As a pastor I do a lot of studying on communication, and how to be most effective with the Sunday morning sermon during our weekly worship gatherings. Thousands of books have been written on how to form a sermon, how to deliver a sermon, how to produce change in others, etc.
Clearly the role of a Sunday morning passage is to present a Biblical text, but beyond that, the goal is for the text to form within the hearers of the message. In his book on the social dynamics of producing change in others, Kurt Lewin looks at the two basic means for initiating change in a person or group.
While I think of this subject largely in a large group communication setting, the connection points to how we produce change in others in different settings are quite clear.
To begin looking at this we must assume that the hearers are generally in a place of status quo (neither for your message or against it). From this place a presenter has two basic options:
1. Increase the tension by pushing.
The extreme of this is what many call a “fire and brimstone” type of church sermonizing. An example would be, “Hell is hot,” with a goal to the tension in a listener by pushing them away from hell by telling them they should avoid it.
About this Eugene Lowry says, “The danger is that once the change agent is absent, things are apt to recoil to a position worse than the first” (The Homiletical Plot). We can all think of examples of this. An individual is told constantly how bad things will get if they do not follow the rules God has outlined for them. Once outside of this legalistic perspective, they rebel from it.
This perspective is given support when a group of people are seen to have a lack of willpower, needing the extra push to move forward. I find that Christians today generally do not have much tolerance for this kind of teaching style, and yet it is clearly the most effective in the short-term.(Here’s a real life of example of my struggle in trying to do this well.)
2. Decrease the tension of the negative with extra focus on the positive.
The extreme of this is “God desires for you to have your best life now.” At worst we think of this as a self-help type of teaching, where everything is positive because the goal is to point toward the way things can be. At it’s best people feel an increased urge for moving the trajectory of their life because they have heard Good News.
In examining this, Eugene Lowry says, “The redeeming focus for change is to remove the necessity so that they no longer need to look down upon others…It is a release from evil necessity into the freedom of loving others as we love ourselves…No longer having to prove our own worth, we may now be set free from making others prove themselves to us.”
You can see where the presentation of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus fits well within this framework: “You were dead, but God did something extraordinary so you no longer need to keep striving to reach Him.”
While many want to focus exclusively on this 2nd posture for producing change, I believe that if the goal of a Sunday morning sermon is to present the Biblical text in a way that produces change, we must aim to produce change in the same way the Biblical text does. Meaning, both avenues presented here are valid and must be pursued.