Robert Greenleaf, founder of the Greenleaf Servant Movement, once recalled a story which had sprung up around Beethoven’s composition, the C# Minor Quartet, Opus 131. When first played in Beethoven’s lifetime it appeared to be unlike anything the master had ever written before. “Ludwig,” a friend asked, “what has happened? We don’t understand you anymore.” It’s reported that Beethoven replied, “I have said all that I have to say to my contemporaries; now I am speaking to the future.”
Obviously, I’m not a musical genius like Beethoven nor do I have any ability to predict what may lie ahead. I’m a pastor, professor, and preacher, not a prophet and I resonate with what Qoheleth said in Ecclesiastes 9:1, “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.”
As the Preacher noted, we don’t know the future; that simply isn’t possible. However, it does seem prudent to give some time and thought to discerning the forces which presently influence our society and impact us as Christians. As Karl Barth once noted, good preachers have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
In an attempt to apply Barth’s homiletical maxim, I’d like to describe four macro-forces that loom large in our contemporary setting and even, perhaps, in our ministries. Following that, I’ll suggest some biblical themes we can leverage in our preaching to give us and our parishioners some help and hope as we live into this year and beyond.
As I am writing this article, COVID continues to dominate the nightly news as the deadly disease and its variants still roam the earth. Almost a million Americans have died and millions more globally from the pandemic. The marvels of medical technology have provided vaccines, but the virus continues to evolve and strike down vulnerable populations.
The underreported story, however, is the crisis of mental health. I’ve spoken with various doctors, nurses, and counselors and they unilaterally note that our biggest social problem is the sheer number of people who are clinically depressed, continually anxious, and stressed out due to COVID and its effects. These symptoms seem especially prevalent among the young.
Regardless of where we may personally stand on the viability of lockdowns, shutdowns, vaccines, and masks, there’s no question that innumerable Americans, many of them our parishioners, have been emotionally, physically, and occupationally besieged during these COVID years.
Technological innovations such as the Internet, cell phones, and now the meta-verse are dominant cultural forces. One of the consequences of their enormous influence is the power of social media. Facebook (now Meta), YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter are used by billions of people world-wide.
The upside to these technological wonders is that we can communicate with family, friends, and even strangers in ways that were inconceivable just a few decades back. But social media has a dark underbelly. Instead of bringing people together, it often unleashed human depravity, ruined relationships, and split congregations.
Moreover, its questionable nature and corrosive effects are now on full display as Netflix’s powerful documentary The Social Dilemma so poignantly demonstrated. Numerous innovators of social media and other online platforms are publicly condemning the popular Frankensteins they helped to create. Many of these men and women have abandoned social media and refuse to give their children access to either the Internet or cell phones. As Richard Seymour has shown in his stark critique, The Twittering Machine, social media and its mother, Big Tech, often function like monstrous Molochs gobbling up everything good, pure, and beautiful with their cyborg-like functionality.
Can a society with $30 trillion in government debt continue on as if there were no day of reckoning? How does 8% annual inflation factor into that? Apart from the richest one percent, millions of Americans watch helplessly as their purchasing power erodes and their savings for the future depletes. Millions more are living paycheck to paycheck with little thought for tomorrow. Consumer debt now stands at $16.15 trillion (August, 2022), including mortgages and student loans. Decades ago, common sense told us “neither a debtor nor borrower be.” By all counts, that ship sailed long ago.
In an interview for Barron’s, retirement expert Teresa Ghilarducci noted that 72% of Americans are nearing retirement but won’t have enough to maintain their living standards. She went on to add that she no longer does seminars on this topic because it creates so much stress in the listeners. Money is a necessity of life, but it appears that many people, Christians included, are now living on the sharp edge of a financial precipice.
Politics is now a “hot button” that can quickly invoke congregational strife and wreak havoc in the wider Christian community. I’ve spoken with pastors who lost not only church members but saw their elder boards split in two over political candidates and government mandates related to COVID. Recent observations by some of our most astute public commentators, such as David Brooks and Ian Bremmer, point toward growing political turmoil during the midterm elections.
Regardless of where pastors stand politically, the country and many of their congregations are politically and culturally split making their church contexts look and feel like “no-win” situations.
These powerful forces, especially the last, might feel like a 21st century version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse so vividly described by John in Revelation 6. Yet the dominant figure in that same book is the sovereign and glorified Christ who alone holds the keys of death and hades (Rev. 1:18). And lest we forget, one of the most prominent phrases in the Bible is “fear not.” As novelist Marilynne Robinson has poignantly observed, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
So how might preachers respond to these intimidating elements of our Late Modern World with both help and hope? Let me offer four suggestions.
The Necessity of Church
To negate at least some of the emotional effects of the COVID pandemic, I would encourage pastors and preachers to stress the utter necessity of attending church every week. As we engage our congregants in the welcome, the pastoral prayers, the Lord’s Supper, and especially in our sermons, let’s consistently stress the value of having everyone present. As we preach, let’s do our best to communicate that we’re social creatures who need each other, not mere drones who can live by texting, Tik-Tok, and Netflix alone.
Moreover, let’s verbally affirm our people on a regular basis. Let’s state how important they are to us, both informally before and after the service, as well as in our preaching. Some regular encouragement from the pulpit in this regard can go a long way!
