With evangelical PR spiraling out of control, and religious nones soaring, you may find more skeptics in your pews this Easter. How will you engage skepticism this Easter?
Sermon preparation is, at once, intensely personal and publicly accountable. We preach a text visible to all while listening to the invisible promptings of the Spirit through prayer, experience, culture, and our own congregations. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider as you prepare to preach this Easter.
Acknowledge the usefulness of doubt
Anything worth believing has to be worth doubting. If your beliefs can’t stand up to your doubts and to the questions that rise through difficult times, what value do your beliefs really have? Are they even true? Doubt has many uses. Doubt can bring clarity to what we believe by weakening wrong beliefs. For instance, by doubting religious and scientific thought, Copernicus overturned the commonly held view that the sun revolves around the earth. His heliocentric model of our solar system challenged biblical interpretation of “the earth standing still.” This brave skepticism led to better biblical interpretation and the discovery of elliptical orbits and the parallax effect.
Doubt can also strengthen existing beliefs. I think of the times of suffering where I’ve been forced to wrestle with belief in a sovereign God (sexual abuse of a family member, suicide of a best friend). My doubt took me deeper into the Father’s profound love and further into the triumphant power of the Cross to overthrow evil. Of course, there are less constructive forms of doubt such as doubt that is close-minded and unwilling to change. But often evangelicals are quick to dismiss the merits of doubt. Acknowledge the usefulness of doubt this Easter, but consider going a step further. Sympathize with doubt. It’s an audacious claim, the Resurrection. Articulate the absurdity of Christian belief, “We all know dead people don’t walk out of the funeral home. So what makes Jesus any different?”
Study your passage with a skeptical friend
Don’t study your passage in isolation and avoid consulting Christian scholars only. Ask a skeptical friend or neighbor what they think about the sermon text. Encourage them to voice their doubts about it, to share what they find hard to believe. Now, take those doubts with you into your exegesis and sermon writing. You’ll see the passage in a new light and anticipate genuine objections held by people in your congregation. Working with local doubt can be more effective than grabbing a generic “6 Skeptical Questions about Easter” off a blog!
When I’m working through a text I have a figurative or literal conversation with skeptical friends. This helps me understand how to make the sermon touch down in their mental and theological world. It often results in simple but important changes in vocabulary. Theological terms like sin and faith are often misunderstood. For instance, a skeptical friend once asked me about faith, “What does it mean to ‘give it all to God’ anyway?” This helped me realize I needed to explain a familiar Christian phrase with fresh language. I said something like, “It does sound weird, doesn’t it? Like giving up on what you care about, closing your eyes and wishing indifference over yourself. But faith is less robotic and more relational. It’s a matter of trust not disinterest. Tell God what you prefer, but surrender your preference to his wise will.” I carried this into a sermon. Instead of assuming people understand and embrace the biblical notion of sin, I may cite Immanuel Kant’s observation that “we are all made of crooked timber” or Augustine’s explanation that sin is “curving in on one’s self.”
As you preach the gospel this Easter, consider some of the longings of the skeptical people in your congregation and city, and how Jesus uniquely fulfills them.
Tell your audience what you will and won’t do
Too often preachers try to solve all the rational problems in a text, and miss the heart, or leap over rational objections by piling up emotive stories. If you try to prove the Resurrection by working through all the potential objections, you’ll miss a whole segment of people who don’t object and vice versa. In order strike a proper balance of head and heart, it’s important to let people know what you will and won’t accomplish in a single sermon: “I may not answer all your objections today, but I hope you’ll hear me out and if you still have questions I’d love to talk to you or give you a resource for further reflection.” Avoid strict apologetics. Get to the heart of the gospel. Aim for clarity. Invite dialogue. Pray for the Spirit to work through the sermon like lightning through steel, bringing souls to life.
Show don’t just tell the gospel
The substitutionary death and unrepeatable resurrection of Jesus Christ is the unequivocal foundation for the salvation of sinners and a whole new world. To put it another way, the gospel is the good and true story that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and Resurrection and is making all things new, even us. Repentance and faith in this gospel is essential to our enjoyment of Christ and all his benefits. But this gospel isn’t just told in the pages of Scripture, it’s shown.
Jesus fleshed out the gospel. He put clothes on grace. He told the truth in a way that made you want to believe it’s true. To one who valued wealth, he promised treasure in heaven. To the person thirsting for satisfaction, he extended living water. To the fishermen, he promised the greatest catch of their lives. To the doubting, he gave physical proof. Jesus didn’t preach the truth, he placed it on the heart. And each heart is different. He listened to the skeptic and discerned their deepest longing, longings he put there, and insisted they find fulfilment, in him.
As you preach the gospel this Easter, consider some of the longings of the skeptical people in your congregation and city, and how Jesus uniquely fulfills them. Then show them how the death and resurrection of Jesus challenges and excels their object of fulfilment. A few examples:
Longing for hope
Resurrection can be especially compelling for people who are longing for a new start in life. People whose lives have been littered with failure, scarred by abuse, humbled through suffering, darkened by depression, or ruined by addiction, need the hope of becoming a new creation. To those seeking hope, the Resurrection exiles the old life and welcomes a new life in Christ, shedding a bright ray of hope into the heart of the hopeless.
Longing for intimacy
Not all skepticism is rational. People are often skeptical of the church because of relational hurts or fears. Even the best friendship or marriage isn’t enough for our desire to be noticed, loved, and cared for. We all want a place where we can be ourselves and know we are accepted. We want relationships that are secure, where we feel safe to share our innermost thoughts and darkest struggles. This is especially true of the person practicing serial monogamy, stuck in a broken marriage, or the celibate, lonely single. To those seeking intimacy, union with the risen Christ promises entrance into the most intimate, loving, unbreakable relationship possible.
While we should tell people the gospel is logical, and reason with them from the Bible about the great disparity between sinners and a holy God, we should also follow Jesus’ example by showing them why the gospel is worth believing. Give them an Atonement and Resurrection they wish were true, and pray God gives them faith to receive it.
Jonathan Dodson is the founding pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection and The Unbelievable Gospel. He is also the founder of GospelCenteredDiscipleship.com.