The pastor’s call to speak out

It can be hard to preach about challenging social concerns.

Clayton Childers

Dr. George Henry Outen, chief executive for the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society from 1976-1980, once said:

Jesus got into trouble — and so will we — for attempting to transform the society rather than to conform to the society. But if we name the Name, and if we are followers of The Way, then we are called to engage in the redemption of the social order … We are to help bring healing and wholeness to a broken world.

Discussions during workshops I’ve led the past six years on the “Prophetic Role of the Pastor” have resulted in my developing a list of suggestions as to how to preach on controversial subjects in ways that are both positive and effective. Here are some of the ideas.

Build a solid foundation

  1. Love your people. Your congregation will be much more able to hear a challenging word, if they know it comes from a messenger who not only loves them but has proven that love by walking with them through trials, suffering, illnesses and deaths.
  2. Stay informed. Harry Emerson Fosdick famously said he believed the pastor must approach the task of preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
    • Read critically, though, and from a variety of sources.
    • Consider who might be behind a news story.
    • What’s not being said?
    • Whose voice is not being heard?
  3. Listen. Ministry is all about the relationship between pastor and people and God. This relationship requires listening: listen to your members; listen to people in your community; listen to people who live at the margins; listen to those who might never set foot in your church.
  4. Be steadfast in your faith life. Spend time reading the Bible and in prayer. Allow the Spirit of God to empower you for all the tasks you face, including the challenging task of preaching.
  5. Let your life be your message. St. Frances said it: “Preach the gospel always, if necessary, use words.” Let the grace of God’s Spirit abide in you and the light of Christ shine through you.
  6. Begin with prayer not with an agenda. Are your words shaped by love? Truth is important. Love is more important. “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The Gospel of Love must be evident in every message we present.
  7. Be open to the Spirit’s leading. Jeremiah lamented his plight as a prophet of God and, at times, despaired the Spirit’s call. Yet, when he tried not to speak God’s message, he said the word of God became like a “fire burning in his heart” (Jeremiah 20:9). At times God calls us as clergy to address difficult issues, messages we might rather avoid.

Techniques that work

  1. Begin with the Bible. The Bible is central. Begin there. But don’t leave the passage in the past, think with your congregation about what the passage means for us today.
  2. Tell people what you are for, not just what you are against. Lift up a positive vision. Is this not what Jesus did when he preached about the “Kingdom of God?” He was inviting people to join in a movement of God. In a similar way, people embraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream …” message. He painted a picture of a different future. He invited people to become a part of a movement to make it happen.
  3. Recall our heritage of social action. Our faith history is rich with examples of the Church standing strong at times for justice and social holiness. Unfortunately, there are also examples of the Church failing to take a stand. Both can be instructive.
  4. Don’t divide the world into Manichean camps of us versus them, God’s Army against Satan and his Legions. Polarization is always a temptation. It is a technique political leaders use to dehumanize the enemy. Don’t succumb. God is the holy parent of all creation, no exceptions. And God is the ultimate judge of all, we are not.
  5. Tell stories. The prophet Nathan challenged King David by telling a story. In the process, Nathan opened the king’s eyes to the truth. Jesus, the master storyteller, presented through parables a revolutionary message of an alternative kingdom.
  6. Include humor when appropriate. Humor can be an effective tool to break the ice on difficult themes, especially when it is used in a self-deprecating way. Do be careful, though, humor can also be hurtful or misunderstood.
  7. Use part of the sermon to address a social-justice issue. Often, a prophetic word can be included as one point in a larger message. This can be done fairly often, and can be done in a confessional way.
  8. Acknowledge personal growth and change. You might say: “You know, this has been an area where God has really been helping me grow, to see this issue in a different way …”
  9. Tell both sides. Consider reflecting other positions in your sermon, even the ones you may not agree with. Adam Hamilton uses this approach in his book Confronting the Controversies. After stating the issue at hand, he presents, fairly and clearly, two sides of a challenging issue. He then concludes with his own perspective. Even though the sermons addressed hot-button issues, Hamilton saw his worship attendance increase. People wanted to hear difficult issues addressed.
  10. Consider sermon dialogues. Invite the congregation to reflective dialogue. Perhaps over coffee after the service. Welcome the input of others in a way that shows openness, humility and respect. Creative tension can be helpful for everyone.
  11. Reference the Social Principles, the Book of Resolutions, statements from the Council of Bishops, Councils of Churches, etc.
  12. Consider the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to tease out difficult issues. Approach issues using the rubric of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. It’s proven to be an effective paradigm for analyzing issues for more than two centuries in faith communities.
  13. Set up a sermon suggestion box. Ask the congregation what contemporary issues the members would like to hear addressed from a faith perspective.

What would you add? You can send me your suggestions at Clayton Childers.

Editor's note: The Rev. Clayton Childers is Director of Conference Relations at the General Board of Church & Society.

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