SERMON: Anger Avenue
Introduction: Pastor John Bray has spent 39 of his 40 years of pastoral ministry as Senior Pastor of Heritage Church, now a multi-site mega-church in Iowa. The church has a mix of new believers and long-time disciples. When asked what advice he would give preachers, John writes “If it can’t be applied in real life it’s a waste of time.”
Lenny: John you have been preaching for a few decades and God has used your voice to have significant impact in the life of your church. How would you say that the preaching needs of people in your ministry context have changed over the years and how has your preaching changed to address those needs?
John: I think people are a lot “less.”
• They are less Biblically literate. I can’t assume they know Bible stories. I have to explain more.
• They are less theologically isolated. It used to be that people stayed Lutheran or Catholic or Wesleyan all their lives. Now people migrate between traditions. Plus they have TV preachers. Plus we live in a more pluralistic society. I have to be aware of that…sensitive to that.
• They are less responsive to authority. Billy Graham would say, “The Bible says…” and people seemed to care. People don’t respond as well to “ought to” sermons. They are far more independent. I have to help people know not only “what” the Bible says but why it says it.
• People are less emotionally healthy. That impacts preaching. For instance, God as “Father” used to be a warm feeling. Now many people have such bad family experiences that “father” isn’t necessarily good.
• People are far less regular in attendance. I can’t assume they remember last week’s sermon.
Lenny: John I appreciate how you distinguish between holy and sinful anger. In your sermon, you focused on how the motivation for our anger determines whether it is sinful or holy. Holy anger is motivated by love for others. Holy anger surfaces, then, toward issues like poverty, human trafficking, racism, sexism, etc. Sinful anger, on the other hand, is often motivated by self-centeredness. I would argue that when it comes to preaching there is also holy anger and sinful anger. How would you distinguish between holy anger and sinful anger that surfaces in the preacher through the delivery of the sermon?
John: I remember preaching a sermon to the entire congregation when I really should have had a sit down with one member of the congregation to deal with an issue. My anger, combined with me cowardice, caused everyone to have a bad day. I just preached a sermon about hell. I’ve heard such sermons where the preacher seemed to take delight in the plight of the lost. God doesn’t. Insecurity, anger, irritation, fatigue, pride…all those things can show up in a sermon. If you can preach with eagerness on a subject that breaks the heart of God I think you need to go back to your knees. If my heart isn’t right my preaching can’t be.
Lenny: I have heard many sermons on life issues like anger that, though helpful in some practical ways, say nothing of substance about God. These kinds of sermons often offer something like “5 Simple Steps toward Anger-Free Living” which can be applied without any reliance upon or relational connection to God. I was so glad to see that, while you included lots of good and practical advice about overcoming anger, you presented the cross of Christ as God’s ultimate remedy for the problem of human anger. In other words, you offered a theological resolution to the all-too-human problem of anger. How do you personally seek to offer sermons that are both theologically substantive and practically relevant?
John: I love it when I help people have an “aha” moment in a sermon; when they see things in a new way. So I deliberately look for that…or at least I look for new ways to say old things. Without solid Biblical theology a sermon is just a speech. But if people can’t connect Biblical theology with everyday life I’ve wasted their time. James says, “Do not merely listen to the word…do what it says.” So in every sermon I look for life application. If people can’t take it home and live it why should they bother listening? In fact, I end every sermon with a “So What Moment.” It is “so what are you going to do about this?”
Lenny: One of the most important elements of the sermon, and one that many of us preachers often neglect, is space for the response of the people to the sermon. You invited people to respond to the sermon by participating in the sacrament of Communion. This is, in my estimation, the perfect response to a sermon on anger. Paul essentially tells the Corinthian Church, a church full of angry people in conflict, that they must be willing to live not only in harmony with God but in loving harmony with each other in order for them to participate in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11). So, again, inviting your people to respond to a sermon on anger by partaking of Communion is right on! What are some other ways that you foster opportunities for people to respond to the weekend message?
John: I’ve already mentioned the “so what” moment of the sermon. It often has a “this week” component…this is what I am going to do. For instance, if I preach about helping the poor we will have a volunteer opportunity connected to that. If I preach on forgiveness I might ask people to write the name of someone they need to forgive on a piece of paper and bring it to the altar. Connecting a spiritual decision to some kind of physical movement is a way to help them create a marker moment in their life. I also print a note taking guide for people to use during the sermon. On the back page of that is a “Now What” study. I include additional scripture and life application questions they can use in devotional times or in small groups.