Jon Tyson: ‘Run into the Controversy’

Written by on November 9, 2020

For many preachers, it can be difficult to navigate how best to approach passages that name specific sins, command obedience, or contain exhortations for godly living. It can be especially tricky when you’re trying to push back against a perception that Christianity is another word for “being good,” or ministering to people who still don’t believe the good news of God’s grace. Then try doing it in a culture where everything from racial justice to face masks prompts outrage. How can pastors effectively preach obedience to Scripture’s moral imperatives?

Jon Tyson serves as lead pastor of Church of the City New York. A native of Australia, Tyson is a church planter with a passion for evangelism and renewal in the church. His latest book is Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise. CT spoke with Tyson about how he approaches preaching on Scripture passages containing exhortations about sin.

When has it been challenging for you to figure out how to preach on a hard passage—a passage containing exhortations about sin or commands on moral issues?

I’ve been preaching in New York for 15 years, and in that time, I’ve preached on transgender issues, the gay community, war, violence, and so on. One recent example is a sermon series called “The Controversial Jesus.” I had a theological conviction that it was a form of selfishness and self-preservation to not lean into the hardest issues that our culture is grappling with. I felt like, What will nobody touch? Let me go right to the heart of those things.

In that series there were sermons on Jesus and privilege, Jesus and the gay community, Jesus and the transgender community, Jesus and women, Jesus and violence, Jesus and mammon. I wanted to show people that the Bible speaks with both compassion and conviction on these issues. And I wanted to get out of the selfishness and self-preservation of not speaking on them out of fear of getting it wrong.

The preacher has to have a sense of love for others and a sense of courage to lean into it. I’ve always tried to run into the controversy and not away from it because my conviction is that, if I don’t help my people form a theology of these issues, the culture will gladly give that to them on their behalf.

Do you do specific things to prepare when you’re approaching a passage addressing sin that you know may be hard for listeners? What do you think through?

I try to deconstruct the deconstruction of our culture, and I try to do this by reading source material from an opposing viewpoint and restating it fairly before I begin to dismantle it. I also consider the audience; I take into account the possible defensiveness that might arise and get underneath to the core assertion, showing why it’s bad news even though the culture says it’s good news.

There’s a communication idea called the sacred core—that every community possesses within it a sacred core of value, and if you attack the sacred core rather than acknowledging that you understand it, all you do is produce defensiveness. But if you acknowledge the sacred core and you humanize the person, it opens a window of persuasion that enables you to speak more deeply to the issue. I also try to read widely, especially from trusted people who have spoken to this issue before. I spend a lot of time praying that the Holy Spirit would prepare people’s hearts. I try to feel the pain of people, and I try to feel the burden of God. I want people to have a sense of “I may not agree with what he said, but I believe that he meant it.”

For pastors who are well aware of their own struggles, what does it mean to preach with authority—as well as humility and honesty—when addressing Scripture’s imperatives?

There are several tensions in place for the preacher. Number one, you don’t want to be a Pharisee; you don’t want to teach one thing and do another. Number two, you don’t want to rage in the pulpit against your own private struggle, projecting the anger in your own lack of formation and sanctification at your congregation or at the culture.

Number three, you want to share appropriate levels of vulnerability. And number four, you need to remember that the authority is found in the text, not in your personal experience.

You don’t have the luxury as a pastor to preach only what you are currently living out. Preaching is not a self-expression role; it is a pastoral role. Consider that, in business, it doesn’t matter how the president of a corporation is feeling; he still has a fiduciary responsibility to do his role. Similarly, we cannot let our personal sense of competency cause us to avoid preaching on difficult texts.

Increase in prayer. Be in conversation with people who may have wrestled with the issue or have expertise in it. And start where you are. Just say, “Look, I’m not an expert on this, but I’ve studied this because this is God’s Word and it matters.”

How does outreach to non-Christians or seekers who may be visiting factor in? How can sermons on passages that name specific sins be part of preaching the gospel?

There are two components to it. First is the idea that calling out some sins makes nonbelievers want God. Jesus is the clearest example of this; his critique of the Pharisees made the sinners love him. We need to have an awareness that often Jesus’ harshest critiques were reserved for those inside the church, not those outside the church.

Second, we need to have a holistic vision regarding the kinds of sins we are preaching against. If we preach only on one category of sin, we are going to repel the lost. The goal is to winsomely offend everybody, believer and nonbeliever alike.

If people sense that you love them and are trying to help them—and that the problem is the sin and we are at war with sin, Satan, death, and hell rather than with a person or a cause—then the message can be viewed as good news. Preaching the whole counsel of God requires preaching a winsome offensiveness.

