If Your Preacher Doesn’t Preach About [blank]...

August 14th, 2019

Editor's note: This article has been updated to provide the full quote in question in an effort to reflect both the nuance of the original statement and the author's intent to address a wider issue beyond one particular person or conversation.

The Sunday morning after the El Paso mass shooting that left 22 people dead and 24 people injured, I woke up early to tweak my sermon only to discover that there had been yet another mass shooting overnight in Dayton, Ohio. As a preacher who follows the Revised Common Lectionary, Jesus’ parable of the rich fool in Luke 12 had led me to preach about the idolatry of greed. In a brief reference to the shootings, I hastily added a line about security also being an idol but felt it neither fit nor fully addressed the shock and grief of two mass shootings in a weekend. I also planned to add the cities of El Paso and Dayton as well as the victims and those affected by gun violence to our communal prayers.

As I scrolled through social media, I saw this tweet from Dr. Diana Butler Bass.


Even though I was planning on briefly addressing them, my first reaction was frustration. I am the only clergyperson of a small but vibrant congregation. I work all week on my sermons in addition to the myriad other pastoral and administrative tasks I have, and yet this person who does not know my community or my people is suggesting that I toss my sermon to say… what exactly? Condemn violence and white supremacy once again in front of a congregation that agrees with my position ninety-percent of the time?

For a while now, the churn of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the voices on social media have urged individuals to vote with their feet if their pastor doesn’t address the news item du jour. Karl Barth famous quote urged preachers to “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” but these days, many of us are trying to preach with the Bible in one hand and our social media feeds in the other. Instead of getting the news once or twice a day from the same sources as those in our congregation, we’re bombarded with a constant stream of information curated to our tastes and discerning what to address with one’s congregation is much more challenging.

To add to my frustration, the voices mandating that preachers discuss the top news item of the day are rarely pastors themselves who are involved in the day-to-day formation of a congregation. Good, effective ministry, after all, is inherently local and about personal relationship. If something happens that directly affects the people in the pews, like the tragic death of a beloved community member or a mass lay-off at the primary employer in town, that is going to trump whatever national news has people worked up.

On the flip side, preachers should absolutely be regularly addressing disturbing trends in our national and communal life  the increasing divide and hostility between political parties, violence born out of white supremacy and misogyny, and the demonization of vulnerable people like refugees and migrants. But a preacher cannot do all of the things that the voices on social media demand in one sermon.

As fewer and fewer people are engaged in additional spiritual formation, Sunday worship, generally, and particularly the sermon seem to bear more and more weight. A sermon must be relevant, inspirational, Scripture-based, educational, and entertaining, oh, and not too long! So those who demand that your preacher “must” preach about X topic this Sunday are only adding to the burden that many of us carry week after week.

Additionally, those of us who preach ask for grace from those in the pews. If we do not speak to a topic that is concerning you, I am sure many of us would be happy to make an appointment and meet with you about it. The Christian life together within the community of the church can only be mutually life-giving if we are honest and open with each other rather than making demands that we’ll inevitably fail to fulfill.

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