There is a suspicion in the minds of some parishioners—a minority, no doubt—that some preachers are guilty of neglecting to rebuke sin. The prophetic voice of condemnation, say the pharisees, has died out in the church. All is sweetness and light, love and mercy, ad nauseam; while in scores of pews every Sabbath are seated men and women who are strolling comfortably down the broad way, some at a giddying pace, toward hell.
If you are a minister, you are likely to arouse suspicion in the minds of the faithful if you do not, from time to time, rouse the members from their lethargy by combating some particular evil. The question is how to do this without provoking the ire of the complacent middle-of-the-roaders, some of whom subsidize the budget to a considerable degree. There is a way. You can satisfy the vast majority of those who bemoan the church's Laodicean condition without seriously disturbing the status quo by using this simple technique: preach against yesterday's sins.
You will find, I believe, that preaching against yesterday's sins is far more satisfying than preaching against today's. Here is why. You will have almost everyone on your side immediately, for most of the sophisticates in the congregation, the more articulate members, have long gone on to more fashionable indulgences, and deplore the old vices as strongly as you do. There are fashions in sin, you see, just as in everything else. Sins that are in vogue in one age are out of style the next. No one today would defend slavery, for example.
In fact, one of the safest sins of yesterday against which you may rail is the sin of racial discrimination—at least in many churches, particularly those with a more cosmopolitan flavor. Only make sure that you do not make the mistake of preaching against this sin in certain more traditional, backward churches, where this vice is still practiced.
It is generally safe to preach against any sin that might come under the broad heading of legalism. It does not take a great deal of insight to see that legalism is yesterday's vice. Christ and Paul, fighting in another age, did such a thorough job of discrediting it that, if anything, the church, along with the world has gone to the opposite extreme.
True, there are still a few churches that are excessively zealous for the law, where, say, foot washing without removing one's panty-hose is a serious misdemeanor. (Alas, churches have split over it.) But for every member of that persuasion you will find two who are into X-rated videos. Even as you read this, one of your members is probably watching something somewhere that he would be ashamed for you to see. You should not worry about this, for such worry is the mark of the legalist ("a person who is worried that someone, somewhere, is having a good time"). This is but one of the sins of the senses, and they are everywhere. Here toes are tender. Be careful. Not too much on gluttony. Go easy against sloth. Instead, save your denunciations for the current whipping boy, workaholism, as folks are less lazy today. Preaching against this sort of intemperance (but not the other—alcoholism, which is now a disease) is currently popular, and will be well received. Above all, you should not preach against television, for that is one of today's most prevalent peccadilloes, and your congregation would desert you. And it is absolutely gauche to say anything at all about masturbation (all that nonsense about insanity) or homo sexuality (though this sin may yet fall from grace if the current medical epidemic of AIDS continues unabated). Remember: Personal sins of the flesh are to be treated gently. The Lord recognizes our weakness. We are not saved by living a perfect life, et cetera.
Be careful what you say about dress, and don't touch materialism with a ten-foot pole. Legalism and pharisaism, on the other hand, are two of the safest sins to preach against, because they are universally opprobriated. Another of yesterday's sins is hypocrisy; then there is narrow-mindedness, criticalness, penuriousness, and assorted other "-nesses." You should sit down and make your own list. You can harangue for an entire year against bona fide sins this way with scarcely a ripple of opposition.
A variant of this technique of preaching against yesterday's sins is to preach against somebody else's sins. This is really quite easy to do. Start with some other country. In America it is safe (nay, virtuous) to condemn Communism. Then there is the crime of torture practiced by certain oppressive governments, and, of course, South Africa's apartheid. Oh, yes—terrorism.
When you run out of abuses on an international scale, other denominations will provide a wealth of material. One Sabbath you might rail against some Sunday keeping church for breaking the fourth commandment (but this is frowned upon now); on another you upbraid the charismatics for downplaying the authority of the Word. The next Sabbath might feature a good swipe against the liberal churches for ordaining homosexuals. (Caution here. This, too, is passe.) Mind you, there is no need to go outside of your own denomination. If your congregation is rather conservative, preach against jewelry. If rather liberal (progressive is the preferred term), talk about the pharisaism manifested by some who are more concerned with the externals than with the heart. You see how easy it is?
This practice of tiptoeing around current abuses and signing and crying over the crimes of other times and places tends to promote church unity. People do not get upset. Toes are not stepped on. Of course, it works best if there is at least one person in the church of whom the sin is characteristic. There are always a few stragglers, holdovers from an earlier era, who cling to these outmoded vices; and these few will legitimize your stand on these things.
One more thing. In harmony with the current spirit of the age that deplores negative thinking, make sure that you never threaten your congregation by holding over them the possibility of damnation. It is widely believed—and correctly—that psychology has demonstrated that a positive motivation (the carrot) works better than a negative one (the stick). Of course, what is not mentioned is the fact that the same experiments have established that the most effective motivation of all is achieved when the carrot and the stick are used together: Threat and promise work better than either in isolation. Were it not for this, one might even wonder why God did not keep heaven and hell a secret so that men would serve Him for Himself alone, and not come to Him out of fear, which, of course, is the wrong motivation. But never mind that; if you want the adulation of your congregation (and this is necessary for the church's well-being), do not even mention the possibility of eternal loss. None of this "sinners in the hands of an angry God" stuff. It is true that half of Christ's parables end on a note of threat rather than promise of reward, and that the three angels' messages are explicitly threatening in nature, but these are from another era, where fear was more to their liking. Comfort the afflicted all you want, but do not make the mistake of overzealously afflicting the comfortable.
If you follow this advice, you will avoid all sorts of headaches and heart aches. Why not get to work on it now? Focus on some offense of long ago or far away for next Sabbath's sermon. See if your amen count doesn't go up. You should enjoy a long and easy career in the conference of your choice.