Podcast Episode 5 | 14 min
Preaching on Controversial Topics
Answering the questions of when, why, what, and how to preach on difficult topics.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com, on Monday Morning Preacher. I'm here with my guest host, Dr. Kevin Miller. He's not really a doctor, but he's really smart.
Kevin Miller: Well, thanks for that.
MW: So Kevin, true story about some interesting stats: In August 2016 the Pew Research Center released a very interesting study. They polled over 4,000 people who had regularly attended church—loosely defined, that is—and they asked those folks if they could recall their preacher talking or even mentioning a polarizing political or social issue, a hot potato issue. What do you think happened?
KM: My guess is not many said they'd heard one.
MW: You are absolutely correct. In short, the big survey concluded that preachers don't like touching hot potato issues. Religious liberty, hot potato. Homosexuality, hot potato. Abortion, hot potato. Or it could be something else like maybe race relations or some kind of theological issue, but we want to get those hot potatoes off our plate.
KM: Well, you know, it makes sense. A topic like that takes so much additional work, as hard as preaching is, then it requires a lot more research into sociology and culture and all that. You know it's going to upset some people so you're not going to win a lot of points with some people. You put that all together for a pastor who has a lot going on, and it makes sense.
MW: There might be another reason too. Sometimes as pastors we really care about people and these controversial issues are painful, like abortion and like homosexuality, and we don't want to pile more bad stuff on people. So we have a great clip here today from one of our preachers at PreachingToday.com—Rick McKinley. Now, let me give you a little context to this clip. Rick pastors Imago Dei in Portland, “Oregone,” and you know I've traveled around the world a little bit and I have to say that Portland is one of the weirdest cities in the world. I mean, it's so weird that if you tell someone that their city is weird they will hug you and thank you.
KM: Although they will not hug you and thank you for saying Oregon as you just did.
MW: Well, I'm from the East Coast, that's the way we say it out there.
So anyway, Portland is also a very liberal unchurched city, so Rick just plowed into a sermon on Romans 1, on homosexuality, a solid exegetical sermon. But here's something else you have to know about Rick, Rick loves the LGBTQ community. And he put himself out there building bridges, he built some partnerships with the former mayor of Portland who was gay. He has street cred with gay people. So with that background, let's listen to this clip.
Rick McKinley: Romans 1 is not only talking to homosexuals. The church is really good at pulling out the sins we think are the big bad ones. That makes the other sins less atrocious—and they just happen to always be my sins. My sins aren't so bad. Yours are tragic and appalling. Paul is saying that this entire culture has turned away from God, and one of the signs of this is homosexuality becoming normative. When he says "even,"—"even the women exchanged natural for unnatural, men exchanged natural for unnatural"—in reality, sex is a gift. It's not God. This is true no matter what your orientation is. When sexual hope and freedom moves into normative homosexual expression, it's a sign that the culture has created a false freedom—not only the people who see themselves as gay, but the entire culture. In our culture sexuality is seen as ultimate instead of secondary. We have replaced God as ultimate.
Some of you might say, "But this seems natural to me," or when I speak with my friends or my siblings or whoever, they say, "This is their natural inclination." That's not what Paul's talking about here. He's talking about God's design within creation. If Paul was talking about what feels natural, every guy that wanted to commit adultery would say it's natural. People could defend sexism or racism, depending on what feels natural. But Paul's talking about something different here. The loss of the knowledge of God leads to a twisting of the way we think about freedom and life and hope. We think we can have freedom and life and hope apart from God—who is no longer good, but is actually oppressive and wants to take away all our fun and hope and freedom by putting these mean rules on us.
A couple of things need to be said. First, this is an entire culture, not just those who practice homosexuality. Second, sexual desire is not the same as acting on it. Those of you who are here, if you have same-sex attraction, no matter what sexual sin we're talking about, the desire and the temptation is not the same as the act itself. It's appropriate to live honestly with those desires, to talk about them, to pray about them, and to stand with each other to resist temptation.
Paul is describing the inward bent of all people who are seeking personal freedom apart from God. When sex becomes the soul's hope, or people become the soul's hope, then we are in danger of losing ourselves no matter what our sexual orientation is. A man who puts his hope for fulfillment in his wife has put her and his expectations in major jeopardy, because she can't fulfill his soul. Only Christ can. The same is true of anything we make the ultimate thing.
homosexuality. And secondly, that sexual desire is not the same thing as acting on it. So those of you who are here and you have same sex attraction and you have those thoughts and you're going, Okay, that's me, that's me, the truth is no matter what sexual sin we are talking about, the desire or temptation to do it is not the same thing as the act itself. So it's appropriate as a community of faith that we can live honestly with those desires, talking about them, praying about them and standing with each other so we can resist temptation.
