Preaching Controversial Issues

March 21st, 2014

When preaching on controversial issues, preachers must decide whether the aim is to influence their hearers, or simply to irritate them. The latter is easy, requires no skill, and is certain to shrink one’s congregation into a body of only like-minded people. But for those who desire to influence their parishioners, there are several important ideas that can help build a strong, healthy congregation while inviting persons to take seriously the position of a pastor advocating on a given controversial issue.

What should the members of your congregation believe about embryonic stem cell research? U.S. immigration policies? The policy of waging a preemptive war? Euthanasia? Late-term abortions? Homosexual marriage? Most people will not take the time to understand the various sides in these complex moral issues. So who will shape their views? Politicians? Hollywood? Friends? The media?

The church is meant to play a critical role in helping congregants reflect upon complex moral issues in the light of their faith. Pastors do this routinely at the hospital when important medical decisions are being made, or in the counseling setting when parishioners are facing situations that require an immediate decision about a moral issue. But these are typically reactive situations. It is important that the church take a proactive role in helping parishioners as they wrestle with the controversial issues of our time.

While forums and small group studies of such controversies will likely draw a significant number of people, they are unlikely to reach more than half of the typically worshiping congregation. In most cases the number will be significantly smaller. Yet there are issues that are so important, so urgent, or so pressing that pastors will feel led to address them with the entire congregation (or at least those who attend worship). In addition, the pastor may find that addressing the controversial issues, if handled appropriately, will actually draw a significant number of people to worship—both members and seekers.  Finally, if preaching is aimed at forming authentic and mature disciples of Jesus Christ, then teaching congregants how to do Christian ethics during weekend worship would seem to be significant.

When preaching any given sermon on a controversial issue, one must first consider the aim. You must decide if your desire is simply to express your views on the issue, or if there is a higher calling to help parishioners understand both sides of the issue, dialogue with others about the issue, and reach their own conclusions about how to think theologically about the issue. If your aim is to influence your flock and encourage them to bring Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to bear in their own ethical thinking, you’ll likely find your congregation and people in the community interested in hearing what you have to say.

This is the approach I have used in preaching on controversial issues:

First, I try to remember that controversial issues are controversial precisely because thinking people of faith have been able to make a reasonable and often impassioned case for various sides of the issue. Hence I assume that thinking, reasonable, and committed Christian people are to be found on all sides of today’s controversial issues. If not, the issue is not controversial.

Second, I endeavor to be as informed as possible about all sides of the issue. I seek the best and most objective information on the issue (it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find absolutely unbiased and objective information on these kinds of issues). I also read or talk to the most passionate proponents of various positions on the issue. The Internet is an invaluable tool for finding such proponents. On the most controversial issues, my aim is to be among the best-informed persons in our congregation. These issues require more sermon preparation time than ordinary sermons require. It is likely that you will devote twenty hours just to reading and interviewing experts on the subject before beginning to write your message.

Third, I aim to understand with both my head and my heart why people on different sides of the controversy hold the position they do. This helps me formulate my views more clearly, but it also plays a key role in earning the trust of the congregation. In my preaching on the controversies, I start with the position that is least like my own, presenting it as persuasively as possible. I follow with the position closest to my own, presenting it equally as persuasively. Doing that allows the congregants who hold a view other than the one you will conclude with to feel that their view was taken into account, respected, and seriously presented. I have had parishioners who ultimately disagree with my conclusions thank me for presenting their own position in a stronger way than they could have articulated it. In the end, parishioners will allow you to disagree with them and will even respect you for it if you demonstrate that you can understand and fairly represent their position.

Fourth, while I approach the controversial issues with my own preconceived ideas, I aim to reflect upon those issues with an openness to the idea that my conclusions may be faulty and the possibility that God will move me to a different place. Hence in my study, prayer, and reflection, I am open to the possibility of changing my mind. Only as you are willing to consider such a move can you lead a congregation to be willing to reconsider their own views as they listen to you preach on a particular topic. When I preached on the death penalty several years ago, my views actually changed as a result of my study. My preconceived ideas on several controversial issues gave way to new conclusions as a result of my study of these topics. When a pastor can stand in the pulpit and say, “I have really struggled this week studying this issue. I began my study with one opinion, and partway through, as a result of my reading, prayer, and reflection, my views changed,” the congregation will be all ears to hear what the pastor has to say.

Fifth, it is critical to demonstrate humility, respect, kindness, and love when preaching on controversial issues, and particularly when revealing your conclusions. At the end of sermons on controversial subjects, I will say something like, “Having wrestled with both sides of this issue, I would like to share with you my own conclusions. I am not suggesting that mine is the only position a Christian could hold, nor that I feel any less love for those who disagree. Please know that you are welcome to disagree. But as I have reflected on this issue in the light of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, God has led me to conclude that …” Presenting your conclusions with humility, respect, kindness, and love will lead persons to take seriously your position and, for many, to make it their own.

Finally, when preaching on a controversial issue, it is helpful to provide some setting for parishioners to ask questions and challenge the views presented in the sermon. Following worship, we have offered sessions at which parishioners were able to ask questions and express their frustration or disagreement. These have led to greater understanding and allowed persons to have an outlet to state their views.

Our faith is meant to inform and shape how we approach complex moral issues. It is the role of pastors to teach and model for their congregants how to think theologically about these issues and how to do so with respect, humility, and love. There are a variety of venues in which the controversial concerns can be addressed. When approaching them through preaching, a pastor can increase the likelihood of positively influencing congregants and creating healthy and mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

Bibliography: Ronald Allen. Preaching the Topical Sermon. (1992); Adam Hamilton. Confronting the Controversies. (2005); William H. Willimon. Preaching about Conflict in the Local Church. (1987).

This article is from The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Copyright © 2008 Abingdon Press. The complete digital edition of the NIHOP is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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