In an article titled Considering Hearers, Haddon Robinson writes, “But if we focus too hard on not offending, or if we read too many letters from the offended, we can become paralyzed. We start qualifying every sentence. We end up with weasel sermons that are defensive, cautious, and spineless.”
I must admit, these words were much needed exhortation. Preaching on a regular basis to graduate educated, post-moderns, I have received my share of letters! Some letters are encouraging, some are rightfully corrective, but the vast majority are nitpicky. While we must do everything within our ability to preach sermons that carefully and lovingly consider the words we use, the tone we speak with and the illustrations we tell, we must not become overly careful and cautious. If we do, we risk speaking so broadly and generally, that we end up saying nothing at all.
So, how do we balance necessary caution and the proclamation of truth with boldness? Here is one suggestion: imaginary friends. Yes, you read it right – imaginary friends. Robinson calls this, “taking the listeners’ side.” As you write your sermon, imagine yourself surrounded by three, four, even five diverse people. For example, my five friends are named Chris, Victoria, Jeff, Ken and Elsa. Chris is deeply theological and socially oriented. Victoria is a product of the feminist movement, highly educated and politically savvy. Jeff is simple, homeless and wonderfully pragmatic. He loves to say, “so what.” Ken is white-collar, an MBA gradate, highly motivated and helpfully cynical. Elsa is a single mom, with many needs, endless strength and a passion for Jesus. I sit with these friends in my study every week I preach. I ask them questions and think through their answers. I make statements and ponder their responses. Considering these friends as I write sermons, helps me to be appropriately careful. It keeps me lovingly cautious.
A side benefit to this is that it also helps me to be relevant. Of course, I change my friends around every now and then. I add a young single man here and an elderly woman there… The purpose of this is to strike a balance of caution and boldness in the sermons I preach. I have found this to help.