Tony Campolo once wrote a book he called “20 Hot Potatoes Christians are afraid to touch.” He had his own list, as I expect each of us could come up with ours.
Controversial issues, particularly those involving political campaigns, certainly qualify. A pastor may be risking his ministry in that church, if not his entire career, by taking a public stand on something dividing his community.
It’s not enough for him to say he tried to reason with them or that the Lord was leading him. People can be blindly passionate about subjects dear to their heart, and are willing to run over anyone getting in their way.
Tread softly, pastor. You might want to get your Hazmat suit out of storage.
Following are our recommendations for the pastor whose congregation is being torn by issues in the culture and community and who is thinking about taking a public stand.
(My brother Ron would say, “Pack your bags!” I would say, “You’d better know your people.”)
“How to speak out on that controversial issue–and live to tell the tale”
One: Pray. Pray and pray some more.
This is the Lord’s church, not yours (Matthew 16:18). His will is paramount.
Enlist a few prayer warriors from your larger circle of friends–ideally from other towns and previous pastorates–to intercede for you. Then, wait on the Lord.
“Lord, what will You have me do?” is always the best prayer to utter. It was the first one offered by Saul of Tarsus and about as good as it gets (Acts 22:10).
Do nothing without clear leadership from Him. If you end up having to pay the ultimate price–the church fires you–it’s critical that you were being faithful to the Lord and not impulsive or foolish.
It almost goes without saying–so we won’t make a separate point of it–that you should confide in your spouse, enlist her prayer support, and listen to her counsel. (If you are a woman pastor, please adjust the gender in that statement, and many of those which follow. Thanks.)
Two: Seek out the counsel of two or three veteran pastors. Mentor-types.
You’re not asking them to decide for you. The Lord will do that. What you want is their take on the situation, their wisdom, their recommendations, anything. It all goes into the hopper where you will choose what to do and how to go about it.
Ask them to pray for you. Then, report back later and tell them how it went.
Three: Prepare. Learn this subject backward and forward.
Make sure you know what you’re talking about. Too many preachers have been embarrassed by condemning books they haven’t read, opposing movies they haven’t seen, and endorsing candidates who turn out to be unworthy.
Read. Listen. Think. Go for long walks and talk these matters out loud. There’s something about articulating your thoughts on a subject which helps to crystalize them, reveal a blind alley to avoid, or suggest a better way to approach your subject.
Understanding the other guy’s position to the point that you can explain it as well or better than he is a strong part of effective apologetics. Your opponent will be amazed you could understand him that well but still not believe. That’s when you have his undivided attention.
He’s now ready to listen.
One who opposes abortions without understanding why people are pro-choice will never win a hearing from them. True, he/she can win the support of the pro-life contingent, but if the goal is to convert pro-choice people, he’s going to have to work a little harder.
The person who does not understand the thinking of gun control advocates may have no trouble rousing his troops in support of the Second Amendment, but if he wants to be effective in speaking on the issue, he should work at learning why they feel the way they do.
Four: Decide on your purpose. What are you hoping to accomplish here?
If your goal is to rally the troops and clobber the opposition, you can adopt a “take no prisoners” approach. However, if you want the other side to see the wisdom of your position, you’ll need to be more respectful and reasonable.
So, ask yourself: Do I want to clobber the other side or win them?
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (this is being written just prior to the 2016 presidential election) preach to the choir, as we say. They rally their people and scoff at the craziness of the opposition. Trump and his people make jokes about Hillary and call out “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Hillary has called Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables.” The scorched earth approach may jack up one’s supporters, but is not effective in winning converts. So, you need to decide what you are hoping to accomplish.
Five: Consider a forum other than the pulpit.
The problem in delivering a sermon on a hot-button issue is that it’s one-sided. The pastor has the floor for a full half-hour with no one interrupting to speak to the other side. Some controversial issues can be dealt with from the pulpit, but many are better handled with smaller groups in informal settings.
By convening a discussion group where different sides are presented and people are encouraged to ask questions, the pastor may achieve his purposes without giving offense.
Even if he plans to preach on the issue, the pastor should consider gathering a small group of trusted friends to hear him test-preach the message. (Of course, he’ll not actually preach it, but talk out the points and get their thoughts.) Their counsel can help smooth off the rough edges and spot trouble areas the preacher had missed.
Six: Tell a story.
When they asked Jesus to define “neighbor,” He told the story of the Good Samaritan. When attacked for receiving sinners, Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son.
The prophet Nathan and John the Baptist each was tasked with confronting a king about his adultery. John faced it head-on, telling the king what he had done was immoral and unlawful. For his troubles, he was arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded. Nathan, on the other hand, told King David a story of a man with one pet lamb. As a result, he won the king. (This is, of course, an over-simplified illustration. Anyone would have preferred to face David than Herod Antipas, but it makes our point.)
A story allows the preacher to get his point across without his audience feeling he is attacking those who disagree with him. Novelists preach all the time, by putting their beliefs in the mouths of characters. Readers go away with new insights and new convictions without realizing what just happened there.
Mark 4:34 says Jesus never preached without telling stories.
Seven: Take a lesson from Paul’s ministry in Ephesus…
For more than two years, Paul and his friends ministered in Ephesus, a major city devoted to the worship of Diana. Eventually, so many turned to Christ that the silversmiths, who made their living from the small figures which people purchased for worship, were losing customers at an alarming rate. A silversmith named Demetrius rallied his union and led the citizens in a full-scale riot against the Christians. Luke says, “there arose no small disturbance concerning The Way.” The believers were in danger. Into this storm came the town clerk, the voice of reason. “After quieting the multitude, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus! What man is there after all who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is guardian of the temple of the great Diana, and of the image which fell down from heaven? Since then these are undeniable facts, you ought to keep calm and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess….” (Acts 19:23-41). He ended the riot and “dismissed the assembly.”
Do not miss this. The town clerk, no follower of Jesus, gave Paul and his team the ultimate accolade. Even though for two years they had been preaching the gospel and leading multitudes to Christ and away from idolatry, not once had anyone heard them blaspheming their goddess.
They preached Jesus. They blessed the people. And the Holy Spirit used it.
You and I must blush in shame to think how we might have handled that. We can think of preachers who would have “taken on Diana” from day one. They would have called her the whore of Babylon, attacked her priests as agents of hell, and would have called such blistering preaching prophetic. They would have worn the opposition as a badge of honor. And they would have converted very few people.
Strong, Christ-filled, evangelistic preaching is more difficult (and a lot less fun) than attacking the bad guys, but far more effective in the long run.
And we are in this for the long run, make no mistake.
Let us see if we can represent Christ well and do this right.