As pastors, we have a responsibility to communicate the gospel clearly and compellingly. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy to do. Part of being a pastor also means preaching through tough texts that have the potential to cause confusion, hurt, or division among church members.
Whether you prefer studying the Bible topically or you prefer to go verse-by-verse through the various books of the Bible, you’re bound to find yourself preaching tough passages at some point. And when you do, your congregation will be watching how you approach preaching tough Scripture.
As a pastor committed to God’s Word, you’ll need to navigate preaching tough texts in a way that allows you to hold fast to God’s Truth, while also demonstrating genuine love and compassion for His people.
As your church members become more familiar with the Bible and its teachings, they’ll inevitably have questions. They may need help navigating issues including divorce, sexual sin, or submission within marriage. And they might wonder, “What does this particular verse mean?” or “What do I do with this difficult passage?”
That’s why, on today’s podcast, we’re sharing our best tips and advice for preaching through tough texts.
Four Types of Tough Texts
As you start to gain more experience preaching through tough texts, you’ll quickly notice that not all types of tough texts are the same. Different texts are difficult for different reasons, and understanding these reasons can help inform how you preach through them.
Today, we’re sharing four categories of tough texts, but these four categories are not exclusive or comprehensive. Some texts may be difficult for multiple reasons or for reasons not listed here.
Our purpose in sharing these four types of tough texts is simply to help you start thinking about preaching through tough texts like these from their respective angles.
1. Preaching Through Interpretatively Tough Texts
Interpretatively tough texts are passages where it’s unclear exactly what the passage’s original author or speaker was trying to communicate. As you prepare for preaching tough passages like these, you may find yourself wondering, “What is this passage even saying?”
Examples of interpretatively tough texts include passages such as:
- 1 Peter 3:19-20: “After being made alive, [Jesus] went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water.”
- Romans 7:15-20: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
- 1 Timothy 2:15: “But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.”
It can be tempting to skip these confusing verses rather than preaching tough Scripture concepts you don’t fully understand, yet there are times you can’t avoid preaching tough passages.
One way to navigate preaching through tough texts like these is to share the research and conclusions you’ve found during your own personal Bible study. For example, you might share how and why scholars disagree on a topic, as well as your personal convictions, if you have them.
However, there are significant pros and cons you may want to consider when preaching tough passages in this way.
For example, if you lean too heavily on commenters, you run the risk of diminishing your own teaching authority or accidentally giving the impression that the Bible is wholly uncertain and up for debate.
However, sharing some of your own struggles while preaching tough Scriptures can give members of your congregation the freedom and permission they need to ask questions and wrestle with tough passages as well.
It is perfectly okay to admit that you don’t fully understand a passage when preaching through tough texts. However, there has to be a balance if you want to serve your church members well.
2. Preaching Through Theologically Tough Texts
Theologically tough texts are difficult because of what they imply (or seem to imply) about how we should understand other parts of Scripture or God’s Truth as a whole. As you prepare for preaching tough passages like these, you may find yourself wondering, “If this passage means this, then what does that mean about that?”
Examples of theologically tough texts include passages such as:
- Exodus 34:6-7: “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’”
- 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
3. Preaching Through Emotionally Tough Texts
Emotionally tough texts are difficult passages that raise questions or concerns about God’s goodness or our own experiences, often with pain and suffering.
Examples of emotionally tough texts include passages such as:
- 1 Samuel 15:33: “But Samuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel put Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal.”
- Acts 5:5-6: “When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.”
- Psalm 137:9: “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
The Bible’s teachings on divorce also fall under the category of emotionally tough texts.
Statistically speaking, many people in your congregation have experienced or will experience divorce, often for reasons other than adultery. As a result, your preaching through tough texts on divorce may be very painful or alienating to people who have been affected by or who are currently considering divorce.
This doesn’t mean you should avoid preaching tough Scripture verses that may be convicting to many in your congregation.
Instead, acknowledge upfront the fact that your preaching through tough texts like these will be difficult. Let your congregation know that you understand and that you care. Otherwise, if you only focus on the theological issue, you may inadvertently come across as cold or uncaring.
4. Preaching Through Culturally Tough Texts
Culturally tough texts are Scripture passages that confront or raise questions about unpopular truths. These issues may not be as personally sensitive to the specific individuals in attendance, but they can be hot button issues to the culture at large.
For example, issues of money, politics, health care, gender roles, and homosexuality are all common culturally tough topics in our society today. Even something as simple as work/life balance for pastors can be misunderstood and controversial, when taken out of context.
