It was the summer of 2014 when I found myself in the middle of teaching through the book of Joshua. That is when I came to the next section in the book: 5:13-6:25. I knew I was going to have to tackle it when we started the book, but it was now the week where I had to tackle the never ending questions from the skeptics that I knew I was going to have to address: Why would God kill innocent people? How can I believe in a God who would do that? Or they would make statements like, "Causing a genocide is not my idea of a loving God."
The week before I taught on this a guy let me know he knew the passage was coming up and he was "extremely curious" to hear my perspective because he had researched this for three years. That wasn't exactly encouraging.
There are all sorts of questions, opinions and connotations that surface when we take on harder topics. This is one tension with teaching through books of the Bible, you can't dodge these things. Although the tension subsided, even after I taught the passage I was facing confrontational questions. Immediately after our service a woman who had just begun coming to the church came up to me and said, "Well, I must say, that was something I have never heard before. I will think about this more, but I sincerely think you don't understand the Bible."
It is rarely worth teaching on sensitive subjects without being very intentional about the words we choose, the path we use to verbalize them, as well as the tone and posture we assume.
The bottom line is these types of topics are "taboo" for a reason. There are certain topics, words, gestures, or behaviors that are simply societal land mines. As a teacher, tackling passages of Scripture that push on issues like gay rights, divorce, eternal punishment, marijuana being legalized, what seems to be genocide at first glance … well, can bring challenges. This is why most pastors avoid them like a plague.
That said, there is no doubt it is the "hot topics" that tend to inspire curiosity and a genuine interest in what will be taught on the subject. However, when certain concepts are generally prohibited because the consensus of society is in opposition to what we would teach, we run the risk of offending people. At one level we cannot worry about that, yet at another we must. When people are offended or feel degraded in any way, they shut out everything else we are saying. We must take this seriously and with caution.
If the gospel itself becomes offensive we must be satisfied. But, if a word choice or tone do so, we ought to be extremely restless. It is rarely worth teaching on sensitive subjects without being very intentional about the words we choose, the path we use to verbalize them, as well as the tone and posture we assume. Truth is far too important to negate this process as a preacher.
After teaching on Joshua chapters five and six, I realized that nearly every taboo topic involves addressing four basic questions. And, in the process of answering these questions I've also discovered some helpful principles for preaching on these taboo topics.
So, a few questions I'd like to address in this article:
• What are some practicalities to keep in mind as we prep to teach on sensitive issues or ideas?
• How can we hold true to scripture yet do so in a way where even non-believers can follow along and actually listen to everything we say?
• How do we set up the best environments to teach on these types of subjects?
• Are there generational distinctions we need to be attune to as we tackle these tough issues?
Prepping to teach
Everyone has different processes for preparing to preach. That is actually a beautiful thing and should be a means of learning from one another. I have a weekly process I go through that certainly would not work for everyone. But I do think there are some practical things that help anyone who will teach on tough issues.
Recognize common anxieties and fears Depending on the topic discussed these will vary, so it is important to really process through what these will be accordingly. I always start with my own thoughts and then, without sharing what I wrote down, ask a few other people what they think are common fears people have. They always share things I never thought of. Having this variety of perspectives is necessary in this process before teaching on the topic. It can greatly affect what and how things are articulated.
Articulate common desires There are basic human desires that are always good to recognize and articulate. This is helpful to think through for every message we teach, but absolutely critical for tackling highly sensitive topics. The bottom line I recommend starting with is the desire to belong. This is the basic human desire and, honestly, in every human being is a fear of not belonging. We don't want to be an "outsider," but rather want to have a place to belong. This is important because the point is to bring people into the truth, not push them out of it.
Acknowledge the fact that people have differing opinions Everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks their opinion is right. This is true from issues about hell, holy war, and what seem to be genocide in the Old Testament, to divorce or same sex marriage. If we do not acknowledge this, our tone and posture will not appropriately meet our audience. It's important to articulate what we believe truth to be, but we must do so respectfully. Godly people disagree on what seem to be some of the most clearly articulated realities in Scripture and this is only heightened when non-believers or immature believers are present as we teach on issues.
These few things will greatly shape how we approach teaching what we believe to be true.
Setting the environment
We must remember that there are all types of people listening to us as we teach. They have a variety of convictions and knowledge about the topics we teach on, and they also have a variety of backgrounds that will affect how they hear what is said. So, here are a few practical ideas for setting a common environment for everyone present.
