Preaching on a Divisive Topic
What you need to know before you wade into controversy.
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On December 10, 2015, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton (IL) College, posted on her Facebook page that during Advent, to show solidarity with Muslims, she would wear the hijab, the headscarf worn by some women within conservative Islam. She was doing this, she wrote, because "I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because … we worship the same God."
That question started a contentious online debate: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" and led to the professor's suspension.
In the geographical epicenter of the controversy stands Church of the Resurrection, where members include the college administrators who suspended the professor, and students who protested the suspension with a sit-in.
On January 10, teaching pastor Kevin Miller spoke to the question in a sermon. Preaching Today asked him how it went—and what he learned about preaching on a controversial topic.
Preaching Today: Why did you decide to devote an entire sermon to this particular issue?
Kevin Miller: For two reasons.
First, in the nearly 40 years I've lived in or near Wheaton, it's the most emotional and divisive situation I've seen in the Christian community here. It was on everyone's mind, consuming them. So pastorally I wanted to follow Paul's lead and speak to a Christian community when fault lines of division were opening.
Second, I felt that inside the situation lay a clear theological question about the nature of God.
When preaching on a controversial subject, how does your preparation change?
The first thing I needed to do was pray, "Lord, are you sure you want me to speak to this?" Given the ongoing and heated controversy in our community, I knew that preparing and preaching this sermon would mean carrying a heavy mental, emotional, and spiritual weight. I could never try to lift that merely because the topic seemed relevant, but only because in prayer I sensed God asking me to carry the prophetic burden.
The go-ahead included getting permission from my senior pastor to preach on this topic. I also asked a member who works at the college, "If I preach on this subject, do you think it will make the conflict worse?" which would be the last thing I wanted. But he encouraged me to preach on the subject.
Then, I needed to set aside extra time for study. I typically prepare a sermon in 10-15 hours, but this sermon took 30-35. Why the extra time? Because in addition to my regular exegesis, I needed to: read many news articles to get the latest permutations on a rapidly changing situation; study in some depth topics I did not know well, such as the Quranic conception of God and Jesus; and engage seriously the scholarship of people who disagreed with me. I also wrote a full manuscript.
Tell us about your big idea for the sermon and then how you outlined the sermon.
I struggled to get to the big idea for this sermon. That's because every controversial issue is actually made up of several controversial sub-issues. In this case, social media raised at least four:
- How do we as American citizens welcome Syrian refugees while maintaining safety and security for our citizens?
- How do we balance the right of a tenured professor to freedom of expression with the right of a private religious institution to define the boundaries of its beliefs?
- Since Wheaton is historically a white evangelical institution, and the professor is African-American, did race play into this?
- Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
I decided not to address the first three—there would not be enough time, and I did not feel competent to address them. I focused on the final question, which stands on a clear theological base.
The big idea finally came more as a gift than as the result of study or work. While talking with a longtime missionary to the Muslim world, about the message, something he said sparked my idea: we need to grow in clarity and grow in charity.
How and why was your sermon delivery different for this sermon?
I usually preach with a lot of animation and emotion. For this sermon, I intentionally tried to dial down my emotion and come across more measured. The topic was so hot, I needed to cool it down. Even so, after the 9 A.M. service, my senior pastor and my wife told me, "Bring it down one more notch."
The delivery also changed because I usually preach with hardly any notes; for this message, I wrote a complete manuscript and preached from that manuscript. I wanted to make sure that I didn't, in a spontaneous moment, misspeak. I also wanted a record of what I had said for the inevitable questions that would come. And those questions did come.
How do you start a sermon on a topic this divisive?
The opening has to be longer, because there's so much you need to do:
- Quickly frame up the issue—which part you will speak to and which parts you will not.
- Explain to people who have not been as embroiled why they also need to hear about it.
- Define why you are taking this on: the basis of your authority as a pastor and a teacher of God's Word.
- Ask people to reserve judgment until you're done.
I felt sorely tempted to issue disclaimers: "I wasn't planning to preach on this, but I felt compelled," "My remarks are my own and were not pre-screened," "I don't have a relationship to X or Y; I don't have a stake in this fight …" I finally deleted all those from my notes. The fact is, I was choosing to speak about this, so I decided to just speak. In retrospect, I think that was the right call.
How did you deal with the people on the "other side" of this controversy? In a way, you have to say, "they're wrong." How do you say they're wrong?
I worked hard on this. Here were my approaches:
- Quote primary sources when possible. For example, when describing Islamic beliefs, it's usually better to quote the Quran than secondary sources like Christian theologians talking about the Quran.
- When describing the events in the controversy, stick with publicly verifiable facts.
- When presenting opposing arguments, acknowledge they have merit. In this sermon, I said they were advanced by "smart theologians" and that "I don't have time to present their arguments as fully as I would like."
- Try to explain countering beliefs fairly, so that a person who holds those views would say, "Yeah, that's a fair way to say it."
- While pointing out where you disagree, try to find areas where you agree—perhaps, the opponent's intent. Acknowledge what you can learn from them.
Any changes to the conclusion?
Somewhere in the sermon, I think it's helpful to offer a way for people to go deeper on the topic—perhaps a seminar, Bible class, or article. In this case, I reprinted (with permission) an article from Christianity Today and made copies available at the doorway as people left.
Every sermon has an aftermath. I'm guessing this time it was more intense.
You said it. If you're going to preach on something controversial, take off as much time as you can the next day. I had not slept well the night before the sermon, so on Monday I took two naps. I think I understand why Elijah got down after his confrontation on Mt. Carmel.
During your down time, focus on the Lord. There's an addictive quality to a controversy—everything is changing and intense, and it's possible to get hooked on the adrenaline, or even the notoriety of having spoken out. Don't go there. As C. S. Lewis put it so well: "A man can't be always defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it." Read the Bible, listen to music, and restore your soul.
Any final advice?
The following week, allow extra time to respond to people's questions, challenges, and affirmations. They honored you by listening to your sermon, and you honor them by reading and replying to their emails or entering into their conversations.
Finally, don't beat yourself up when people challenge you, question you, or point out things that could have been made clearer. On a controversial topic, no sermon will fully please everyone. You have to accept, "I did the best I could with the time and understanding I had. I tried to build up the body of Christ. And now I leave it all in God's hands."
Kevin A. Miller is the Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today and senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.