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Bob Russell: Building Families in a Broken World

How to preach about family in a culture where family life is up for grabs.

The word family is warm and inviting. Preaching specifically on matters of the family can be quite the opposite. Family life is a visceral topic with subjects like authority and submission that can cause knee-jerk reactions. How do we talk about family and keep people's ears open to the truth? How do we preach to strengthen families without discouraging broken people?

To get some answers PreachingToday.com editor Brian Larson talked to Robert Russell. Bob has served since 1966 as pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is heard weekly on the national radio broadcast "The Living Word." His latest book is Money: A User's Manual.

We're dealing with all sorts of family models in our culture today: it's not just two parents, two kids, and a dog. How do you help all of them?

I address the tension head-on, and I bring more voices into the conversation.

Robert Russell: That's tough. The wonderful Christian family I grew up in is not the norm any more. I try to be sensitive to that. There's a tendency, with few traditional families, to think it doesn't exist any more. We still need to hold high the ideal. At the same time, we must acknowledge failure, forgiveness, and a fresh start.

Before I preach on the family, I talk with single parents and parents of blended families. I listen for a phrase or two I can draw into the sermon. "Maybe you're taking care of an elderly parent right now. You're still under God's umbrella of a family." It's amazing what that does. It says I know they're out there. It builds a bridge from my sermon to their situation.

You're preaching to keep people together, and yet trying not to condemn those whose families have come apart. That's a real tightrope. How do you balance it?

Two things: I address the tension head-on, and I bring more voices into the conversation.

For example, a recent sermon on divorce opened with a dramatic sketch. Several teenagers told how they felt when their parents broke up. Then I told how Indiana lawmakers were considering ways to stop the breakdown of the family. I pointed out a Barna poll that showed divorce is as much a problem for church people as for anyone else. So my sermon wasn't about the church bashing divorce. Everyone recognized the problem.

"I'm going to talk frankly," I said, "but it's not my intent to hurt anybody or put anybody on a guilt trip." Then I acknowledged the divorced people present. "The same grace of God that has forgiven the rest of us belongs to you. I want you to know that you are loved here." From there I was able to preach what the Bible says about divorce.

It eases tension if we confront it. Then healing can take place.

How do you talk about men's and women's roles in marriage?

That's more difficult today because of gender sensitivity. I am careful to consider how women will hear what I say. If the preacher is a man, women may ask, "What right do you have to talk about the wife's role?" Even Christian people have their antennae up more than they did years ago. So I try to lay some introductory material — that we are a Bible-believing church, and we try not to allow political correctness to influence us. I may also use more illustrations that are positive on the women's side, and be a little quicker to poke some light-hearted ridicule at the men than I am the women.

In a recent sermon on Ephesians 5, I decided I would begin with the husband's role and be a little tougher on the husbands to gain credibility so I could say what I needed to the wives.

When quoting from sources outside Scripture, I try to use people like Gary Smalley or respected secular sources on occasion. Again because I am a man, I will use quotes from women because quoting from women speaking to women gives credibility to what I'm saying.

Are there any subjects you do not address before the entire congregation?

Not much. I choose my words carefully. I say "intimacy" instead of "intercourse," for example. You can address any subject, but it's important to know your audience.

I have a men's Bible study every Saturday morning. To those men I would say, "You wake up in the morning and you're in a routine. You go through the same old shower and you eat the same old breakfast and go to the same old job. You quit at the same old time, and you come home and watch the same old TV shows. You go to bed, you ask the same old question, and you get the same old answer." I would not say that to a mixed group.

How do you raise the value of family without alienating singles?

Some people are alienated no matter how hard we try. I can't refuse to speak because somebody's offended.

Again, I ease the tension by admitting it. I point out that single people have a vital role in the church. I ask, "Would you please pray for this sermon series on marriage? Some of your friends are really struggling, and I know you're concerned that we preach the whole counsel of God."

In addition, I try to make the sermon applicable to most of my listeners. "A lot of principles in marriage apply to other relationships too." Let people know you're not ignoring them.

How do you preach with authority on the subject of family when you know you are not a perfect father and husband?

Everybody feels inadequate at this point. If you have to have a perfect marriage to preach on the subject, you'll never preach it.

I said one time in a sermon, "I feel like a real phony talking about this because I'm not very good at it. This is an area where I need to grow too."

If I feel the need to make such an admission, I tell my wife beforehand. I ask her permission. I saw a cartoon once where the preacher was talking with his wife in the car. He said, "I think my sermon would have been more effective if you hadn't said 'Ha!' right in the middle of it."

Bob Russell is a speaker, chairman of the board of the Londen Institute, and author of When God Builds a Church (Howard).

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