Set the boundaries As I teach on taboo topics in our church, I have always framed the discussions and set the boundaries. I may reword them to best fit the specific issue I'm addressing, but I always touch on the following concepts in some fashion:
Love and humility, not shame, is our mutual aspiration. Christians ought to seek humility and love as the premise of everything they do and say. I will always state this as the place of common ground we must all stand on. Then I will say something like, "Wherever you stand on this issue, if you are not able to assume the posture of humility as we dialogue about this topic, I would like to ask you to leave now." The point of statements like this is to create a humble environment where truth is sought, not one where arguments are seeking to be won.
Dignifying conversation is honoring to God and one another. After stating this point, I acknowledge the complexity and emotionality of the subject, maybe some controversy surrounding it, make sure it's known that I will state where we stand as a church in regard to the issue and that our desire is to navigate this with great sensitivity so that our emotions don't get the best of us. We want truth to be portrayed more than our emotions.
Disagreement is a fact of life that should be respected. We all want the freedom to hold our own beliefs and if we want that to continue we have to respect the fact that other people hold to different beliefs than we do. We can still honor each other as human beings despite our differences in opinion and belief. We don't need to condemn each other to make sure other people know we don't condone certain things. Every person is made in the image of God and is therefore deserving of respect.
Articulate the sinful common ground we all stand on Until Jesus returns we will struggle with being imperfect (Romans 3:23). This is an important point to not only assume, but to make in the beginning of any message that is highly sensitive in our culture today. Using the LGBTQ discussion as an example, here is a couple thoughts I always make sure I articulate to set a common ground environment:
Everyone has a tendency to get angry with others who sin differently. This is always a result of arrogance and perhaps even bigotry.
Everyone has a skewed sexual orientation. There is no human being alive that has fully embraced God's original design for sexual relationships. At some level, we all have mixed expectations and sinful desires.
Number two above is critical to acknowledge when teaching on LGBTQ issues. It initially puts some people on their heels (usually Christians who don't struggle with same-sex attraction), but after thinking about it for just a minute everyone agrees that this is reality. These sorts of things help to bring common ground for everyone present, which is critical for them to hear all that is taught. This environment of emotional safety is critical.
Framing your beliefs
I always wrestle with a myriad of ways of saying what I want to say, but I think there are three things to keep in mind that have proven to be most helpful. These may take a few minutes to process through and if that's the case for you, please take the time to do so before reading the last section. Being as concise as possible, here are three "guidelines" I recommend when articulating your position on sensitive issues:
Center the discussion on values, not behaviors Think of yourself as a shepherd who is guiding sheep through a desert. You stop to rest for a couple days and yet need to keep the sheep close. You have two options, really. First, you can build a fence around the perimeter, prohibiting the sheep from crossing that boundary. Or, second, you can put a watering hole in one place and know the sheep won't stray too far from that center. The first option is restrictive whereas the second simply promotes proximity. When teaching on taboo topics most tend to build fences that prohibit certain questions or maybe even certain behaviors. However, I recommend the approach of the watering hole. For example, state the fact that you value Scripture and its authority in your life, and therefore your conscience won't allow you to sway from what you believe the Scriptures say about this topic. This type of statement sets up the Scriptures as the "watering hole" and is usually not taken offensively once the proper environment is set!
Articulate conclusions as convictions Of course we all think our conclusions are truth! But what about other godly people who land a little differently than you do? Surely we should be concerned about and perhaps even fight for some core tenants of our faith, but there has to be some sort of beauty that is recognized in differing opinions. We can confidently state our position and even more so when we frame our conclusions as our "convictions." This is especially helpful when talking with younger generations.
Emphasize the work of Christ, not our works If our identity is based on the works of Christ, then we ought to talk more about him than anything else. Western culture places a high value on doing, to the point where Westerners see their value in what they do and therefore, in its extreme cases, treats behavioral issues as salvation issues. Our salvation is based on works, but thankfully it is the works of Christ.
This leads me to simply state two concluding thoughts to keep in mind in regard to taboo topics:
Embrace sanctification as God's job. It's amazing how quick we are to condemn others because they sin differently than we do. We certainly want all to pursue holiness, but we must allow God to work in the lives of people when and how he wants. Our job is to participate in what God is doing, not determine what he should be doing in the life of someone else.
Think about how your non-believing friend will hear what you say. Even if he or she is not present when you teach on subjects, picture them in the room as you prepare. Picture someone you love deeply. Envision them listening to you teach Christians about this topic. Even if they don't agree with your conclusions, what do you want them to perceive about the Christian community?
When addressing a question like, "Does God kill innocent people in the Old Testament?" make sure you can articulate your position in one or two sentences at most. If you cannot do this, you have not thought through it enough and therefore won't clearly articulate it in thirty minutes.