There is great pressure on today’s preacher to be ‘positive’. “Don’t criticise me, judge me, accuse me,” hearers seem to be pleading. “Uplift me, inspire me, encourage me.”
To what extent should preachers give in to this pressure, and to what extend should they resist it? This question is addressed by Craig Brian Larson in chapter 68 of The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching.
As Larson says,
One of our most important decisions when crafting a sermon is whether to frame it positively (what to do, what’s right, our hope in God, the promises) or negatively (what not to do, what’s wrong, the sinful human condition).
When preparing to preach from Malachi 1:6-14, Larson had to choose between a positive and a negative approach. The passage itself is a scathing indictment of the Israelites and their priests. They were showing contempt for God by giving him the worst, not the best, in their worship.
Such a sermon might well have been framed negatively: how people show contempt for God. Following that approach, the preacher might have said that we show contempt for God when we respect a father or employer above God; when we offer God what we don’t value; when we worship God as if he we trivial. Taking a positive approach, however, Larson sought to how we honour God. We honour him when we respect him above a father or employer; when we give him what we value; and when we worship him in a way that reflects his greatness. The negative points were made, but then the positive points were developed by way of contrast.
The goal is not a 50:50 split between positive and negative. It is rather, to discern when it is appropriate to take one approach rather than the other.
When to be negative
1. To show our need. We take sin seriously, and this leads to repentance. This then has the positive outcome of joy, peace, and life.
2. To arouse interest. The results of catastrophic failure can be more attention-grabbing than quiet, consistent success.
3. To draw attention to the positive. The positive seems more so when contrasted with the negative.
4. To warn of danger. A loving parent will warn of child of danger, and it is just so with the loving preacher and his hearers.
When to be positive
1. To show that God is good. The gospel is good news, and we are right to stress who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ.
2. To bring encouragement and hope. While it may be necessary to preach the negative, it is rarely helpful to leave it as the last word. Light overcomes darkness; grace overpower; Satan is a defeated foe; death is swallowed up in life.
3. To build godliness. People do not simply need to stop sinning: they need to start being holy. Preacher not only tear down what is wrong, but also build up what is good. Let’s encourage people to do God’s will.
4. To bring resolution. Sermons can often work well when they start with the negative, and then move on to resolution by showing what God has done, and is doing.