Politics? Oh, We Don’t Go There!

I suspect we need to give some more thought to this oft-stated contemporary wisdom: “We should just focus on the Gospel and not get political.”

We live in a society that seems to be increasingly divided and polarized by political discussion and media misrepresentation of opposing views on a variety of topics.  It is understandable that many will automatically agree that in the church, and in preaching, we should simply focus on the Gospel and not get dragged into the political tensions of our time. 

Here are seven preliminary points for us to ponder:

1. Politics is no substitute for the Saviour.  It is easy for some people, preachers included, to get swept up into current affairs and to put their hope in politicians or political parties.  We live in a sinful world and the world of politics tends to highlight human sin and the futility of godless solutions.  Anyone who puts their hope in a political solution to our greatest needs will be deeply disappointed.  Our church and our world need us to preach Christ and him crucified, not a party manifesto.

2. Silence can be highly political.  While we can easily see the problem if our pulpit shifts into a soapbox for a particular political agenda, merely exorcising any hint of a political opinion from our preaching is not the solution.  Sometimes saying nothing about something is really saying something.  In fact, there are times when silence is actually saying something quite strongly.  Saying nothing about gender, sexuality, morality, etc., can serve to reinforce the cultural narrative – especially as the younger generation grow into adulthood.  A lifetime of one message from the media, from social media, from educators and from peers may be affirmed rather than countered by a silent pulpit.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is well worth reading!  He wrote, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

3. We must define what we mean by “political.”  I hear people referring to “political” as if such a label automatically confirms that the subject must not be touched.  What do we mean by the term?  A dictionary definition is “relating to the government or public affairs of a country.”  So, does this mean the church should have no voice on slavery, racism, human rights, poverty, crime, corruption, etc.?  I think we tend to all celebrate the political stand and achievements of past believers like William Wilberforce, George Muller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.  But we also forget how many churches remained silent on the slave trade, on child poverty, or on Nazi tyranny.

4. Why do we retreat – does the Bible have nothing to say?  So, does the Bible have nothing to say on matters that could be labelled political?  Of course, it does.  The prophets were not typically the “popular preachers” in their era.  They spoke out for God about real issues in their society, whatever the cost.  Today, God cares passionately about the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  God hates the damage done by racism, or abuse, or trafficking, or crime, or unjust laws, or human rights violations, etc.  None of these issues is greater than the need for the Gospel to be preached, but let’s not claim to proclaim the whole counsel of God while refusing to address injustice or any other issue that might be labeled “political.”

5. Why do we retreat – are we living in fear?  Today we live in strange times.  We don’t have to go back to the era of the prophets to sense the change.  It was not that long ago that people would disagree and then have a conversation about it.  They might even take onboard the perspective of another and do some genuine personal research in order to understand that position better.  We were all bettered by that approach.  Today we live in a culture that increasingly models “triggered grievance and cancellation.”  If someone does not say the right things and openly affirm the sacred cows of our time, there are plenty of people ready to declare deep grievance and instigate a public take-down and cancellation of the offending party.  This can feel crippling to the Christian in the workplace, to the Christian on the campus, and to the preacher in the pulpit.  I hope we are all learning to speak wisely and avoid unnecessary problems, but we cannot afford to retreat into a silent fear where our salt loses any saltiness, and our light is extinguished by darkness.

One more quote from MLK’s letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

6. The church should be diverse.  The church is not supposed to be a group of people that are identical to each other.  The church is strengthened by its diversity.  This is true ethnically, as well as educationally, or materially, or demographically.  A church is blessed to have senior citizens fellowshipping with teenagers, or the surgeon praying alongside the cleaner.  And the same is true politically.  There is a blessing that comes from being able to not just tolerate people with different views, but to really know and love one another – no matter how they might vote when the next election arrives. 

7. There is a difference between addressing political issues and being “party political.”  I think this is the distinction that we would do well to introduce into our discussions about whether or not something is political and therefore not to be mentioned among believers.  There are countless issues that are political in nature that we should be talking about.  But, generally speaking, we should think very carefully before equating one particular political party with “the Christian position.”  On specific issues, some parties do hold abhorrent views.  However, maybe we would avoid some unnecessary angst if, as a general rule, we avoided promoting our preferred political party.  After all, our hope is not in a particular party, which brings us full circle back to point 1.

