Should we preach to uplift or convict?

A couple of years ago, we were going around the room at our new member class at church and the people were sharing why they came to our church and stayed. A woman said, “At my last church, the sermon made me feel bad about myself, but now at this church I always go home feeling good about myself.” It made my evangelical heart uneasy to hear her say that because if you leave church feeling good about yourself, doesn’t that mean no change of heart has occurred and I’ve failed you as a preacher? I’ve just started reading Lori Carrell’s Preaching That Matters and I’m pondering what should be the goal of my preaching. Is it primarily supposed to convict listeners and expose them to difficult truths or to uplift and comfort them with good news?

Carrell uses a quote from Stanley Hauerwas that beautifully captures the kind of preacher that I want very badly not to be:

The ministry seems captured in our time by people who are desperately afraid that they might actually be caught with a conviction at some point in their ministry… They, therefore, see their tasks to “manage” their congregations by specializing in the politics of agreement by always being agreeable. The preaching such a ministry produces is designed to reinforce our presumed agreements, since a “good church” is one without conflict… God has entrusted us, His Church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed, with the aid of much theory, to make that story boring as hell. [50]

I’ve been told that the primary question I should ask about my sermons is “Where’s the good news?” But a deeper question is whether the “good news” I’m preaching is agreeable or compelling, which are two very different things. Agreeable means you go home feeling good about yourself; compelling means you go home feeling fired up to change things about your life and the world. To me, it would not be good news to hear a preacher say, “There’s nothing wrong with you so relax and take a deep breath because God thinks you’re all right.” I’m always going to hear disingenuous agreeableness in a message like that.

Jesus’ good news should not be anything that could be confused with the power of positive thinking. It always involves deliverance: the cross and the empty tomb. The chains of our sin need to be named, rebuked, and put to death so that we can step into the greater freedom and resurrection Jesus has made possible. If you’re walking through life in chains, it’s not good news to be told you don’t have any chains; it’s good news to hear a word that smashes those chains.

Now I think there’s a difference between calling out sin and using threats of divine retribution as a rhetorical strategy. I believe in convicting people of sin, but I don’t believe in threatening them, because the point is to genuinely recognize our sin for the ugliness it is and embrace the freedom God has to offer, not to throw up careless attempts at making more decisive “decisions for Christ” because we’ve had the hell scared into us.

Jesus’ cross has given us a safe space to be real about our shortcomings. It is within an ambience of grace that we learn how to name our sin and gain liberation from chains that we had been clueless about before God’s grace gave us the safety to examine them. Furthermore, I think we will be made more thirsty for God’s living water if we are exposed to the beauty of heaven instead of only thinking about the good news of Christianity as the absence of hell.

So it’s not sufficient to merely call out sin; in addition to naming the world we leave behind, good preaching shares the hope of the new kingdom God has called us to enter. That’s the uplifting side. We must be both inspired and convicted to go deeper into the kingdom of God; that is the point. Any “good news” that says, “You’re fine; stay right where you are” is not the gospel. The gospel always says what the beaver says in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe when Edmund and Lucy first see him in the forest: “Come further in!”

In her book, Dr. Carrell also quotes John Stott sharing a summary of what solid Biblical preaching should look like: “To expound Scripture is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and his people obey him” (56). A sermon should always have good news; it should also always offer a word from God to obey. I want sermons that knock me flat and compel me to do things that other people call ridiculous. What are your thoughts on this? Should sermons convict or uplift or some sort of combination of both? Or do you see this in a totally different paradigm?

17 thoughts on “Should we preach to uplift or convict?

  1. I’ve been to many churches where the preacher seemed to focus almost exclusively on “convicting”, or essentially trying to guilt people into doing what the church wanted them to do, or threaten with curses based on Bible verses taken out of their contexts, or overall talking more about how you’re not doing enough, you’re not giving enough, pushing people to do more more more.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining this very well; I don’t have your gift for words. I think what should be focused on is not so much “uplifting” or “convicting”, but perhaps “challenging,” with also regularly affirming that they are loved by God as they are right now.

    • “I think what should be focused on is not so much “uplifting” or “convicting”, but perhaps “challenging,” with also regularly affirming that they are loved by God as they are right now.” Actually you’ve articulated yourself quite well. I really like the way you put it here.

