Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Chaos

May 1st, 2018

When you examine our current political and social atmosphere, you can sense the division in our world. It’s almost as if we intentionally place ourselves in isolated groups. Our ideologies can seem so different from others that the labels we use become synonymous with the word enemy. Our current cultural climate is laced with racial tension, religious intolerance, political posturing, and fear. In addition, mainline denominations are witnessing a dramatic shift in the way people see and understand church. There is a specter of decline haunting ecclesial life, where the once reliable and committed have become “ghosts” amid our efforts at a shared life of traditional worship, Bible study, and service. You could make the argument that the church is Blockbuster in a Netflix world.

It’s in the midst of these tensions that The United Methodist Church must make a decision that could forever change the landscape of our Wesleyan movement. In February of 2019, when we gather in St. Louis to decide the fate of the denomination, how are we to discern our way in love? It seems as if this special General Conference couldn’t have come at a worse time. Methodism as a whole has been declining in North America for decades, and it doesn’t appear to be getting better. Yet, in spite of the chaos, we’ve been called to preach a clear, unadulterated gospel—one of good news.

Just like in 1968, I suspect that our vote in February of 2019 won’t immediately impact the broader world around us. While United Methodists debate, people are living in poverty. There remains gender inequality regarding pay and stubborn, embedded racial discrimination. In Missouri, my home state, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has issued travel advisories because statistics show that African Americans are 75 percent more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. In addition to that, Missouri has eighteen (known) hate groups according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It is precisely in times of questions, fears, and uncertainties that pastors can offer a cure for the chaos—and if not a complete cure, maybe something better: the hope of resurrection. How do we preach health when ambiguity, hate, and conflict contaminate our world? Sermons can become platforms for vision, instructions for holy living, and instruments to illuminate the meaning to life. Each of these is a valid way of approaching the pulpit. However, I want to offer five insights that can help us create loving communities and a stronger society:

  1. Preaching should be seen as a form of pastoral care—a weekly opportunity for the preacher to provide emotional support, biblical advice, and a sincere ministry of presence, consolation, and hope to the community. We often view pastoral care as something that happens primarily in a one-on-one setting. However, because we are preaching to people wrestling with all sorts of hungers, there is no better time to feed Jesus’s sheep with the true bread of heaven. For a time such as this, our preaching must have a tone that is personal and pastoral.
  2. In order to really support and comfort those who hear us preach, grace needs to be elevated explicitly (or implicitly) in our sermons. Dealing successfully with the “-isms” of our world requires a deep, solid understanding that through God’s undeserved love we are pardoned, redeemed, and made whole.
  3. The gospel can be translated so that it becomes resonate—relatable to people living in 2018. If it doesn’t explain how life is better through faith and practice in committed relationship with Jesus, why would anyone bother listening?
  4. In addition, preaching should reveal hope. As people gather in the church house on weekends, many bring heavy burdens and deep wounds. They may enter the sanctuary feeling beat down and stressed out by work, school, peer pressure, disappointing relationships, financial strain, and more. People want to know that there is more to life than their current predicament. In essence, we should preach to let people know that there is something better even on this side of the grave.
  5. Do not discount prophetic preaching. This can mean identifying and naming systems and structures that hurt, oppress, divide, or ignore a person or particular group. Preachers must boldly declare how Jesus would approach injustice and exclusiveness. Then there must be some sort of call to action. Prophetic preaching is not simply pastoral care for the gathered faithful; it is also a means of comforting and sometimes championing those outside the walls of our church buildings.

The chaos of our broken world requires both pastoral and prophetic preaching power. This means that grace, relevance, hope, and social justice must echo from our pulpits on a regular basis and be heard and witnessed beyond the sanctuary by the broader community. Anything less is less than good news.

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