If Christian preaching is going to be effective, it has to be relevant. That is, it needs to connect to people’s lives so that it leads to greater self-awareness, spiritual enlightenment, a change in perspective, altered behavior, or even a resolve to take up new responsibility.
But most preachers have discovered that the gospel doesn’t need to be made relevant. It already is all on its own. The evidence of this is provided to me over and over when I learn how my sermons speak directly to people’s questions, needs, hurts, and challenges in ways I never would have expected. While I’m glad to use examples from the news or personal experience that obviously illustrate the messages I am given, I don’t spend a lot of time looking for ways to connect the gospel to “real life.” My primary concern is to be faithful to the biblical text. Experience has taught me that the Holy Spirit has more to do with applying the truth of scripture to people’s lives than I do.
Usually, the result of this process is appreciated. “I felt like you were speaking directly to me today, pastor,” isn’t a complaint. It’s an expression of gratitude. But sometimes, the gospel is so relevant it hurts. People feel stung by a truth that confronts them with their unexamined biases, faulty assumptions, or lack of compassion. When that happens, they will either reflect prayerfully on what they have heard, or they will dismiss the message by saying to the preacher – or to somebody else about the preacher – “That sermon was too political.” (Translation: it made me uncomfortable.)
The pastor of my home church in South Arkansas got that rap on numerous occasions because the folks in our all-white congregation knew he was sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. So whenever he said anything about loving people who are different from us, or the equality of all people in the eyes of God, his critics would say, “I don’t come to church for politics” or “you shouldn’t mix politics and religion.” Garrison Keillor once told a story about the pastor of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church in Minnesota being accused of siding with Democrats because he was always preaching about love, forgiveness, and compassion. Thirty years ago at a church in Indiana I was chided for lauding Martin Luther King as a powerful example of Christian witness. (His birthday had just become a federal holiday.) I was told that, since King was a controversial figure, he didn’t belong in church. (Jesus, anyone?)
On the other hand, in the months leading up to the November election, people often positively interpreted my sermons as directly addressing campaign rhetoric or policy proposals. On an almost weekly basis, I heard comments like, “That sermon was so relevant to what is going on in this crazy presidential race.” I don’t doubt that it was, but most of the time, I wasn’t even thinking about the campaign when I was preparing my sermons. It’s just that, if you honestly preach the Bible, you are often addressing what’s going on in the world and in people’s personal lives without even knowing how.
This is different from nakedly political preaching, which I regard as an abuse of the pulpit. There are preachers who find justification in just about any Bible passage for grinding their pet political axes. Some right-leaning preachers manage to contort the biblical narrative into a world-view that sounds like the Republican Party Platform. And some left-leaning preachers are guilty of wedging the entire Bible into a progressive or socialist agenda. Walter Brueggemann, the great biblical scholar, has called the Bible a “wild text” that refuses to conform perfectly to any human system of thought. So if you’re going to faithfully preach the Scriptures, you will not allow your sermons to be captured by any particular political program. You will often say things that have political implications, but that’s different from promoting a partisan agenda. The point is, the text should set the agenda, not the personal views of the preacher.
I’m thinking about this now because a new, highly controversial president is about to be inaugurated. He comes into office with an approval rating of 44%, lower than that of any incoming president in modern history. His bombastic, confrontational style is a breath of fresh air for some and highly offensive to others. He likes being controversial. He enjoys keeping things stirred up and dominating the news. So if you are at all tuned in to what’s going on in the world, you’re going to hear about him every day, and you will have strong reactions, either positive or negative, to just about every word he feeds to the media. (What he actually does, or is able to get done, is another subject entirely. It will be what he says and what he tweets that hogs the news cycle and generates discussion around water coolers and cracker barrels.)
Because our new president is so adept at manipulating social and broadcast media to keep himself in the spotlight, I can guarantee you that Sunday sermons will be regularly interpreted as opposing or supporting the president, either of which will be problematic for somebody. Messages from the pulpit will be scrutinized through political lenses even when preachers have not given the slightest thought to the president or politics in their sermon preparation.
It’s not hard to see how some pretty basic principles of scripture might be regarded as “political” statements. Here are some examples.
- Human society has a God-given responsibility to care for the poor and marginalized, including “strangers” (i.e., refugees and immigrants with no legal status).
- All people are equal in the eyes of God and must be given equal justice.
- The earth is the Lord’s and not ours to exploit recklessly.
- The blessings of God cannot be measured materially, and the greatest wealth has nothing to do with earthly riches.
Depending on their political leanings, some churchgoers might welcome these messages as taking the president to task, while others will object that the preacher is unfairly “bashing” him. If repeating non-negotiable biblical truths makes a Christian pastor sound partisan, that is because an over-hyped political environment has interfered with our ability to hear the word of God. I do not believe sermons should be expected to address social issues or what’s in the news on a weekly basis. (Forgiveness, grace, personal spiritual growth, how we relate to others, and our life as a congregation are also important subjects.) But neither should sermons be expected to avoid public life. I have no intention of “politicizing” the gospel, but my call is to proclaim it faithfully as best I am able, regardless of whether it is consistent with or runs counter to public rhetoric and policy.
The theologian Karl Barth once told some pastors who were visiting him in his home, “Preach the gospel, and see what happens.” In 37 years of preaching, I’ve witnessed the proclamation of the gospel accomplish some amazing results. I wonder what will happen next.
©2017 by J. Mark Lawson