It happened again just recently. I sat in church and listened as the morning’s preacher vented anger and frustration toward some unspecified complainers and troublemakers in the church.
Reactions afterward were the usual mixture. Some said “We needed that!” Some said, “It’s too bad those who needed to hear it weren’t here!” Some asked, “What in the world is going on?” And some were saddened that the preacher chose to use the pulpit in such a way.
On the one hand I sympathized with the impulse which led to the sermon. Church life is often frustrating, and ministers do sometimes feel that the church needs a good prophetic pounding.
On the other hand, my experience is that such venting from the pulpit rarely accomplishes the preacher’s intention. More often people are hurt, lines are drawn, and an already tenuous situation is made even worse.
So can anger be a legitimate factor in preaching? Sometimes.
In the weeks after 9/11, many of us were angry at the terrorist attack on our country and said so from the pulpit. The country was angry as well, and preachers needed to acknowledge the people’s anger and our own in order to help us all begin to heal. We want our preachers to be passionate about sin and injustice.
But a preacher’s anger can become a weapon when it’s expressed from the pulpit. By the very nature of our services, the one who preaches is in a position of power. He or she is speaking, and everyone else is supposed to listen. To use that position of power to berate a congregation does not meet biblical standards for dealing with conflict. Instead it is a kind of abuse.
Even more crucial, the preacher speaks for God. Many will respond to the preacher’s anger by feeling that God is angry with them, too. The preachers of my own childhood were so angry so much of the time that it took me into adulthood to believe the simple truth that God is love.
Preachers should observe the following conditions with regard to expressing anger from the pulpit:
–Process your own anger elsewhere. The pulpit is not for your personal therapy. Find other ways to get in touch with and express your negative feelings.
–Be clear what you’re angry about. Be angry about sin. Be angry about injustice. But don’t be angry at your people. Love them. Their lives are difficult enough without your anger.
–Search for positive ways to approach the issue. If you’re angry about poverty in your town, don’t berate people for their stinginess. Instead, suggest possibilities for initiatives your church can take. Every issue is subject to a constructive approach if only we take the time and trouble to find it. Sometimes preachers take refuge in anger out of sheer laziness.
–Remember the Scripture. Paul tells the Ephesians, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Assuming we plan our sermons in advance, Saturday’s anger should never spill over into Sunday morning!
The Apostle James cautions “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” When we give way to anger in our preaching we seldom if ever get the results we hope for. Indeed, we run the risk of adding to the damage rather than healing it.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.