I recognize that different countries and cultures have differing dynamics on this issue.  I also recognize that it takes real wisdom to handle controversial issues carefully and to lead a diverse congregation humbly.  I am not suggesting we become bombastic or blunder carelessly around complex issues.  What I am suggesting is that we don’t just settle for a simplistic “rule” that will silence us when we should be speaking.  It is easy to say we should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation.  Actually, I hope we see that we may sometimes need to do precisely that.  May God give us humility and wisdom, as well as clarity and boldness, when we do!

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(Westminster Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash)

A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

Expectation and Preaching

Somebody has said that we tend to over-estimate what can be achieved by our next sermon, but we under-estimate what can be achieved through the next five years of faithful preaching.

Here are some thoughts on expectation and preaching:

1. If our confidence is in anything other than Jesus, then our expectations are too high.  It doesn’t matter how well you have prepared, how well you know the passage, how on target the message feels for people in the congregation, etc.  We all have to fight the perennial temptation to trust in something other than Christ for the fruit in our ministry.

2. High expectation tends to lead to disappointment, but maybe it is better to have high expectations anyway. There are nuances to these things, but generally speaking it seems to take a toll to preach with high expectations.  Gradually preachers settle into a safer zone of not expecting too much so that they don’t feel too drained by regular disappointment.  But if having high expectation comes from, or leads to, more prayer for the people and for the occasion, then maybe it is worth the negative cost involved.  Maybe climbing back up again each week and choosing to trust Christ and preach again is worth it.

3. Other factors will influence your internal levels of expectation.  You may be drained from interrupted nights, or pastoral crises, or criticsm, or spiritual warfare, etc.  And there will be seasons where you struggle to expect much at all.  At these times it may be the best you can offer to simply keep going by faith.  (Of course, there may also be a need to seek help, be vulnerable, take a sabbatical, adjust your diet, start exercising or whatever might be needed – simply plodding on is not always the faithful next step – ask God and others for wisdom.)

4. Praise God that it is his ministry and not yours.  There will be times when you are fired up to launch a revival and instead your sermon falls as flat as a paper plane in torrential rain.  God knows what he is doing when he humbles us.  There will also be times when we feel like we have nothing to give and are shocked to find out that God uses us mightily in those meager moments.  God is God and we are not, let’s be sure to be good with that!

What do you experience when it comes to levels of expectation relating to your preaching ministry?

Of Lecterns and Pulpits

Lecterns and pulpits are worth thinking about.  After all, we so easily take them for granted.  Perhaps you’ve always had one, perhaps you’ve always seen preachers preach from behind one.  However, if our goal is to effectively communicate God’s Word to people, we need to consider every aspect of our preaching.  So here are a few thoughts on these pieces of ecclesial furniture.

Don’t hide. I suppose this is the basic thought in this post.  Don’t hide.  Remember that communication includes body language, which means that people need to be able to see your body language.  Be careful not to slouch or lean on the pulpit.  If they can’t see a significant percentage of you, then you probably need to elevate your energy levels to appear normal in your expression.  Be deliberate in letting your gestures show above and beyond the pulpit (reach higher and wider).  Seriously consider coming out from the castle!  Let the pulpit hold your notes, but don’t feel obligated to stay there yourself.

Do familiarize. Make sure everything is ready ahead of time.  If it is adjustable, adjust it appropriately (which doesn’t mean it should be up to your armpits just because you’re tall!)  Make sure any notes you use will be visible (why are some lecterns at such a high angle?)  Make sure you have a glass of water if you need it, etc.  If there is anything more technical than a glass of water, make sure you know how it works ahead of time – any light, controls for visual media, etc.  Obviously if you’ve preached from the same pulpit for a while, then this isn’t as necessary, but it’s always worth double checking before the meeting.

