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Opening Closed Minds (pt. 1)

When you address controversial issues today, you can irritate or influence, but not both.

This is part one of a two-part series.

Sometimes God calls us to preach to our people a timely and important word—a word that is challenging and perhaps difficult to receive. In seminary, we called this "prophetic preaching." We looked to the Old Testament prophets as our example—courageous and willing to speak the hard words of criticism as they preached against the sins of injustice, unfaithfulness, and idolatry that had infiltrated God's people in their day.

More recently, I have watched pastors who were quite proud of their "prophetic ministry" drive churches right into the ground. Or, if they did not drive the church into the ground, they succeeded in driving away everyone who disagreed with them, attracting only the like-minded to their church. What they did not manage to do, unfortunately, was actually influence anyone to change.

Is our aim to proudly shout out our position, or is it to actually influence people to consider making this position their own?

Having sought to deliver those kinds of messages with some regularity at Church of the Resurrection, I would like to offer some insights gained through both my successes and failures. Maybe these will help as you seek, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, not only to "comfort the afflicted" but to "afflict the comfortable."

When preaching unpopular or controversial issues, we have to ask: Is our aim to proudly shout out our position, or is it to actually influence people to consider making this position their own?

Obviously, by the way I've phrased the question, I believe that our aim is to influence others to change when their views are in conflict with what Scripture teaches.

If we agree about this, then the next question is, "What is the most effective way to influence people to reconsider their own views and to adopt a more biblical view?"

A popular prophet

On Christmas Eve of 1999, we announced to worshipers that, beginning the second week of January, we would launch a series of sermons on the most difficult and controversial issues of our time. A postcard in the bulletin outlined what those topics would be:

Separation of Church and State
Evolution in the Public Schools
The Death Penalty
Prayer in Public Schools

We invited worshipers to join us as we wrestled with hard issues. The second Sunday of January, our worship attendance increased by one thousand over what it had been running in the last quarter of 1999!

These sermons were an opportunity not only for evangelism, but also pastoral care. Our longtime church members were presented the opportunity to do social ethics—to apply their faith to complex moral issues. We probably lost a handful of members during the series—but we kept most of those new people who began attending. I received hundreds of e-mails during the series. People were talking about these sermons at work, sharing them with their congresspersons—the response was amazing.

We saved the most controversial issues for the end. We set a new record for worship attendance on the day we preached on homosexuality—we had 2,500 more in worship than we had averaged just two months earlier.

The basic premise of this series of sermons was that all these issues are moral issues, and moral issues are meant to be shaped by values, and values are shaped by faith. As such, these are important issues to discuss in church. In addition to drawing a large number of unchurched people who were amazed that a church was willing to deal with these topics, we offered pastoral care (especially in the sermons on euthanasia, abortion, and homosexuality) and, as noted above, taught Christian social ethics and how to apply the Scriptures to complex issues, thus accomplishing the aim of discipleship as well.

Show honor and respect

I have, at times, come right out in a sermon with what I believe is the biblical mandate, and preached it with both conviction and, unfortunately, a bit of self-righteousness or smugness. My approach never accomplished what I hoped it would—it did not move people with entrenched opinions to reconsider. I received plenty of kudos from those who already agreed with me, but only angered those who did not. This is not prophetic preaching, and it does not please God.

It does not please God because the preacher (in this case, me!) squandered an opportunity to make a real difference, and instead drove people even farther away from the position God was seeking to lead them toward. God isn't interested in whether you are right about a particular issue. God is interested in whether you do your job as a preacher, which is to help other people discover God's ways.

The best way to influence and persuade others is not to alienate them and irritate them, but to honor them and respect their positions, and then to respectfully and humbly offer an alternative position.

My series on "Christianity and the Controversial Issues of Our Time" could have been disastrous if handled the wrong way. But it ended up being a tremendous success, not only in reaching and attracting a large number of new people, but also in influencing people to rethink their entrenched views on very difficult issues.

In part two of this article, Hamilton continues his discussion of how to preach influentially on controversial topics. He focuses on the importance of arguing well for both sides of each issue.

Adam Hamilton is the founding pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Adam is married with two daughters. His latest book is Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics (Abingdon Press, 2008).

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