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. 
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?