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preaching to the taste buds – rhett snell

Everyone’s got an opinion.

Whether it’s climate change, Trump, Israel, or just about any hot potato of an issue, our social interactions are coloured by the positions we take.

Social media has only made us more adept at publishing our opinions for the world to see, and I’m certainly not immune to that.

All of which made Jonathan Haidt’s recent book The Righteous Mind an eye-opener for me.

Haidt is a social psychologist working at New York University.

He argues that our opinions (and how we receive the opinions of others) are often intuitive and subconscious. When we encounter something which challenges our preconceptions, we respond intuitively first, and rationally later.

In other words, we think we’re weighing arguments in a detached, balanced way, but the truth is that our gut has decided already and our brain has to race to not only catch up, but then justify our position.

Those intuitive responses are triggered, Haidt suggests, by our “moral taste buds.” In his research, he’s identified five such taste buds.

Care/harm: we have an aversion to suffering, and an urge to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Fairness/cheating: we are drawn to people or movements which show signs that they can be trusted, and feel disgust when people or movements cheat or take advantage of us, or others.

Loyalty/betrayal: we’re inherently tribal, so we value loyalty to our group and react strongly to threats, and at worst, people we perceive as traitors.

Authority/subversion: we have a stake in maintaining order and preventing chaos. But we are also sensitive to the misuse of authority.

Sanctity/degradation: perhaps the most complex of the taste buds, this one relates to the repugnance we feel when the things we regard as sacred are violated or degraded (this varies from culture to culture).

Liberty/oppression: we react against aggressive, controlling behaviours, and often respond with righteous anger.


So, how do the moral taste buds relate to preaching?

When I was learning to preach, I was told to be aware of my congregation, and to listen to my own sermons with their ears.

I learnt this practically when I went from preaching to a congregation of mostly 20 and 30-somethings, to preaching to a congregation on my Summer pastorate who were significantly older. Suddenly, my pop-culture references and illustrations drawn from the latest TV shows didn’t work!

Well, just like I try to think about the context of my congregation when preparing a message, I’ve been wondering what would happen if I thought about these moral taste buds when preparing my sermons.

In his book, Haidt points out how political parties actually do this (some better than others); they attempt to trigger our moral taste buds in how they frame issues. For example, a party on the left may appeal to our care/harm taste bud in selling the idea of higher taxes on the rich in order to help the vulnerable in our society. A party on the right would appeal to the taste buds like liberty/oppression and authority/subversion in arguing against big government.

People’s moral taste buds are already being triggered by what we say when we’re preaching. It happens intuitively. I think that being aware of that, and seeking to “preach to the taste buds” in a positive way, could be incredibly helpful.

dreaded interaction – rhett snell


raised_hands_w640The first time it happened it sent shivers of terror down my spine.

I was preaching in full flow, making what I thought was a deeply meaningful point. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hand begin to rise.

At first, I pushed on. I averted my gaze. I locked eyes with the opposite side of the room. But it was unavoidable. Someone in the congregation wanted to ask me a question, in the middle of my sermon!

If I’m honest, I knew this might happen. I had known when I arrived at my church that there was a culture of interaction here. This was a congregation where people loved to chat about what they’d heard, to mull it over, and to chip in with some of their own thoughts. It was unlike any other environment I’d ever preached in.

Part of the discomfort for me was that I have never felt that quick on my feet. I’m a full manuscript preacher, and I’d been used to years of crafting the flow of my sermon meticulously. At one point, I even had a little system of markings to dictate tone – reminding me when to really go for it, and when to dial it back.

So this was all new to me, and it was a bit of a challenge to get my head around.

It was a challenge for the “movement” of my sermons. Because of my style, it was hard to factor interaction into the scheme of things without it feeling like an interruption.

It was a challenge too, for my confidence. I felt much less confident answering off-the-cuff questions. Far more exposed and much less prepared.

How did I solve this conundrum?

Well, I structured the interaction.

I began to tell people at the start of my sermon that there would be a time at the end to ask questions, or to add a thought. And strangely, over a short period of time, this post-sermon Q&A time became something I really began to look forward to.

Partly, that was just a result of getting used to a more interactive congregation. In fact, more than getting used to it … I think that I’d really miss it now, if I were to preach elsewhere. It’s actually quite cool to know that people are engaging with what you have to say!

Also, I began to realise that this time allowed me to teach in a broader way than my sermon alone allowed for. Often, someone will make a point or tell a story that broadens the application of what I’ve been saying. Sometimes I can bounce off something someone has said to elaborate on a point in more depth. Occasionally, someone will ask a question about the origin of a word, or the context of the passage, which allows me to go a bit deeper into something I couldn’t include in the sermon itself – a kind of oral footnote, if you will.

For me, “dreaded interaction” has become “anticipated interaction.” I find myself thinking, “I hope someone will ask a question about this!” as I pore over a commentary looking at a specific detail of the text. And I find that sometimes, someone in the congregation will tell a story which illustrates the text in a more profound way than I could manage myself.