The principle in 1 Corinthians 5 is probably the appropriate response for the moment that we live in now. When I said that I don’t want you to associate with the sexually immoral or the corrupt, Paul said, I didn’t mean those of the world, or you would have to leave the world. He said, You’ve got to look inward. The gospel points us inward to repentance, not outward to critique. So I don’t expect nonbelievers to act like Christians.

What kind of response have you had from non-Christians when you’ve preached on controversial issues or difficult passages?

You know what would amaze you? The only people who were offended during my “Controversial Jesus” series were Christians. Gay friends of mine said, “I totally disagree with you, but that was the best talk on the issue I’ve ever heard.” That particular sermon [on Jesus and homosexuality] was an hour and 27 minutes, and I’m telling you, in the room nobody blinked. People were on the edge of their seats—because people ache for it.

The book Winsome Persuasion describes three modes of communication: There’s the prophetic, there’s the pastoral, and then there’s the role of persuasion. Most of what I’m doing when I’m dealing with nonbelievers is about persuasion. I’m trying to help people get in touch with the deep currents of their heart. I’m trying to show them that sin ultimately will fail them, and they know it—and I’m trying to push on that. I’m trying to help them see the beauty of Jesus.

In Paul Gould’s Cultural Apologetics, he says the goal of traditional apologetics is to make Christianity true and the goal of cultural apologetics is to make Christianity desirable. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make Jesus beautiful.

What encouragement would you offer pastors who have a heart for outreach and who feel tension when they approach passages they know nonbelievers will likely misunderstand or be offended by?

When I first moved to New York, I talked to a christian leader who had been serving there for decades. I said to him, “I am a young church planter. I am literally a blank slate. Give me one piece of advice.” And he said this: “ ‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you.’—Jesus.” You’ve got to break free of the fear of not being liked. I can’t state that strongly enough.

Our message is to preach Jesus and realize that he is going to offend everybody at some point. Jesus said to his own disciples, Do you guys want to leave? Scripture says at this point many turned away and followed him no longer. In Scripture, Jesus is offending his disciples; he is offending sinners; he is offending everyone.

We have to get away from trying to “manage” Jesus. The best way to make Jesus beautiful is to preach Jesus, not to manage Jesus’ image for him. If you put forth only the compelling parts of Jesus that are attractive to the sinners in the room, then later they are going to be shocked. They’ll be shocked when he says things like “Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus doesn’t need Christians doing PR and spin for him. He needs people who will actually declare who he is. He will draw people to himself when he is lifted up.

So preach holistically on every issue. Be willing to offend “christian sins” of pride and self-righteousness just as much as you would condemn sins of immorality, materialism, and those sorts of things.

Listen to Preaching Today’s “Monday Morning Preacher” podcast episode featuring Jon Tyson on prayer and preaching.

And create environments and moments in your sermon that speak to seekers. Every sermon I preach has a direct appeal to the nonbeliever. There’s always a moment when I say something like “Now, look, you may be listening to this and you’re not a follower of Jesus, and you’re thinking …” I got that principle from Tim Keller—the idea of addressing what he calls “defeater beliefs” in the sermon. I have a checklist for preaching that I use, and that’s one of the items on my checklist.

In Beautiful Resistance,you write, “Discipleship must be stronger than cultural formation” and “Loyalty must be stronger than compromise.” How can preaching—especially preaching on difficult passages—cultivate this sort of loyalty to Christ among congregants?

In the Greek, pistis—faith—is not just loyalty to an idea; it carries a relational fidelity to it. Faith is about loyalty to a person, not just to a theology or a worldview. We need to see that when we are unfaithful to Jesus, it’s like the moment when Peter looks across the courtyard, sees Jesus, and then goes out and weeps bitterly. We have to look at faithfulness through a relational lens—
like committing adultery or like betraying a friend. It’s the relational dynamic that produces loyalty—loyalty to the person of Jesus.

Sometimes people say, “There are two ways to read the Bible. Either it’s a book about what you have to do to be right with God, or it’s a book about what God’s done for you to be right with him through Jesus.” I think that’s true only on the issue of salvation. There are many other ways to look at the Bible. One of them is it’s Jesus telling you how to be his disciple. That has absolutely nothing to do with self-righteousness or earning your salvation; it’s how to live your salvation out. Christ says, “If you love me, you’ll obey my commands.” We need to get out of always primarily talking about justification and the Bible. We need to settle that it’s by grace, and then we need to learn to obey Scripture as loyal followers of Jesus.

As preachers, we are showing people how to walk in the Spirit. When your habits and practices align with the kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit increases his intimacy and his

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