better than they are, and suggests ways to improve.

At the same time, positive preaching should not deny the reality of where we are now. You can't preach the good news unless a person senses the bad news. Positive preaching recognizes our depravity, but it also recognizes that there is power from the Holy Spirit that enables us to grow. We are all in a growth process. We are often aware of how far we have to go, but not how far we have come. We need to encourage one another by pointing out progress.

Can you suggest a ratio of negative to positive for our preaching?

I had a formula when raising my kids. I wanted to give them ten that-a-boys for every "you jerk." If I had turned that around, I would have destroyed them. As a seminary president, I was at my best when I caught people doing something right and commending them rather than catching them doing something wrong and criticizing them. If the people know a preacher loves and values them, then when he has bad news to give, they hear it. On the other hand, if every sermon is filled with the negative, people shut their ears.

Years ago when we lived in Dallas, I'd often go to First Baptist Church to hear pastor W. A. Criswell. When he came back from a trip, he would say things like, "I've just preached in a score of churches, and you are the greatest people a preacher could want. When I preach here, you give a response to God's Word that is encouraging." When I was younger, I mistook that for flattery. Now I'm absolutely sure he believed what he said. And the people loved him.