When preaching through tough texts on topics like these, we want to be upfront about the fact that we believe some things as a church that are weird or counter-cultural. We don’t want to hide our beliefs or apologize for them.
Rather, by preaching tough passages related to these issues, we can explain why our churches hold these convictions and why we think these beliefs are actually best for our church members. We can use conviction, wisdom, and biblical truth to unpack how God’s Word isn’t just true; it’s also better and beautiful.
Preaching Tough Texts with First-Time Visitors
One common concern pastors have when considering preaching through tough texts is how new visitors will respond to their teaching. After all, we want new visitors to feel welcome and current attendees to feel as though our churches are a safe place to invite their friends, family, and neighbors.
The good news is: You don’t have to preach only watered-down, seeker-friendly sermons. Preaching tough Scripture passages is still possible–provided you do it the right way.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts for preaching tough passages with first-time visitors in attendance:
- DO explicitly acknowledge that God is good, that He loves them, and that He wants what is best for them.
- DO let your church attendees know that the issue may be difficult, that you understand their concerns, and that you care about their feelings.
- DON’T apologize for the Bible’s teachings or for preaching tough Scriptures.
- DO communicate a tone of excitement that you get to unpack the Bible’s tough teachings together, as well as a commitment to obeying God’s Truth.
- DON’T insult, dismiss, or needlessly offend those who disagree with you.
- DO seek to start a conversation by inviting church attendees to communicate with you more after the service or at a later date.
- DO share additional resources that go more in-depth on the topic, for those who want them.
Preaching Tough Texts with Additional Resources
Because sermons are typically only twenty to thirty minutes long at most, you likely won’t be able to manage preaching tough Scripture passages as in-depth as you’d like. This is when providing additional resources can be helpful.
In addition to preaching through tough texts on Sunday mornings, you can also provide your church members with helpful resources that allow them to continue to study and learn on their own.
These may be resources your church creates or resources from others that you vet and curate. You can then share these resources via the church website, podcast, email list, events, social media platforms, or even from the pulpit.
If you choose to provide your congregation with additional resources while preaching tough texts, however, there are a few things you may want to consider.
For example, you will want to be careful not to hand the entire topic over to a guest speaker or expert. As the pastor, you’re likely to have a great deal of follow up conversations to defend and better articulate the speaker’s position as well as to shepherd your church members well. This is easier to do when the original message is from you, as the leader of the church.
On the other hand, it may be helpful to address some issues with the help of a panel. For example, you might choose to host a Q&A night with some other members of your church leadership team. This helps prevent you from being seen as “the Bible answer man” and allows others with more expertise or experience to speak into a topic as well.
Whichever route you choose to take when preaching through tough texts, keep in mind: People will remember more how you answered their questions than what you said. In other words: Did you care about them? Were you gracious and kind, or stern and cold?
Your tone matters just as much, if not more, than the specific words you say.
How Feedback Can Help When Preaching through Tough Texts
When preaching tough texts, finding just the right balance between truth and grace can be difficult. This is where having additional, like-minded people to help you brainstorm and to give you honest feedback can be helpful.
This feedback can happen in a number of ways.
For example, you might consider talking over a difficult issue with friends or colleagues before preaching tough passages on that topic, especially if your friends or colleagues have additional life experience, expertise, or unique perspective or insights you don’t have or haven’t considered.
Additionally, if you already have some experience preaching tough Scriptures in the past–and you were able to record your sermon on video–it can be incredibly helpful to ask a friend, colleague, or mentor to critique your preaching in order to give honest feedback.
And of course, you’ll want to watch yourself preaching through tough topics on video as well. As you do, ask yourself questions such as:
- What does my body language communicate?
- What does my tone communicate?
- What points did I make?
- What points did I fail to make?
- Is my teaching solidly grounded in and supported by God’s Truth?
- Does my teaching convey warmth and grace?
- How can I continue to be a better steward of God’s grace and truth in this area?
The Importance of Planning for Preaching Through Tough Texts in Advance
While there are likely some familiar topics you can easily preach on with little to no preparation, tough topics like the ones we’ve discussed in this article are naturally going to require more preparation time.
When preaching tough texts, you will want to make sure you set aside plenty of time to study, research, and prepare so you can cover the text clearly and adequately. Additionally, you may need to communicate your findings with other staff members to make sure that everyone is on the same page theologically.
While it can be difficult to find this extra time for planning for preaching through tough texts, the insights you’ll gain can be invaluable.