The Problems and Challenges of Preaching in a Politicized Environment
Marion D. Aldridge
The Bible, in spite of its age, speaks to issues on today’s front pages: life, health, pain, suffering and death, war and peace, walls (pro and con), creation and environment, money (always an important spiritual issue). Can a preacher speak to these matters without alienating half of his or her congregation?
Yes. With one important exception: If someone (either the preacher or the layperson) is looking for a fight, they will find one. Some people can’t get along with their spouse or their children. They simply don’t know how to live with complexity and differences of opinion.
A pastor can’t make an unhappy person happy.
Otherwise, here are ten suggestions for preaching about hard subjects in politically charged times.
- Possibly the most patriotic thing any of us can do is to pray for our leaders in government. That’s biblical. This week in worship, I prayed for our President, our Senators, our Legislators, our Supreme Court Justices and others who are in positions of responsibility in our nation and state.
- Remember: in America, Church and State are constitutionally separated. The government cannot tell churches (or mosques or synagogues) what to do and our churches have no authority over the government. People can say almost anything they want to, but this safeguard is writ large in our First Amendment. Every year, not just this year, there are challenges, but for two hundred years, the wall of separation has stood.
- Separate your rights as a private citizen from your responsibilities as a priest and/or prophet. Teach your congregants to do the same. As taxpayers, pastors and laity are entitled to vote, to petition, to march, to write their legislators, to serve on juries, to be involved in local, state, and national political activities. Sometimes, like husbands and wives, they will cancel each other’s votes!
- Try to pay attention to what others are saying. No individual has the whole truth, the entire word of God. The Bible is a big book. The world is a big world. Humility about the limits of our knowledge is a good thing.
- Be stingy with the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord.” Nobody wants to be beat up in church. There should be safety in the sanctuary. It helps me, during sermon preparation, to consider what my best critics would say. Sometimes, nuance is needed. If you are truly biblical, you may need to acknowledge, “On the one hand… On the other hand.” Don’t use the pulpit, often called a “sacred desk,” for every issue. Protect it from glib or careless comments. Some themes need a Sunday night discussion, not a Sunday morning proclamation. Note: The prophet spoke hard words to King David, but he did so privately, not in a sermon.
- Remind the congregation of the enduring principles of scripture and the eternal reign of God. Preach these boldly. Pepper your preaching with phrases such as, “Thirty years ago, our parents and Sunday school teachers taught us…” or “During the era of Martin Luther…” to make the point that you didn’t choose to preach on an issue because of someone just elected or merely because you read a rant on Facebook. The timeless themes of scripture have been around a long time and people need to know them.
- Balance the painful with the hopeful. If a pastor preaches a challenging and confrontational sermon one week, and sometimes that is necessary, maybe the lessons the next few Sundays ought to be grace, hope, faith, peace, love and joy.
- Preach (and act) with love. Pay attention to your own heart. Be careful with your own spirit. Be self-aware. Don’t let fear drive you. Don’t be reactionary, sucked into another’s anger. We bring the deficiencies of our own personality to the pulpit. Are you passive-aggressive, not missing the chance to dig at people with whom you disagree? Are you easily seduced by hysteria on social media? Are you too often angry? Beware.
- Sometimes, prophetic words and actions are required. Dietrich Bonheoffer, Christian ethicist during the reign of Hitler, understood the landscape had been altered. Hitler was not an inconvenience. He slaughtered millions of human beings—Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Jews. Different circumstances require different strategies. Christians need to remember, also, the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, Jr. There is a time to break an unjust law. When we do, we don’t whine but we suffer the consequences with dignity.
- Model a full, happy, and contented life. Take advantage of our magnificent American freedoms. Turn off the television news and the social media and take a walk in the woods. Go to a baseball game. Read a novel. Visit the Grand Canyon or New York City. Invite strangers into your home for a meal. Volunteer at the local food bank. It’s a big, beautiful country. Beyond our borders, the earth is a big, beautiful creation. Embrace and enjoy.