The Sermon Not "Liked"

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Whatever happened to things not liked? Can there be such a thing anymore? Does the desire to have a sermon “liked” factor into the craft of preaching?

While researching how pastors handle a particular text, I happened upon a relevant sermon video on YouTube. As I listened, my eyes scanned the page for comments and such, noting the thumbs-up “like” indicator and corresponding thumbs-down. Interestingly, only the “liked” button tallied affirmations, while “not liked” recorded no such total. That is to say, the “not liked” did not count. In fact, negativity is not tallied anywhere on YouTube. Affirmations are placarded and celebrated. Negations are themselves negated, which is merely a fleeting impulse in an achievement society where the modalities are, “Yes,” “Yes, we can,” “Yes, you can,” and, “Yes, I like.” But whatever happened to things not liked? Can there be such a thing anymore? Does the desire to have a sermon “liked” factor into the craft of preaching?

Eight years ago, I did a survey of contemporary preaching methods.[1] The results of that study confirmed commonplace assumptions: On the whole, “preaching” panders to the likes of auditors. Sermons are crafted to the liking of auditors, and so “liked.” People are hearing what they want to hear from homilists, who admit to being all too mindful of delivering a “liked” message. Here, I am reticent to identify anything other than the Christ-commissioned Word as a “sermon” because a biblical sermon is a very specific thing. I am also hesitant to call one who delivers such a message a “preacher” on account of the fact that, according to the New Testament, only a preacher preaches a sermon and only a sermon can be preached.[2] Both are commissioned by Christ and, therefore, are rightly properties of Christ. Anything else is, well, just a message. The trends we find today in the pursuit of the message well “liked” are precisely what Saint Paul envisioned, albeit ominously, when writing to his protégé Timothy.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  As for you, always be sober minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

Few texts are more applicable to preachers and preaching. Note how the Apostle adjures Timothy in the strongest possible terms in verse one, then posits his injunction: “Preach the Word.” Which “word” might that be? Answer: The Gospel of God’s merciful Kingdom come on earth through the grace and truth of Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit… that Word. Yet, that Word is decidedly not pure positivity which panders to an achievement society such as ours. In fact, Paul’s injunction stands front-loaded with negations, corrections, disabuse, realignment, and the like. Clearly the preached “Word” constitutes one thing and not others. It is never pure positivity, sheer affirmation, even though the Gospel itself is purely positive. Thus, Paul directs Timothy’s preaching of the word to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” with outcomes that will require “complete patience” as he, the preacher, “endures suffering.” Furthermore, this is “the work of an evangelist.” The sermon not liked comprises part of the “fulfillment of ministry.” It is Law and Gospel, negation and affirmation. Call out sin, treason, and ungodliness, and amply apply absolving, justifying grace. The Law will bring that part of the sermon no one will like, and it should be altogether unlikeable because it exposes the ugly truth about the likes of you and me. The Law, however, brings us to the beauty of the Gospel and our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ.

 The Law, however, brings us to the beauty of the Gospel and our glorious Savior, Jesus Christ.

Paul cannot escape the fact that entrance into the Kingdom requires perfection, and only Christ has it. Sinners must be clothed in His righteousness. Additionally, the Kingdom has an ethic: The law of the Spirit of God. This is holiness, hence the need for even the baptized to be reproved, rebuked, and exhorted. That is not going to expand your friend pool or augment your LinkedIn connection totals.

Contemporary preachers know this, which is why today’s sermons can be constrained by the straitjacket of the “like.” The “liked” sermon will make every effort to minimize or eliminate reproof, rebuke, and ethical exhortation. Negative connotations of repentance, reform, and restraint are purged, along with any uncomfortable iconography such as a crucifix. A liked sermon is a smooth sermon, offering no friction points and no resistance. A smooth sermon is agreeable, a consumable product, and a myth. What makes them particularly appealing to the auditor is a cultural and aesthetic experience, rhetorical panache, entertainment, and/or a cult of personality. A “liked” sermon promises a better you or, at a minimum, the affirmation of you just as you are to achieve desired outcomes. So, preachers, like artists, conform to the economization of culture, even Church culture. Here, we have the loss of the “sober minded” preacher; one drunk with delusions of likability. One social observer summates the effect:

“The wall between culture and commerce, between art and consumption, between art and advertisement, break down. Artists are forced to become brands. They begin to conform to the market, to be likeable.”[3]

Itchy ears find a scratching message in likability.

Christ’s commissioned ambassadors, however, were never called to an existence of likability. Rather, as the Apostle wrote, after preaching the Word, with all of its requisite reproof, rebuke, and exhortation, the persona of the preacher should be that of a truth-speaker who is resigned to complete patience, sober-mindedness, and suffering endurance. God makes use of such ministry. Christ instituted it, so it has His promise, His power, His purposes, and His Spirit. Therefore, it yields, by the grace of God and the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, evangelism. And not only evangelism, but the sanctification of the baptized. Would that we all desired more sermons not “liked.”


[1] Bombaro, John S. “Is There a Text in This Sermon? A Lutheran Survey of Contemporary Preaching Methods” in Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2016.

[2] See Bombaro, John. “When Your Sermon Is Not YOUR Sermon.”

[3] Han, Byung Chul. The Palliative Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021. 5.