For over forty-five years I have consistently pastored, preached, and taught in local churches. I simply can’t imagine life apart from the Bride of Christ and I’ve tried to emphasize that in my preaching over the years. It seems even more important to do so in this strange season of life. So, together as pastors, let’s model that and then preach it from the rooftops.
The Priority of the Gospel
Given the warp-speed expansion and near ubiquity of social media, I’ve sometimes wondered why it’s so alluring. While it clearly provides connection to others, I’ve concluded that it often serves as a vehicle for self-promotion. This isn’t spiritually healthy and doesn’t gain any traction for the church.
Given his willingness to do anything short of sin to win people to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-23), I’m confident Paul would have leveraged these technological tools to preach the gospel. And that’s the point: He was always and only about sharing the love of Jesus with saints and sinners alike.
So, what’s that look like for us today? First, let’s use social media platforms for pastoral connection and congregational instruction. Let’s tweet or post new insights we gained from our study of Scripture or from books we’re currently reading. As an example of how to do this, get on Tim Keller’s Twitter feed. He leverages it for gospel advancement every single week.
Second, let’s post pictures and captions on Meta (Facebook) or Instagram of our parishioners at home, in church, or at work serving Christ and others in some capacity. Let’s make a Federal Case out of them and their ministries and avoid drawing attention to ourselves.
Third, where appropriate in our preaching, let’s teach our congregations to use social media redemptively. Let’s unequivocally state that Christ calls us to demonstrate love and compassion to our culture instead of reacting to the latest political or social issue with vitriol, outrage, or cynicism.
The Kingdom of God
The main message of Jesus’ ministry was the Kingdom of God by which he meant the rule and reign of God in the lives of believers. In one of the most prominent verses in Scripture, Jesus told us to “Seek first his kingdom” and trust him to supply our needs (Matt. 6:33).
I’d like to encourage pastors to make that theme the foundation for a sermon series on financial management sometime this year or next year. To be sure, such a series could include sermons on giving and saving but I’d suggest at least one or two should be on exorcizing the demon of debt. I’ve often wondered how many marital conflicts are, at heart, rooted in financial stress caused by indebtedness. Every time I bring up this issue in my seminary classes, the room gets so quiet you can hear a pin drop. I don’t think their silence is from boredom.
This is where the Book of Proverbs is so invaluable. One of its major themes is money management and its corollary, self-discipline. Proverbs 6:6-8 uses the intentionality and work ethic of the ant to illustrate the necessity of self-discipline in our lives. A short series on debt reduction might start with that virtue and then leverage it to teach about budgeting.
Encouraging our parishioners to eliminate debt has tangible personal and spiritual benefits. Emotionally, it lifts the crushing burden of debt off their shoulders. It also sets them free to give generously to God’s work, thus laying hold of what Paul labeled “life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
The Power of Prayer
We can debate political issues, various candidates, and even different applications of Romans 13 till the cows come home. In and of themselves, those kinds of debates aren’t wrong. But Spirit-filled churches which rely on ceaseless prayer to the Sovereign God will have a far greater chance of staying unified in the face of political and cultural pressures to forget their calling. (For example, see the early church’s response to persecution in Acts 4:23-31)
I’ve always found it fascinating that in his discussion about the church and her mission in pagan Ephesus, Paul told Timothy that “entreaties, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings should be made for kings and all those in authority so that we might lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Let me encourage pastors to preach these truths and then consistently invoke prayer in congregational worship for our political leaders, asking God to work in and through them for the benefit of our communities and country.
In addition, we might want to gather church members together on a regular basis for the sole purpose of praying for our national fractures and current world crises. Perhaps the example of Daniel and his Hebrew brothers-in-exile to Babylon can serve as our inspiration.
Along with the Babylonian court magicians, they faced a death threat by King Nebuchadnezzar for the magicians’ failure to tell and interpret the king’s recurring dream. In response to the crisis, the four Hebrews gathered in fervent prayer, seeking God’s mercy (Dan. 2:17-18). God answered by giving Daniel both the king’s dream and its interpretation because “He changes times and seasons, he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understand” (Dan. 2:21). Consequently, the crisis was averted, lives were spared, and the message of the Sovereign God’s expanding kingdom was preached at court by Daniel to an astonished Nebuchadnezzar and his retinue (Dan. 2:36-47).
Obviously, God is not obligated to respond in any certain way to our prayers and perhaps you think this suggestion is naïve in view of our current social divisions and cultural upheavals. But there’s no question that he calls on his people to pray (James 5:13-18) and he may surprise us with his answers—as he is wont to do.
‘City of God’
I know we’re living in challenging times and that preachers are on the front lines, getting shot at from all sides. Nonetheless, I often think of Augustine when, in his fifty-seventh year, word was brought to him that Rome had fallen to the barbarians. It was nothing short of a catastrophe and brought an end to the Classical civilization he loved so much. But he continued preaching, teaching, and writing for the next twenty years, always proclaiming the ultimate victory of the City of God. It was, he said, destined to conquer because it was not built by men nor could it be destroyed by them. Regardless of what comes our way, may our preaching sound the same note this year and beyond.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.