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compelling confrontation – rhett snell


Have you ever preached a sermon where you’ve felt your audience turning on you?

I’m not a very ‘prophetic’ preacher, so it’s a rare occurrence for me, but once or twice I’ve been preaching a biblical text or truth, and as the sermon has progressed I’ve realised that people are more agitated than usual.

The Methodist author and former bishop, Will Willimon, says that if Jesus had the audience ready to kill him after his first sermon, we should be able to manage it at least once in our preaching careers. I like that!

However, there are times when I can see that I’ve caused offence (or at least, confusion) simply because I haven’t done the work to take my listeners on the journey with me. That’s not being prophetic, it’s just poor communication.

In the book Center Church, Timothy Keller explores the concept of “A” and “B” doctrines and writes…

“… each culture includes some rough areas of overlap between its own beliefs and Christian beliefs. These Christian beliefs (the “A” doctrines) will make a lot of sense to members of the culture. Others will be quite offensive (the “B” doctrines). It is important to learn how to distinguish a culture’s “A” doctrines from its “B” doctrines because knowing which are which provides the key to compelling confrontation.”[1]

I like the sound of “compelling confrontation.” To bring a biblical challenge but to do it in a persuasive way. Keller’s idea of how to do this in preaching is – using his metaphor – to construct a raft out of the “A” doctrines (which tend to float very easily), and to put the stones which are the “B” doctrines on top of the raft. That’s the way to get them across the river.

Here’s an example: in the West, many people struggle with the idea of God’s judgement. It’s the sort of thing which violates our sense of tolerance and democracy.

On the other hand, most Kiwis are more than fine with the idea that God is love. This fits very well with our cultural assumptions.

Of course, good preachers want to teach the whole counsel of Scripture. We want our hearers to understand the love of God and the seriousness of sin. The reality of judgement. What I’ve realised is that it’s possible to float the “B” doctrine of God’s judgement across the river on the “A” doctrine of God’s love.

I might start by talking about how love is active. How love fights for the good of the other. How love gets angry at injustice! That love is never passive and uncaring, but dynamic and active. I might speak about how, because I love my children, I get angry at anything that might harm them.

Then, I might talk about how God’s judgement and wrath is another way of saying his “holy love.” It’s God’s anger at the sin which harms his good creation, and his steady and unyielding opposition to that sin.

I’ve found that when I take the time to do this, I generally get more engaged nods and fewer folks switching off.

So now, whenever I study a passage, I try to think, “What are the truths here which will float? What are the truths that will be confronting in our culture?” and then “How can I make that confrontation compelling, rather than a clanging cymbal?”

[1] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 124.

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