  2. I remember my father telling me – it’s probably a quote – that a good sermon should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

  3. When the cross no longer is perceived as a “safe place” to learn, confess or commune, words of conviction become weapons and personal attacks for parishioners in whom the Holy Spirit is still working. Human beings thrive on positive reinforcement. Conversion comes from planting the seed, nurturing it with love, supporting it with fellowship and fertilizing it with all kinds of truths (words and behaviors). The Holy Spirit is the transformer, not the facilitator.
    Personally, I believe when I leave the pew, regardless of the sermon theme or who is preaching, it is up to me to discern the message and motive by the hunger and conviction placed in my heart by the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for yet another opportunity to “do better”: with a reminder of where I am falling short, and maybe (hopefully) armed with new skills to achieve that goal. Pastors and Preachers etc…who prayerfully and humbly “feed the flock” become the facilitators of how we all can be transformed from our guilt and sin, how much we are loved and cherished by a God that doesn’t make mistakes and does not want us to fail. We should all expect to walk away from any sermon with a renewed spirit, hopeful in our humble attempts and downright joyful and enthusiastic, don’t you think?
    In my practice, I am most frustrated when my earnest attempts to “channel” the Holy Spirit seem to fail to achieve the desired (mine, or perceived) results. I appreciate being reminded that it is the Holy Spirit that ultimately heals the hurt, sin and destruction at the root of the problem, not my humble, well-intentioned attempt to facilitate that healing. Doesn’t mean that I stop listening and learning better ways to plant the seeds. Yet another opportunity for me to grow personally. THANKS, Morgan.

  4. MG — this is an excellent post on a very relevant question. My brief answer is to strive for “transformational, not just informational.” Yes, it is the Lord who transforms, but preachers are (almost by definition) called to be “catalysts” in that process. We generally describe good news as “positive” and sin news (or hell) as “negative”, but neither label should inhibit what we hear from the pulpit.

  5. Morgan, my take on these important questions is that we are aiming to convict and uplift. Frederick Buechner said that the gospel is bad news before it is good news. John Wesley said in every sermon we should invite, convince, offer Christ, and build people up. And so on.

    I don’t think a sermon that convicts has failed if people leave worship feeling good. Perhaps they feel good because Jesus Christ has been graciously present in the sermon as well.

    But I share your worry about sermons that are little more than attempts to make (in Will Willimon’s words) already nice people even nicer.

    • I would like people to feel “good” after a sermon I preach in the sense of being grateful, excited, renewed, or motivated. I just struggle with the concept of feeling good about yourself. Some people want to say that there’s a healthy kind of pride. I think it’s okay to feel loved and honored and humbled by how God is using you, but feeling good about yourself seems like it’s giving glory to yourself rather than God. At the same time, I’ve definitely needed some sermons that were comfort in a time when I was feeling defeated and being too hard on myself. This is a place where I want to say one thing ideologically but I’m not sure my experience matches up with it.

      • I understand that feeling … although I shy away from the word “ideology” as it has overtones that do not match what I mean. I prefer to say “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.”

  6. Morgan, I love reading your posts. This one is of particular interest to me because it is a question that I ask myself often. I feel that I am responsible to expose the truth of scripture in such a way that the Holy Spirit can convict, grant peace, solidify hope, and call people to be followers of Jesus Christ. As to what the individual members of the congregation receive from the message I try to leave that up to the Holy Spirit. On any given Sunday I can have people tell me how great the sermon was, others how it confused them, and there are always one or two who decided that it made them angry. Since I did not in my wildest dreams intend to make anyone angry I usually don’t place much stock in this comment. The people who tell me that it was a good sermon usually say that every Sunday, even when I know I have not been very good at all, so I simply say thanks and promptly forget it. If there are those who are confused, I assume they were listening and need clarification…these are the ones that I spend more time with. Preaching is my passion, but it is a major responsibility that requires considerable prep time. Bless you my brother!

  7. I always thought there were two valid reasons for preaching; the first was to educate the listener and the other to provide a personal testimony. The Holy Spirit will – as a result, will take care of the “uplifting” as well as the conviction.

    • I don’t disagree with the importance of elucidating Biblical truth and sharing personal testimony. The book I’m reading talks about making preaching transformational rather than just informational. I don’t want to just say things that people find interesting and heartwarming. The Holy Spirit “takes care of” conviction and inspiration partly by compelling me to be more intentional in how I prepare what I say.

      • At times I tend to sound sarcastic, but I do not mean to be by my response. Words always amaze me. At 83+ years of age and a “student” most of those years, I cannot recall ever hearing the word – transformational, until it seemed to creep into the language of many of our brothers and sisters in the faith, and I have yet to hear anyone explain why it was not used – early on, in explaining Jesus’ words, “You must be born again.” I can’t speak for others, but my experience after responding to Him has assured me that there is no greater “transformer” than our Lord

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