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Opening Closed Minds (pt. 2)

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

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, Hamilton shared some keys to his own success in preaching controversial issues, including showing honor to all standpoints. To read part one, click here.

Argue well for both sides

My underlying assumption in preaching this series of sermons was that controversial issues are controversial precisely because thinking Christians can reach opposite conclusions about the issues. If the issues were simple and the conclusion easily drawn, they would not be controversial.

With this in mind, I prepared each sermon just as I had been required to prepare for debates in high school—I studied both sides of an issue with the goal of being able to win a debate regardless of whether I took the affirmative or the negative side of the argument. In other words, if I was going to preach successfully on a controversial topic, I needed to be able to understand and fairly articulate both sides of the issue.

Only after I could do this was I in a position to bring my own interpretation of the Scripture, as it related to the particular issue, to bear. I had to be honest about the weaknesses of my argument, and I needed to be willing to change my own views as I considered the arguments.

If you can—with humility, respect, and great love—offer a challenging word, you have the incredible potential of actually changing the hearts and minds of your hearers.

My approach in presenting these sermons was to begin by making the strongest possible case for the view I would not ultimately ascribe to. I would, in every case, try to give proponents of this view the benefit of the doubt. I would attribute to them the highest possible motives. By the time I was done presenting the first position on any of the controversial issues, I wanted anyone who held that position to say, "Adam has been more than fair in representing my viewpoint, and he treated me and my viewpoint with respect." People often told me after these sermons that I did a far better job articulating their position than they could have done themselves.

After this I presented the opposite view, not as my own, but as an objective presenter—making the strongest case possible for this view and treating with respect those who held such views. My hope at this juncture was simply to help people on both sides to understand and view each other with respect. I sought to model this approach for them.

Finally, I would try to bring my own thought processes to bear on the topic. I sought to demonstrate compassion for those on the opposite side of the issue, my own tentativeness if I was not completely certain myself, and then my final conclusion of what I felt was the position most in keeping with what I could understand of God's will as revealed in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.

Here's what I found: Some people told me, "Your conclusion was different from mine, but you have given me a lot to think about. I'll keep thinking about this." On many occasions, especially related to the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion, people said, "I came here today with strong opinions in one direction, and I am leaving seriously reconsidering my views. You changed my mind today."

At the end of the day, I believe that is what effective prophetic preaching is supposed to do: to actually affect the people who most need to hear it. It is meant to move them to change—to reconsider their life or their views. If you can—with humility, respect, and great love—offer a challenging word, you have the incredible potential of actually changing the hearts and minds of your hearers.

If you have offered the difficult words with humility, respect, and love, and people are upset with you and choose to walk out on your sermons (as I have had happen on numerous occasions), so be it. You cannot avoid preaching on difficult subjects just because you don't want to lose members.

I have received well over 100 e-mails and letters during the last 12 years from people who disagreed with something I said in a sermon. Their words have sometimes hurt.

But, if I have been wise and caring in how I approach a difficult issue about which I feel God has called the church to speak, then I will accept the fact that some will occasionally turn away as a result of my sermons. But if, by my approach, I have alienated people and turned them away from the church and from the position God has called me to preach, then I have failed.

Okay, sometimes I get it wrong

I recently forgot my own advice here. On the one-year anniversary of September 11, I preached a sermon to my congregation that was stirred by my own growing conviction that, as a nation, we were too quickly headed for war with Iraq. I was not persuaded that we had met the criteria of just war. While 68 percent of the American people were in favor of moving forward, I was feeling increasingly convicted that I needed to challenge our assumptions about this.

The first half of my sermon that day dealt with the kind of pastoral concerns that needed to be dealt with on the one-year anniversary of this terrible tragedy. But I devoted the second half of the sermon to the issue of our continuing war on terrorism, and specifically the prospects of war with Iraq.

As I look at that sermon, I continue to feel the basic position I took in the sermon was biblical and prompted by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, what I did not do was respect and recognize the feelings and rationale of those who felt we were justified in going to war. Instead, I simply let loose with my own understanding of God's will.

The result was that I irritated a lot of folks I really had hoped to influence. In other words, I had failed to accomplish the one thing I most wanted to do that day—because I forgot the lessons I've just shared.

In the end, this is the question: When it comes to preaching on difficult issues, do you want to irritate or influence your congregation?

This article is reprinted from Unleashing the Word by Adam Hamilton (Abingdon, 2003), used by permission. The sermon series described in this article was published as Confronting the Controversies (Abingdon, 2001) and includes study questions for group use. Videotapes and audiotapes are available from the Church of the Resurrection at www.cor.org.

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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