Don’t criticize. You may understand the negative impact of “barrier furniture” to communication, but be very careful not to criticize it.  Even if it holds your notes in a near vertical position, makes your water glass nearly inaccessible, blocks your listeners from hearing “with their eyes” and looks like a wooden battle ship, or upended casket, or whatever . . . keep these thoughts to yourself.  You can move to the side, or make the best of the situation from behind there.  But if you give voice to these thoughts you will not come across well, and the person whose father built the monstrosity in 1924, or who donated the money to buy it in honor of their spouse’s homegoing . . . well, you know how they’ll feel!

Preach First and Last Sermons

I don’t know if you count.  My temperament tends to count.  I keep track of what I’ve preached, when, to whom, etc.  I keep records partially out of necessity and partially out of interest.  Whether or not you count sermons, take a guess, which one is today’s?  Is it number 15, or 100, or 1250, or 3500?

Let me encourage you today to preach as if it is your first. Preach with all the naivety of a new preacher.  Remember?  Back when you expected lives to be changed immediately by the sermon you preached.  Back when the spring in your step conveyed an excitement about what God is doing in your life and what He wants to do in their lives.  Forget the nerves, the mistakes, the unrefined skill, and so on.  But remember the enthusiastic expectation of that first sermon.  Preach like that today.

And preach as if it is your last. Imagine that today’s sermon had to count because there would be no more.  Imagine that all the weight of God’s work in your life had to be transferred with urgency today to those sitting before you.  Forget the slowness of mind that may come, or the feeble frame that you may have to carry up those steps.  But imagine how powerful the weight of matured passion and perspective will be in your last ever sermon.  Preach like that today.

Be You

There are many elements of style that can be studied and worked on.  But one thing that is really important is to be you.  Philips Brooks’ famous definition of preaching as “truth through personality” is important to remember.  It is truth through your personality!

Preaching, like much of Christian ministry, is incarnational in nature.  And the flesh the truth takes on is yours.  That means your strengths and your weaknesses.  Your personality.  Your humor.  Your mannerisms.  Your temperament.  You.

AJ Gordon referred to preachers taking on someone else’s personality as moral plagiarism.  The temptation is always there, but we must resist.  We can learn from others and even take onboard aspects of the style of others, but there is a fine line between that and taking on a personality that is not yours.

This is no excuse for poor communication.  There are aspects of our personal style that each of us could strive to improve for the sake of effective communication.  However, to merely introduce the personal style of another is not the solution.  It will not be you, and therefore, it will not be effective.

The Tone of the Shepherd

One of the central roles of a church leader is to protect the flock from false teaching.  It is a responsibility to take seriously.  However, without very deliberate thought it is easy to fall into one of two extremes.

Extreme 1 – Just Really Nice Shepherd. Your desire to be liked drives you to avoid any controversy and confrontation, leaving your preaching as a parade of niceness.  I’ve heard plenty of this in my time.  It is the kind of preaching that seems to skirt any issue that might offend.  The desire is unity at all costs.  I sense that where this kind of preaching prevails, it reflects a situation where Evangelical Christians are perceived to be irrelevant, unaware and standing for nothing.  Let us not set that tone from the pulpit.

Extreme 2 – Angry Bashing Shepherd. Your desire to be right drives you to bash freely at every person, idea or stream of Christianity you disagree with.  I remember sitting through a very painful retreat where the famous speaker seemed to take every opportunity to have a go at top Christian evangelists and ministry leaders.  It was unhelpful for the immature believers confused by it all and would have been offensive to any unbelievers present.  We must be aware of how we are perceived.  Non-christians see us as very angry people who just can’t get along with each other.  Let us not reinforce that from the pulpit.

Why do we fall into one extreme or the other?  I think our personality will influence it.  I think our culture will influence it (in my experience I see the English church often falling into the former extreme, whereas the North American church often tends toward the latter extreme – obviously there are exceptions in both cultures).  I think fear drives both extremes – fear of any confrontation or discord on the one hand, and fear of not having all the answers in our personal theology and philosophy of ministry on the other.  I think a lack of thought leaves us at one extreme or the other.

As preachers we must think carefully about our role as shepherds.  Sheep want neither a nice shepherd too polite to offend the prowling mountain lion, nor an angry shepherd lashing out at every bush, shepherd or other sheep that crosses their path.