Preaching to the Polarized

August 12th, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

As the election year continues, pastors will want to speak to important issues that will present themselves in political debates, interviews, and statements to the press. This year in particular we have seen numerous moments when both political parties have provided opportunities for sermons that almost write themselves. Pastors should be aware, however, that in times of extreme political polarization, even the best and most biblically faithful preaching will come under intense scrutiny. If you’re going to take on complicated political issues, you will have to work with great skill to craft messages that remind people of the legacy of their Christian faith while not unnecessarily dividing the congregation along the way. The reason that pastors may pursue such sermons is that people are often looking for a safe place to consider topics that are important to the nation and world. If you advertise a sermon series on some of these topics, you may find interest from both your members and the people in your community who don’t attend church.

When I start into a sermon series that is going to take on tough topics, there are some attitudes I want to carry:

Be humble. I am a pastor, not an expert on healthcare, race, economics, global terrorism and defense, or a host of other election-year topics. I need to be humble about my opinions and do the research that allows me to consider all sides of the matter. When I start with humility, I don’t dive into prophetic diatribes or make Jesus appear to be a Republican or Democrat. I begin by looking for authors or people in my church and community who have content knowledge on the topic and who can instruct me about what I should be reading to prepare. These sermons take more time to craft because not only are you making a hermeneutical link to scripture, you also have to find the relevant facts that inform the conversation. When I’m humble I can read and listen to the voices that are speaking to the issue and find the important contributions that I will share during the sermon. In most congregations people hold a variety of viewpoints. We tend to characterize congregations as leaning one way or another in unison, but the reality in most churches is that there are people on each side of most issues. People who believe their views are in the minority may just not voice them as often, or at all. Humility seeks to honor this experience of community—that we respect and love each other in our differences.

One practice that helps me retain humility is to pretend that the people I’m quoting are actually in the sanctuary where I’m preaching. It’s easy to denigrate the opinions of others, especially when I disagree with them. But I rarely do it when the person is actually present. It’s easy to make the quote that supports my view seem like the only salient argument. When I pretend that all parties are in the sanctuary, however, I tend to speak fairly about the views they represent. In truth, all parties are in the sanctuary. The membership of the church I serve, Floris UMC, represents a broad ideological spectrum. It’s important that I treat everyone with respect and share their views in such a way that those on both sides of the spectrum think I’m being fair.

Be interesting. Often sermons on hard topics can be fairly predictable. If you have preached weekly and spent time in conversation with church members, people may think they know where you stand on many topics. If they open the bulletin, read the sermon title, and believe they can forecast your conclusion before you give the opening sentence, it’s game over. In order to be interesting, I share background information that’s relevant. I will try to find new material that helps people have a fresh look at the topic. In a recent series on racism, I researched “redlining,” the practice used by the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s where real estate maps were marked in red to show the areas where certain minorities owned the majority of homes. Bank mortgages and home insurance were more expensive to homeowners in those areas, since race was listed as a major factor of investment risk. The redlined areas lost value quickly and kept wealth transfers of accumulated equity from one generation to another from happening. Most people who commented on the sermon said they had never heard of this practice and could see the economic impact it would have on African American families. They understood the far-reaching consequences of institutional racism in a new way. When you offer fresh information that’s interesting, it gives people a chance to see the world from a new perspective.

Be fair. Issues raised during an election year are complicated. Candidates that offer simple solutions to hard issues like the income gap, immigration, national defense, or the economy are suspect. You will be, too. The key to these sermons is to present at least two perspectives on these topics in a manner that everyone feels is fair, even if they disagree on those perspectives. One way to do this is to sit down with people in your church ahead of time and share what you are going to say in the sermon. Ask them if this fairly reflects their view. Seek their advice on improving the material. They will be far more likely to attend and invite friends if they know you’re being fair and balanced as you prepare the sermon. When sharing these perspectives, help people see the biblical tradition that informs them. This will help people who disagree assume the best about each other.

I find it helpful to state my opinion on the sermon topic and share how scripture informs my thinking. This is the shortest part of the sermon. My desire isn’t to convince others but to model the vulnerability necessary for people with differing perspectives to live in Christian community. It’s amazing how much more latitude people will give you if they trust that you’re honest about your opinion and fair to theirs.

Finally, consider other forums where hard issues can be discussed. A small group study for interested parties could be launched. A reading list can be offered. At Floris UMC we’re currently offering a series called “Open to Discussion: Important Election Issues.” We’ve invited qualified members of our community and church to talk about three important topics: the economy, global terrorism and defense, and healthcare. At each session, there are speakers who represent the Republican and Democratic side. Each person shares a twenty-minute presentation. They take ten minutes apiece responding to what the other presenter shared before hearing questions from the audience. I moderate these sessions and ask the questions, which come in text messages or on note cards from the audience. The stated goal of these evenings is to have a Christian conversation about a hard topic. I meet with the speakers ahead of time over dinner so they can get to know each other. I remind them that modeling good behavior is a key goal of the event. People in our church are very grateful for an evening when speakers offer facts and outlooks in a manner that respects the opinions of others, even when we disagree. When people walk away from one of these events or one of my sermons saying that they learned something, are more thoughtful about all sides of the issue, and felt engaged in Christian dialogue, I know we have accomplished our goals. 

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