Ben Folds' song "Rock Star" includes these lyrics:
You need their approval
To tell you you're cool
Hey, but look how you pay for it
Give the people what they want
You've got to give the people what they want
Got to give the people what they want
I'm a pastor and not a rock star (despite the blurring of those roles in recent years). Still, every time I retreat to the bookstore coffee shop to write another sermon I face the subtle temptation to tickle ears, to preach for approval, to be cool, and give the people what they want.
Next Sunday I have the responsibility to preach on one of the most challenging and disturbing texts in the New Testament. Matthew 7:21-23 has nothing to do with how to have a better marriage, discipline your kids, or any other felt-need people want scratched. It is a bold warning about the "many" who will be turned away from God's kingdom.
My struggle in preparing this message has not come from interpreting the text, or wrestling with theology and doctrine. My struggle comes from seminary instructors, church consultants, ministry books, and other pastors who have told me, explicitly and implicitly, to "always preach positive!" Decades of market research have shown that people don't like being told "thou shall not commit adultery," but rather "marriage is a blessing from God." They are put off by God's "commandments" and would rather ponder his "instructions."
It may be popular to keep things positive, but is it right? Are we handicapped in the pulpit by limiting the breadth of scripture's emotions to the uplifting and happy? A famous English sociologist/nanny taught us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But are we in danger of focusing so much on sugar in the American church that we neglect to add the medicine?
In the end I find myself fleeing from the temptation to people-please with the aid of two convictions. First, I am not ultimately accountable to the people I teach, but to the One in whose name I teach. And secondly, God has not only inspired the content of Scripture, but also the form it takes. Matthew 7:21-23 is a sober warning from Jesus about the danger of missing his kingdom. The form of this passage should also direct the manner in which I teach it. After all, I'm a pastor and not a rock star.