If you dip your toe into social media even five minutes a day, you might assume that the only issues currently facing our nation are racism, police brutality and defunding, and six blocks in Seattle called CHAZ (or is it CHOP now?).
Oh, I almost forgot, COVID-19, too. Remember when that was all we talked about?
Preachers who spend (too much) time on social media might also begin to assume that these are the most pressing issues facing the people they shepherd. After all, that seems to be all we hear about. They might also assume these issues must be addressed from the pulpit, extensively and repeatedly and prophetically. Perhaps they even feel pressured to do a whole sermon series on topics such as violence in America, corruption in the political system, why Black Lives Matter, or some other trending, hashtag-worthy topic.
If you’re a pastor, you are certainly free to do so. But before you do, I hope you’ll give serious thought to another perspective. I do not think letting the events of our culture into the driver’s seat of the pulpit is a helpful idea—now or ever.
We Need a Break
First, like many people, I spend much more than five minutes per day on social media. I read posts from my friends on the political left and right, watch interviews, view pictures from peaceful protests and violent riots. I also listen to podcasts that address current ethical, political, and societal issues.
Truth be told, come Sunday morning, I feel emotionally beat up and mentally worn down by all of it. And I seriously doubt I am alone. If my pastor preaches on the “Feeding of the 5000” or “Jesus Walking on Water” and never saddles these verses and spurs them into hot-button issues territory, then I, for one, breathe a Hallelujah sigh of relief.
For at least an hour, I am yanked out of this week’s tumultuous raging into God-soaked liturgy, hymns, readings, and homily. These gifts graft me into an eternal kingdom that transcends the vicissitudes of humanity’s frail and failing progressive crusade to remedy all its own problems.
Second, when the direction of preaching is dictated by the issues of the day, like it or not, the pulpit becomes the perpetual servant of CNN and Fox News. Historically, the church has followed her own calendar, with seasons such as Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and so forth. Pastors have preached from a series of readings, assigned for each Sunday, called the lectionary. These have helped to create and foster a church culture that is universal or catholic, literally spanning the globe. Worship becomes a dance of joy and freedom within which preacher and congregation annually rehearse the rhythm of the life of Christ and his church.
The news and social media cycle, with its chameleonic alterations from this all-important issue (this week) to that next-all-important issue (next week); this war to that riot; this protest to that legislation, does not create a rhythmic dance for the church but a sort of frenzied whack-a-mole worship. Now smack your homiletical hand down on this…now that…now this…now that. Rather than the seasons of Advent and Epiphany, we have the seasons of COVID-19, racism, Antifa, abortion, gay marriage, and on down the line. There is no stability in this kind of socially driven lectionary. Rather than leading the way, the church is taken by the nose and led in whatever way the “most pressing issue of the day” wants it to go.
Preaching to Outsiders
Third, when the regular focus of the church’s life becomes issues—be those abortion, racism, politics, ecological concerns, whatever—it is a delicious temptation to preach against those who are not in attendance. You know, those “bad people out there doing bad things.” But that is not preaching but pandering—not to mention feeding raw meat to the monster of self-righteousness within us.
When it comes to proclaiming God’s judgment against sin of any kind, the church takes no prisoners, gives no quarter, but calls one and all to repentance.
Am I saying we should not preach against so-called “societal evils”? No, of course I’m not saying that. To begin with, all evils are societal; sin is never not communal. Now, let’s say that the Scripture reading for Sunday leads in the direction of preaching about violence, corruption, or abusing those made in the image of God. Ok, how are you going to preach? In such a way that everyone understands that the breeding ground of every monstrous offspring of evil sliming and slouching its way through our homes, schools, offices, governments, and streets today is the cardiac sewer within us. “Out of the heart…” Jesus said. Societal evils are heart evils.
What’s wrong with the world? I am. That’s where the law should leave us.
We are all, in some way, complicit in the whirlpooling demise of our world. We like to think we’re the good guys; we are not. No matter our skin color, nationality, sex, or cultural heritage, the same egocentric heart belches forth its hazardous waste daily. Oh, we may keep this in check, to some extent. Plug it up. Let it ooze out only at opportune times. We’re experienced sin-concealers, after all. But it’s always there. Preach about society’s wrongs? Sure, but only if you preach that you personally, and everyone there, are part of the problem.
Writing Sermons Before Consulting Texts
Finally, if we let current cultural issues into the driver’s seat of the pulpit, it will be very difficult for us simultaneously to maintain that the Gospel is the message that drives the teaching, preaching, singing, and witnessing of the church in this world. Which is it? There’s room for only one behind the wheel. Which will it be?
Needless to say, the current cultural issue will never be the Gospel. Would that it were! It might be a pandemic, a financial collapse, a war, race relations, or any number of other issues, but the big thing the world is currently fixated on will never be the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet that message alone belongs in the driver’s seat of the church’s preaching.
When pastors are planning their sermons, I hope they ask, “How can I best preach the Good News of Jesus this week from this biblical text?” instead of “How can I best address current issues?” One can do both, yes, but that’s not the point. Let me make it very practical. Dear preacher, before you even look at what biblical text you might preach, have you already decided you’re going to preach against X, Y, or Z? Well, then, you are not determining what you will preach; the world is. Let the Spirit use the word of God to guide you where the Father wants you to go; don’t guide it where you think it should go.
A Bible and a Newspaper?
We’ve all heard the old adage that the preacher should enter the pulpit with one hand holding a Bible and the other holding a newspaper (or, today, an iPhone). I find that image, which suggests giving equal influence to both, entirely unsatisfactory.
Rather, give me a preacher whose mind and heart are steeped in the wisdom of the Scriptures, who can draw us out of our own stories into the grand story of salvation, kill us with the law that diagnoses the disease of our sinful hearts, and rip us out of the grave into a bright new life with the absolving hand of Jesus Christ.
Such preachers may not seem very relevant, but they are always revelatory.
They reveal wisdom from on high.
Let us attend.