There’s a bit of debate out there that pits “dialogue” against “monologue”. For myself, I still absolutely believe in the power and the place of the sermon in the life of a church. And preaching to an interactive congregation has helped me to see how those two things might complement and coexist.

what’s your one sermon – rhett snell


I’d been an associate pastor for nearly 5 years, and I was on the cusp of heading off to be the sole pastor of a church. The thing I was most excited about was getting to preach more regularly, to finally be let loose to plan out a preaching year myself.

Just before I left, I was chatting with a non-church goer who asked me, “How do you come up with new things to say every Sunday?”

I jumped at the chance to tell my friend, “Well, you see, I try to preach biblically. That means I open a bible text each week and do my best to say what it says. Since there’s so much in the bible, I don’t think I’ll ever run out!”

I even made a joke about how, since some people seemed to forget the sermon by Sunday lunch, if I did ever have to go back over old ground, they probably wouldn’t notice.

These days, coming up on a year and a half into my time as a sole pastor, I realise I was both right and wrong in what I said to my friend.

I have preached expository sermons, and that has kept my preaching fresh. I find myself constantly excited to discover and to preach new portions of scripture.

On the other hand, I’m finding that the old saying that “all pastors only have one sermon” can be uncomfortably true. I have begun to realise that I have hobby-horses which emerge a disconcerting amount of the time. There are themes in scripture I tend to return to often enough that they risk over-emphasis. I even have a certain way of phrasing things which can become wearisome, if I’m not careful.

Would this be true of your preaching too?

This is what I’ve been doing to help myself to branch out a little bit…

First, I’ve done a “sermon audit”. I’ve looked back at the sermons I’ve preached over the last few years, making a note of the big point I drew from each text, as well as the themes I majored on each time. This has helped me to become more aware of my thematic blind spots.

Second, I’ve been trying to listen to sermons from a wider variety of preachers than I usually would. As I’ve gone, I’ve jotted down some of the themes I’m hearing them emphasise, particularly if that theme is something I don’t tend to talk much about myself.

Some examples from the list I’ve made…


How Jesus can heal our anger and frustration

Finding joy even in struggles

The place of habits and disciplines in our Christian walk

There are many more. My goal with these is not to crowbar them into a sermon. It’s just that, being aware that these are themes I haven’t really given a lot of time to, when I’m studying a biblical text, I want to think more about them. To be asking questions like…

What does this passage have to say to someone struggling with anger?

How does this truth help us to pray more confidently?

What are some habits we could develop to really make sure this fact beds down in our hearts?

The point of it all, at least for me, is to make sure I see both my congregation and scripture with a wider, more considered lens. And so, hopefully, preach more faithfully and effectively.

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.

preaching to people who actually exist – rhett snell


I preached my first sermon roughly 13 years ago, but I still think of myself as a new preacher.

I think that’s because for large swathes of that first decade, I wasn’t actually preaching to flesh and blood people. At least not the ones sitting through my sermons.

I was preaching to my heroes. I was preaching to my bible college lecturers. I was preaching to my favourite authors.

I was the sort of person who, when given my first opportunity to plot out a sermon calendar (for our evening service – mostly young people), decided to get going with a series on theories of the atonement.

Now, of course that might not be a bad idea, depending on your context. But the truth was, I was disappointed with my congregation. I was frustrated that they weren’t as enraptured as I was with theology, or if they were, it was usually something about the end times. “Just read some N.T. Wright, people!” I wanted to say.

Thankfully, I don’t think they noticed. I’ve found that people tend to be very generous towards young preachers. But far too much of my preaching in that time had little impact, and I came to learn that the congregation weren’t to blame for that.

The good news is, God hit me with a one-two punch which helped me to see preaching in a fresh light.

First, a friend provided me with a few “faithful wounds”, by suggesting that I may have been giving my hearers the impression that they needed a theology degree to get something out of the bible.

Second, I read Gary Millar and Phil Campbell’s brilliant little book Saving Eutychus, which eviscerated any thought I had that theologically rich, biblically faithful preaching couldn’t be simple.

Preaching to the heart as well as the head. Preparing a sermon, not an essay. Being comprehensible without being condescending. These were all things Millar and Campbell taught me, and things which continue to be at the forefront of my thinking when I prepare a sermon.

Of course, there’s the other side of the coin: preachers who are all application and no content. All engagement but with nothing of substance to communicate. By no means am I suggesting that this is the lesser evil.

But the struggle for me was – as I’d been taught – to find the simplicity on the other side of complexity. As I’ve spent time with other preachers, freshly graduated, I’ve realised I’m not the only one with this struggle.

The challenge for us bookish types, I think, is not to preach to our heroes, but the congregation in front of us. To spend time with them, to learn their language. To get familiar with and to preach to the world they actually live in, rather than the idyllic, imaginary world we might prefer.

There are definitely still Sundays where the punch of my sermon fails to land with my congregation. When my preaching is too much head and not enough heart. But it happens less than it used to. And I’m finding that I really enjoy preaching to a real congregation, rather than an imaginary one.