3. If a sermon is really good then listeners will not be offended
This is not so much the presence of positive fruit, but the absence of apparently negative fruit. There are many conflict avoiders amongst us. Probably most of us would rather not see people upset or offended in the church – it certainly makes ministry easier when everyone is smiling. But we need to probe the premise here: is a sermon really failing if some get offended by it?
By that measure, Jesus’ ministry was incredibly ineffective. Jesus knew what was going on inside people and therefore seemed very willing to offend by what he said and what he did. We certainly do not have perfect insight into human hearts, but it would be utterly naïve to assume that everyone is in some sort of happy neutral state. Good preaching should disturb the comfortable and not just comfort the disturbed. There are people in our churches who should be profoundly bothered by the gospel.
But there are some important caveats to make explicit here:
A. Make sure that people are offended by the right things. If people find the grace of God scandalous, or the glory of the gospel, or character of God, or the depth of their need, then it is probably a good offense. But if people are being wound up by your personal ministry soapbox issues or legalistic preferences, if people are being upset by the promotion of a certain Christian sub-culture, then I would argue that the offense is not life-giving.
B. Make sure that people are offended by the right person. If people find your tone objectionable, or your manner distasteful, or your character un-Christ-like, then they are being offended by the wrong person. Good preaching will offend some, and they may well pin the blame on the preacher, but at the heart of the offense is the Holy Spirit’s work of conviction and shining a light into their hearts. They may lash out at you, but the bothering is being done by God. It is so hard to evaluate this as we have a seemingly infinite capacity to self-protect and justify what we do. Ask God, and ask trusted others, and make sure that your ministry has a graciousness and gentleness befitting a spokesman for Christ (as well as the courage and boldness to speak the truth that His spokesperson should demonstrate too).
C. Make sure that offense is a text-response. If people are angry at your illustrations, your anecdotes, your explanations and your applications, then there may be an issue. Ideally, the offense should be caused by the biblical text itself rather than your departure from it.
A positive-response-only expectation is not realistic for true biblical preaching. We should be seeing some apparently negative-responses, but we need God’s help to make sure that what provokes these responses is life-giving biblical preaching rather than our personal rudeness, pastoral insensitivity, or whatever else we can manage as a misfire from the pulpit.