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tony plews: prophetic tirade anyone?

Have you ever listened over time to the kind of preacher who, no matter what the passage, text, or genre, is always ‘encouraging’ their hearers? I did once for almost a year and it nearly drove me and the rest of congregation to distraction. The preacher in question was a wonderful bloke, and an empathetic pastor/counselor, but a terrible preacher. The main problem wasn’t his exegesis or his oratory, but it was his entrapment to his own ‘Barnabas’ personality type.

In my own preaching [and especially when I was teaching preaching briefly at Laidlaw College nearly ten years ago] I always try to prepare and preach in accordance with the content, the genre – and the ’emotional tone’ of the text or passage at hand.

It’s impossible to preach with balance and fidelity to the whole story of Scripture, and only be ‘positive.’ Opposition to bad attitudes, false beliefs, harmful habits, and/or perverse prejudices is inevitable. Thus all of us who would preach must at some stage be prepared to fulfill the role of the prophet and denounce what needs to be denounced. Now I know that, given the spirit of the age, most of us are likely to shy away from this because we don’t want to be labeled bigoted, judgmental, paternalistic, or self righteous. But it is one part of what we are called to be and what we are called to say.

A most useful rhetorical device for such sermons is the ‘tirade.’ Don’t think Elmer Gantry here, or the worst of American or NZ televangelists. Think of employing and conveying your own anger at some keenly felt injustice or ‘heresy.’ Think of evoking an emotional reaction in your audience which matches the message and heart of God against what needs to be opposed. For example, it is impossible to preach against the evil of abortion on demand, the exploitation and trafficking of children, or the oppression of women without either feeling some anger, and/or wanting to evoke the same in your hearers – as a prelude and motivator to actions which changes circumstances for some of the victims.

A tirade is usually a central element in such a prophetic sermon, without being the whole sermon itself. It does comprise a sustained attack on something – a false belief, prejudice, social convention or custom, or movement. While all such targets will have obvious people who personify all you are opposed to, I generally avoid using a tirade as personal attack on a named person. That usually distracts, offends, and/or polarizes people, and thus blunts the force of your argument and message.

You don’t have to actually be smoking hot with anger to deliver an effective tirade – it’s maybe better not to be. But anger, hostility and opposition IS the appropriate emotional tone for such a message. This is the time and place for caricature, put-downs, sarcasm, sardonic wit, and stinging criticism. Let fly – but don’t let loose. Focus on one target only. Use plenty of pregnant pauses to let your words sink in. And then once you are done, move on and don’t go back to it. Progress to your conclusion. Press for what you want your audience to think, to feel and to do differently.

Don’t expect to receive lots of positive feedback. Those in your audience who may identify with your target will be defensive, incensed and offended. Good!

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Tony Plews is the Executive Director of Langham Partnership New Zealand (LPNZ). He has a long connection with theological education both at home (with many years on the faculty at Laidlaw College) and overseas (with his leadership of “LeaDev-Langham” which is committed to strengthening the work of colleges in various parts of Asia).

3 Comments

  1. Geoff New says:

    Thanks for this Tony. Earlier this year I preached a series on Amos and when I preached from Amos 1-2 which is essentially about the fire and judgement of God, it was just so NOT me to preach like that. Yet – what could I do? This is what the text is about. Like you mention – staying with the emotional tone of the passage. Anyway – I preached accordingly feeling very out of character so to speak. Funny thing – and I guess this does fly in the face of your warning not to expect a lot of positive feedback – I cannot recall ever receiving such an overwhelming and positive response from the congregation. And further – they spoke of the grace in it all yet I could not see much of that at all. (You can email me a tirade for contradicting you there if you like). With that as a relatively recent experience in my mind, I find your specific thoughts on tirade helpful. “Let fly – but don’t let loose”. You have crystallised a lot of very helpful things here. Especially for the moment of delivery of such a sermon. Cheers!

  2. Gudday, Tony
    That was a word in time! I”ve been working my way through Jeremiah, and while I’ve been focusing on the way in which Jeremiah in his priestly function ‘grounds’ God’s pain (and hope) for his people (and foreshadows Christ in doing so), there have also been those ocassions where the similarities between the people of Judah and the people of Thames call forth the fire in the bones!
    Interestingly, I have also found that there are times in ‘pastoral’ work where the expression of anger is also necessary. Not every pastoral contact is ‘nice’.

  3. Amen Tony, expository Preaching, as Paul Windsor reminds us, must be faithful to the text!!

    Andrew (who’s a long long way from “home”)

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