The Need for Nuance in Preaching
Once again my friend Andrew Roycroft writes with wisdom and precision. His article on the need for nuance and careful thinking and speaking in a world where simple sloganeering holds sway is well worth the read.
I have had a note sitting on my desk for a while now with ideas for Gentle Reformation articles. At the top of the list is one on the need for nuance in preaching. Andrew’s article refreshed my memory—for the note was long since buried under a pile of papers.
Preachers are called to state plain and simple truths. In a world which is soundbite driven and where assertive dogmatism wins points and applause even if it bears no relation to reality, it is easy for preachers to fall into that trap.
Yes, some of our work is to proclaim with clarity and conviction the essential truths of God’s word. We must not mute or soften the bugle call. Truths, especially in the realm of central doctrines and our response to Christ’s saving work, need to be sounded crystal clear. And our congregations need to see and hear them sounded with clarity.
But there are other times where it is not a sledgehammer, but a scalpel which is needed.
I am a great fan of the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot—where Alexander took his sword and sliced through a knot that had baffled many. But for all that, it is easy to be simplistic where life is complex, and preachers can fall into that trap too.
Andrew Roycroft writes:
“We desperately need nuance, not as a means of diluting our own views, or deflating those of others, but as a way of showing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is undeniably adept at questioning our basic assumptions as human beings, and providing answers which satisfy the mind as well as the emotions.”
Much could be said about the need for thoughtful nuanced clarity on the ethical issues of the day—and Andrew’s article is deeply suggestive in this way, so I want to go in a different direction and highlight the need for nuance especially in application in preaching.
Each preacher has been given a certain personality—we need to know ourselves. One of the great rules of preaching is to take the sword of the word and plunge it into your own heart before plunging it into anyone else’s. Sometimes in preaching people have said, “How did you know what I was thinking?” and the response is “I didn’t, I just know how my mind works.”
But what of the people who never say that to us? Whose minds work differently, or whose personality is shaped differently to ours?
We need to know that not everyone is like us. Preachers know that they need to make application to the different categories of people sitting in front of them—old, young, student, home-makers, employed, unemployed, retired, sick, etc—but we also need to preach to the different categories of personality sitting in front of us.
How an extrovert sees an issue is very different from how an introvert sees an issue. How a timid person sees something is different from how a confident person sees something.
In applications it is good to turn the tables and ask: What is the other side of this application (especially if someone different to me was saying this)?
Let me give some examples of what I mean:
Illustration #1: A preacher is waxing eloquent on the problem of worry. He points out that worry is a failure to trust God. It is also a form of pride, he says, when you worry you are putting yourself in God’s place thinking that you should know everything and understand it all. You just need to repent of your worry and lack of trust and leave things in God’s hands.
What is the problem with such an application? Is it untrue: not necessarily, but it is one-sided.
What is the result? Apart from the pastoral failure to equip the person to fight worry, it has also left a group of people in the room untouched. They aren’t worriers. But why do they not worry, is it because they have greater faith? Maybe, or it might be because they are supremely confident in their own abilities to cope with whatever life has to throw at them. They too are failing to trust God.
A balanced sermon points out the failure of both parties.
Illustration #2: Something similar could be said about the worship of money. The preacher criticises those whose love of money is evident in the flash cars, the designer labels they wear etc. But he leaves untouched those whose peace comes not from trusting God, but from having enough saved to provide in every circumstance.
Illustration #3: I remember reading a book where the preacher said introverts needed to step outside their comfort zones and in giving themselves to others they would learn how to cope, and they wouldn’t need time to recharge etc. They needed to die to themselves.
I am by no means an introvert, but I have come to understand and value the place and purpose of God’s rich design of differing personalities. One is not better than the other.
I also see the need to die to self, and to step outside our comfort zones. But what was lacking in the above, as well as a measure of pastoral wisdom, was the equivalent word to extroverts, to back off, to stop talking, to stop dominating conversations, to show more interest in others—in short, to die to self.
Illustration #4: A preacher may describe the proud person: they love to talk about themselves and be centre of attention, but does pride always look like that?
One person’s pride might lead them to speak out, but another’s may cause them to be silent, not giving an opinion for fear of what others might think of them, because the opinion of others matters too much!
All of these examples leave one set of people feeling as if they are the only sinners in the room, and one set of people feeling that they are doing ok, when in fact the truth might be far from that. Sin is more dangerous—there are many ways to sin.
Illustration #5: A preacher challenges preachers at a preachers’ conference for laziness, for not pushing yourself enough in the study, for not giving time to work on your sermon. Perhaps he had plunged the sword deep into his own heart and that is where it came out bleeding. But where is the opposite and much needed application to those who have worked hard, or to those with a sensitive conscience who now feel driven to overwork and burnout? Or to those who work as if the outcome depends on them?
In preaching to ourselves, we need to remember that not everyone is as big a sinner as we are, or in the ways that we are!
Brothers, as you preach, know yourself, but know others too, and preach to the way God has wired them. Work the sin back diagnostically to its source and then investigate how that flaw would manifest itself in various different personality types.
Brothers and sisters as you listen, don’t let applications pass you by—ask yourself: What is there that hasn’t been said here but that I should have heard?