Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Preaching Controversy

In 2017 Leah Schade, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, did a survey of pastors as research for her recently published 2019 book, “Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide.” 

She surveyed mainline Protestant clergy in the United States on the topic of “Preaching about Controversial Issues.” Respondents were asked what topics they actively avoided in their sermons.  The results read like the headlines on the evening news.

The number one issue was Women’s Reproductive Health - in other words, abortion. Second on the list – was the Environment. But if you group the three environmental categories that made the top ten (Fossil Fuel Extraction, Species Extinction, Climate change), this was the most commonly mentioned issue.

Other issues in the top ten are Capitalism, Racism, LGBTQ Rights, Gun violence, and War. It surprised me that capital punishment, sexism and sexual abuse – especially the clergy abuse scandal - did not make the cut. If you want a more complete description of her survey, please see her article Top 10 Taboo Topics for Preachers on patheos.com.

The article got me thinking about my preaching ministry. I have preached and/or written on all of these issues. Some of them often. I have preached both sides of some issues over the years as my views have evolved. Recently (May 19) I delivered a sermon on the inclusion of LGBT persons in all aspects of the church’s ministry. Peter’s vision in Acts 11 was the lectionary reading for the day, and the Spirit of God shouted to me to address the subject! So I did.

I have never seen controversy as a reason to avoid preaching on an issue. Just the opposite! It seems to me that church folk can use a little guidance from the pulpit on such issues! But taking a stand has cost me personally, emotionally, and professionally. Bucking cultural and denominational attitudes is not the best way to climb the ecclesiastical ladder! But I have always considered it worth the price.

It is easier for me to address such topics now that I am retired, and my income does not depend on a church salary. But I also preached and taught on these issues for years when it was not easy. At times I trembled in my Oxfords while ascending the pulpit, knowing that I would offend people by my words, and that some people might leave the church - or want me to leave the church - because of my stance.

But I figure this is the reason that God put me – and all clergy - in the pulpit. It is not to utter soothing niceties that will ensure our job security. As the old adage says, it is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There is a prophetic dimension to pastoral ministry that cannot be avoided without being unfaithful to our calling.

We are to proclaim the Word of God as we understand it. Sometimes we will get it wrong. Then we are to admit we are wrong, and change when the Spirit says, “Change!” If we aren’t changing, we aren’t growing. I have changed my position on nearly every issue at some point in my life and ministry. I am sure I have more changing to do.

The job of a pastor is to model for our congregations how to handle a biblical text in a faithful manner and show how it applies to our lives today. It is to wrestle with tough issues in full sight of our people. These moral topics are too important to leave to politicians and radio talk show hosts.

Christians want their faith to be relevant. They do not want their pastors or churches to be rubber stamps for political party platforms. They want to hear an authentic word from the Lord. They want their pastors to show how the Bible can speak to today’s issues. It isn’t easy to filter out the polemics of our polarized political environment and heed the still, small voice of God. But it is what pastors are called to do. May God help us to do it.

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