Paul is describing an inward bentness of all people who are seeking personal freedom apart from God, and that's what Romans 1 does. But when sex becomes the soul's hope, right, or people become the soul's hope, then we are in major danger of losing ourselves, no matter what our sexual orientation is.
MW: Okay, Kevin, so let's break that down. Let me start with one thing I noticed: Obviously, Rick has done his homework for this sermon. He seems to have done a lot of research, he preaches with a great deal of thoughtfulness and depth, and the second thing I love about it is it's not about those people. The whole sermon, it's always about all of us. So he really avoids the “us vs. them” thinking.
KM: Yeah, I love that too. Another thing I really like was the delivery. When you have a controversial topic, you actually want to bring down the intensity of your delivery, almost like you are having a quiet, gentle conversation with someone, because it allows your listener to come in close.
MW: Kevin, I know you preached a pretty controversial sermon recently, so give us some background. What did you preach on, why did you preach on it?
KM: In December 2014, in Wheaton, Ill., where I live and where I pastor, a great divide began—I would even say blow up—over a political science professor at Wheaton College. Larycia Hawkins wore a hijab—the headscarf worn by some women within conservative Islam—during Advent as a sign of solidarity since we worship the same God. So that raised a number of issues, but it raised the theological question: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God or not? People were weighing in on this question from different sides. I've never seen anything so divisive in our church and in our community as that became.
MW: So you felt like at that point you had to preach on it, or somebody should?
KM: Well, I did because I kept running into people who were anguished, it was dividing friend from friend, and Christian from Christian. So a month or so after the first posting on Facebook from Larycia Hawkins, I preached a sermon, "Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?" I've got to tell you, I was tense standing up there because in front of me were the administrators who suspended Dr. Hawkins, and also the students who protested her suspension with a sit-in.
MW: So how did you do your sermon prep and your delivery? How were those different than just an expository sermon on a biblical text?
KM: Well, one thing, the preparation took a lot longer because I needed to study all these theologians who were arguing for and against the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I needed to understand the issue deeply. The second thing was, I wrote a complete manuscript which is not my usual. I usually preach from a few notes tucked in my Bible. But this time I knew that any slight misspeaking could unravel the good that I was trying to do. So I manuscripted and preached from that.
MW: And what kind of feedback did you get, and what did you learn from that experience?
KM: You know, surprisingly—although I did get some people disagreeing with me on various points and telling me so in emails or conversations—the overwhelming response I got was relief, thank you, thank you for trying to help us, I've been so confused, I've been so torn up over this, I haven't known how to pray, I haven't known how to think about it, and you sort of shined some light from God's Word in your own pastoral sensitivity to help me as I move forward. So it encouraged me actually that I think as preachers we should try some tough issues more often than maybe Pew Research says we do.
MW: Yeah. You know, I noticed something about both Rick's sermon and your sermon, and that is this: That there is a cost to preaching on a controversial issue, right? I mean, what was the cost for you?
KM: Oh boy. Well, I didn't sleep the night before the sermon. I was anxious and nervous, and then preaching a sermon twice took a lot out of me emotionally and then I started getting emails right away, and those took some more out of me. So on Monday I was just toast. So I took the whole day off. I actually took two naps. I now understood why Elijah came off Mount Carmel and wanted to die. So I would say make sure you book some recovery time when you do wade into controversy.
MW: So I don't think preachers should preach on controversial issues a lot. It's not like your regular fare, like every week you're going to try to do that. But I think there is also a case to preach on it because there's a cost for not preaching on it.
KM: That's interesting. What do you think is the cost if we don't?
MW: We have an article on PreachingToday.com written by a woman who had an abortion. She now leads a ministry called Silent No More. Silent No More is a ministry to women that have had an abortion. In that article she was practically begging preachers to talk about abortion from the pulpit. She said by not speaking on the subject, you are implying that abortion is so horrible that the word can't even be mentioned in a church service. So there is a huge pastoral care cost to not helping our people. But here's my question for you, Kevin: How do we know when a controversial issue must be preached on? What are the criteria?
KM: Well, what I think pushes me over into saying yes, I really do need to step up to this one, is, one, are people hurting, divided, or confused? Is there a human toll because of this issue not being addressed by their spiritual leaders? The second thing is, is there a clear biblical and theological issue at stake?
MW: That’s good. Let me add one more thing. We are both big fans of letting the text speak and expositing the text, so I would say don't always go out of your way to preach on a controversial issue, let the text lead you and then as you apply that text you may be able to hit on some of these issues in a way that's faithful to the text. But at times, as you said, some issues become so hot, some questions are so painful, some problems in our society and our community are so acute, that you can't ignore it, and if you do you are going to leave people to the wolves of false teaching, moral confusion, or social injustice.
Our challenge is for you to think about if there is anything in your community or your church community that is a burning issue that you need to bring to the surface.