By John D. Pierce
America’s deep and intense ideological divide is obvious from social media posts to coffee shop conversations to the relentless political season’s assault on the senses.
But nowhere are these impassioned yet opposing perspectives more apparent and risk-producing than in many churches. Which makes preaching very challenging.
In many cases, a faithful pastor must dig into an ancient biblical text and seek to convey the truth of scripture to those who are unable or unwilling to consider any challenge to their cemented beliefs that have been reinforced by select media and other echo chambers throughout the week. Any distinction between their hardened political positions and what the Gospel might say is unrecognized.
Therefore, acceptance of the preacher’s proclamation of “truth” is tied to the degree to which the sermon aligns with the listeners’ well-settled viewpoints. So the radical nature of the prophets and the hard words of Jesus in challenging religious power brokers and the political status quo — especially calls for justice and mercy — don’t play well.
Modern preachers who don’t pacify the expectations of those wanting reinforcement of their prejudices and perspectives are in for a hard time. So preachers are pressured (directly or indirectly) to either preach “safer” sermons or to leave — or they can watch disgruntled congregants head down the street where the sermon is a regurgitation of a favorite radio or TV rant with a unrelated Bible verse and a few churchy words tossed in.
Reasoned lay leaders today have an important role to play in ensuring a free pulpit for those preachers willing to bring prophetic words to the pulpit — not arrogantly, but responsibly. Prophets don’t win popularity contests. They have to be granted a hearing even if what they say is uncomfortable.
Pastors are often caught in a trap: They are fulfilled in their calling to minister to people in all aspects of their lives. They invest in communities along with their families.
Yet, despite a caring pastoral presence at hospitals, gravesides, homes and elsewhere, just one sermon that strikes a challenge to the pervasive political ideology can result in hostile undermining of their entire ministry.
The call to preach prophetically and the desire to stay invested in a community (along with financial security for the ministerial family) are suddenly in conflict.
Years ago I heard the late, great Fred Craddock say that congregations can handle just about anything as long as it’s presented in a pastoral way. That’s a wise word for pastors to use much care in introducing new ideas and challenging the status quo of thought and practice.
However, I’m not sure even the best pastoral sensitivities allow for words of challenge to the most defensive listeners — and such defensiveness seems to be on the rise.
Therefore, I have tremendous appreciation for pastoral leaders who accept the growing risk that comes with being faithful to their calling. Otherwise, the sermon has no more purpose than the latest political commentary or sidewalk argument.
The option, of course, is safe preaching — that simply avoids the collision course with those of hardened minds and hearts who consider all challenges as a threat to their warmly-embraced and well-polished understanding of truth.
Here’s what “safe preaching” looks like in case self-preservation becomes the goal:
Call listeners to pray more, give more and serve in the church more. But don’t call them to treat others justly or love their enemies — at least not with modern examples.
In many churches, the idea that Jesus is Lord can only be taken so far.
Keep the Good Samaritan on the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road and the focus on the kindness of giving first aid. Boo the passersby if you wish, but don’t dare dig into the ethnic and religious comparisons within our culture. We have perfectly good justification for our hatred and exclusion of certain groups.
Keep a blurring connection between the flag and the Bible. Ignoring or downplaying Pentecost (the mere birthday of the Church) is no big deal. But don’t under-do Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
For many pew-sitting civil religionists, nationalism is Christianity — and they’ll fight you over it.
A half-century after the civil rights movement in America, it is fine to make a passing comment about God loving “all people” — and even point to a respected African-American athlete or politician. But give it another 50 to 100 years before bringing up anything about equality and justice related to gender and sexual orientation.
Call listeners to confess their sins to God — and REPENT! — just not all sins. Bad personal habits are fine; but greed, anger, hatred toward perceived enemies, treating persons unjustly in business — not so much. And lay off the mercy stuff.
Pretend that mercy and grace and justice and unconditional love (though broad biblical themes) apply only to how God treats us —and those nice people like us. Not how we are to treat all others.
Happy safe preaching!