My friend was telling me about the new minister at her church: “He’s a great preacher. He really digs into the passage and makes it come alive, and he tells good stories. He has this habit of going off on tangents sometimes, but he always ties everything together at the end.”
That sounded good to me.
Then she said in a tentative voice, “Well, there is one thing about his preaching I don’t like. Sometimes, in one of those tangents, he gives advice. And sometimes I don’t agree with his advice. A few weeks ago he gave some parenting advice. A bunch of us were talking afterwards and most of us disagreed with what he was advocating.”
My friend’s comments got me thinking about giving advice while preaching. In every sermon I preach I try to include some practical suggestions for how the biblical passage might apply to everyday life. Do those suggestions fit into the category of “advice”? How can we preachers know when something we want to suggest comes from the passage we’re preaching on or when it comes from our own opinions? How can we know if the suggestions will be helpful to the listeners, or whether congregation members will stand around afterwards talking about why they disagree with what we’ve said? And is it a totally bad thing for people to stand around and talk about their disagreement? At least they’re interacting with the sermon!
In the instance my friend was talking about, it sounded like the parenting advice given by this preacher was only tangentially related to the passage from the Bible. That seems like a warning sign to me. If I’m going to give suggestions of any kind during a sermon, I want to be sure they are clearly rooted in the passage. A lot of reflection and prayer is necessary to discern what exactly the Holy Spirit might be saying to this congregation through this particular part of the Bible.
It seems to me that in most cases, the prior question is, “What exactly is the Holy Spirit saying to me through this particular part of the Bible?” Perhaps part of what the Holy Spirit is saying to me relates to a parenting practice I engaged in (or am engaging in). Perhaps the Holy Spirit is validating that practice, and perhaps I feel nudged to talk about that particular practice as a part of the sermon.
When my friend talked about the sermon she heard, she indicated the minister seemed to be saying, “Here’s what parents should do.” Compare that to a different approach: “Here’s what we did as parents and how we benefitted from that practice, and here’s how that practice relates to this passage.” The second, and generally preferable approach in my opinion, focuses on describing behaviour as a part of telling a personal story that illustrates how a scripture has spoken into my life. Screeds have been written on guidelines for telling personal stories in sermons, and such stories can undoubtedly be overdone. But I find myself wondering how the conversation after the sermon at my friend’s church might have been different if the minister had talked about what he did (or is doing) in his family, rather than using “parents should do this” language.
A good sermon involves a specific passage from the Bible and a specific life (sometimes mine, sometimes someone who’s story I’m telling) that illustrates what that passage looks like in practice. That’s where we should start, and I presume that some suggestions and advice will come from that intersection. As preachers, we can be so afraid of giving bad advice or too much advice that we don’t describe that intersection of the Bible and real life. But we can also go further than that intersection calls for. A hard but important balancing point to find, I believe.