Chapter 179

Preaching on Contemporary Issues

How to preach social trends and topics with wisdom

Preaching on contemporary issues can cover a lot of territory: modern medical technology and life, issues that arise through crises and catastrophes, social trends or public policy debates, and contemporary theological issues. In addition, there are issues that arise in a specific congregation that threaten its fellowship and witness but wouldn't be an issue elsewhere. We dare not be silent on such issues.

The process involved in preparing sermons on contemporary issues begins by asking what our audience's relationship is to the issue. "What do they know about it?" "What is their involvement in this issue and the nature and extent of their involvement?" "How are they likely to react?"

Ask, too, how they view you and your ministry. Ministry depends to a great deal on your own credibility and trustworthiness. If you don't have that kind of trust, the chances of your making a significant impact are diminished. The issue may be important, but you may not be the right spokesman, or this might not be the best time.

Then ask, "Is this an issue that would divide church members or affect your church's witness to the surrounding community?" The issue may still need to be addressed, but it is wise to choose carefully the hill you die on.

Obviously you ask, "What does the Bible say?" In fact, it would be best to think, I'm not really going to preach on an issue, I'm going to preach on the Bible as it relates to this issue. If a congregation perceives your message is rooted in the Bible, they are more willing to give you a hearing, but if the sermon resembles the editorial page with the Bible tacked on, then they may treat it as only your opinion.

Where are you aiming?

There may be a range of aims you are trying to accomplish when you preach on an issue. You may say, "I know my congregation holds a view that is not what a Christian should believe." You then may want to preach periodically on different aspects of the topic in order to move them through stages of change. Initially, get them to acknowledge, "There may be another view a Christian could hold." Then move them to the next stage, seriously considering your view as more truly Christian. In time, they may come to say, "Now I realized that what I've believed all along may not be right." Then you may be able to move them to actually endorse the view that is Christian. Finally, you may get them to accept it and to act in ways consistent with it. You may find your congregation is any place along that route and may want to target your sermon to accomplish one of those aims. Of course, there are times you also address issues of agreement, aiming to reinforce what they already believe.

Choosing your role

One way to help you plan a sermon on a contemporary issue is to ask, "What role do I envision myself playing as the preacher?" There are four possibilities.

First, there is the Principlist, who talks about biblical principles: "love for neighbor"; "as you would that others should do to you, do also to them"; "hate what is evil, cling to what is good." There are sermons that remain at the level of abstraction and let the hearers connect the issue to the principle. The main risk of this approach is that the Principlist may be viewed as irrelevant if the congregation isn't making the connections between the principle and the specific problem.

Second, the preacher can engage the issue more as an Analyst. In this case, the sermon serves to pick the issue apart, trying to find strengths and weaknesses in one approach to the issue. This gives people more help in thinking Christianly about the issue but still requires them to think.

Third, the Catalyst works especially well where there are people in the congregation who understand the issue better than the preacher does. The Catalyst lays out general principles but then says, "Some of you are in a position to act on this. You have specialized knowledge or access to decision-making powers. You can, and ought to, do something about this."

The fourth role is that of the Strategist, who not only knows what the problem is but plans on endorsing a specific course of action. In this mode, it is especially good if you can use the sermon to point people toward a specific ministry within your church or community that addresses the problem. It is frustrating to church members when the pastor moves them to get involved in an issue but doesn't give them a way to apply what he's said. It's like a steam engine that builds a full head of steam but doesn't have any track: It can blow its whistle but can't move anything. However, when the action called for is in the realm of public policy and legislation, the only realistic options may involve compromise. When a preacher endorses compromise, some may say, "You have left the high idealism of Scripture and become a theological compromiser."

Down to brass tacks

Here are some principles that will help you tackle contemporary issues wisely.

Don't ambush people with a controversial subject. Most congregations don't like to be surprised. If speaking on a controversial subject, contact the church leadership and put an article in the church newsletter, saying, "Please be praying for me as I prepare to speak on such-and-such an issue in a couple of weeks." People may not agree with you, but at least you will not have blind-sided them.

Keep the channels open. When you come to the end of a controversial message say, "I realize not all of you agree with this view; however, I believe it is a Christian view, rooted in Scripture. I'd be glad to talk with you about it, and I want to assure you that I love you, whether we agree on this or not." That kind of statement is very powerful and important to retain your pastoral relationship. Also, if you haven't convinced them in this sermon, you want them to come back to continue the process; for most people, change will be a process.

Give people some opportunity to interact. This can be done in a number of ways. After a controversial Sunday morning message, allocate time in the Sunday evening service for interaction, schedule a special class for the purpose, or invite letters or e-mails. Having an arena for discussion helps people feel they've had a hearing, and that enables them to live with disagreement more easily.

Use concrete, local examples whenever you can. To talk about world hunger is one thing. To talk about a guy named Bill in your community who doesn't have enough to eat helps bring it home. It helps people say, "I can't feed a billion hungry people across the ocean, but I could help Bill." "Think globally, act locally" applies here.

Use statistics sparingly and carefully. On many contemporary issues you can bury people in an avalanche of statistics. A few statistics used carefully are better.

Assume those who disagree with you are acting in good faith. Don't demonize them because they happen to disagree with you. People usually will respect the preacher who says, "I believe you are well-intentioned and will do what's right when you understand what is right." That makes people more amenable to change. I like the adage "Turn up the light and turn down the heat."

State what you are for as well as what you are against. So often in prophetic preaching we only condemn societal wrongs in the strongest language possible. While the prophets did that, they also used vivid, powerful language to describe the world as it could be. This will help Christians move beyond being viewed by society as largely negative and convey that we are constructive. So often we end too soon by saying, "These are all the things we are against, so cut it out." We're not clear on what could happen. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon, "I Have a Dream," drew a lot of its power from this very thing. He said, "This is my dream. This is the day I'm longing for." He made that quite concrete, quite specific in its imagery, so people could say, "Oh yes, this is why we must change. We need what you are describing." The power to paint images of what could be if God's will were done give a drawing quality that is powerful and effective.