Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Hardest Sermons

Speaking of J.I. Packer's 'easy' task of preaching for his godly friend's funeral, I saw last week that a book about hard sermons is coming out soon. The following is Dane Ortland's overview of the book, followed by my thoughts on both its potential usefulness and possible dangers:

This looks like a very helpful resource for pastors: The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times, edited by Bryan Chapell, out from Zondervan later this month.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Cancer. Suicide. The death of a child. As much as we wish we could avoid tragedies like these, eventually they will strike your church community. When they do, pastors must be ready to offer help by communicating the life-changing message of the gospel in a way that offers hope, truth, and encouragement during these difficult circumstances. Those asked to preach in the midst of tragedy know the anxiety of trying to say appropriate things from God’s Word that will comfort and strengthen God’s people when emotions and faith are stretched thin. This indispensable resource helps pastors prepare sermons in the face of tragedies by providing suggestions for how to approach different kinds of tragedy, as well as insight into how to handle the theological challenges of human suffering.

Contributors include Jerram Barrs, Wilson Benton, Jack Collins, Dan Doriani, Bob Flayhart, Michael Horton, Tim Keller, Mike Khandjian, John Piper, Robert Rayburn, and George Robertson.

I think this book is great…and dangerous. Great because it gives (especially young) pastors an idea of what other men in other contexts have said when their people were grieving. Great if it is read before the tragedy, as a tool that shapes the pastor and gives him an idea of what might happen and what he might say. But it is dangerous too. As a young solo pastor of a small church, tragedy drove me to my knees. In my brokenness and weakness as a pastor in the face of the suicide of an unbeliever related to people in our church, and in the face of the sudden death of the most beloved church member, I was more needy than ever. I prayed through those sermons more than any others, and God provided a particular message for the particular hurting people in my particular context each time. If this book is used as a general model, to add to the pastor’s wisdom before the tragedy, it might be awesome. It’s contributors certainly are! But if this book is overly leaned-on in the moment of tragedy, it might be too much of a crutch. I’ve heard Keller say that the problem with radio preaching is that its application is too general because the preachers are speaking to a general audience. I think that the same applies to books of sermons. They can be great wisdom-inducing tools, but they should not be one’s only resource, and in this case, not the primary one at the moment of tragedy.

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