Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, author of Sacred Resistance, says it’s up to preachers to address the pain, injustice, confusion, and chaos in our days even when it is risky, and she offers guidance on approaching controversial issues in meaningful and responsible ways.
“I went to worship this morning and not one word was spoken about [fill in the blank].” I’ve heard this again and again from folks who, in the wake of a significant moment in our nation or world, went to worship hoping for a word to provide some spiritual framework within which to hold grief, outrage, shock, or pain. Instead, they experienced faith communities who, intentionally or not, communicated disconnection from what was weighing upon the minds and hearts of many in the congregation.
It’s true that some who come to worship may want to avoid difficult topics in church — out of fear, conflict aversion, exhaustion, or any number of other reasons. People are dealing with difficult things every day. It is important for preaching to speak to the perennial, human challenges of relationships — illness, trust, faith, and the like. But there are moments when scripture and the pastoral and ethical teachings of our tradition could offer powerful resources for people trying to figure out how to feel and what to do in response to something that is happening in their city, nation, or world.
In my experience, even in the most socially and politically engaged congregations, there are some who will react against sermons that address current events or social issues. Every preacher I know agrees that even sermons about seemingly innocuous topics can be heard in ways that offend or upset some in the congregation. Preaching is risky business. We who are called to this vocation put ourselves on the line every time. But our spiritual tradition has something to say, has words that speak to the pain, injustice, confusion, and chaos of our day. It is up to preachers to speak the words.
1. Begin with your relationship to your congregation
If you are a pastor, the relationship with your congregation is the place to begin. If the people trust that you see, know, and love them, that you love God and seek God’s wisdom and way in your speaking and choosing, and that you are on a journey with God and with them in relationship, you have a good foundation to stand upon. From such a place of trusting relationship, preachers can risk taking a stand — or can at least share where they find themselves at any given moment.
Many years ago, when I preached a sermon that addressed violence, weapons, and the military, a member of my congregation who was serving in the military said, “I almost walked out during your sermon today because I felt offended and angry. But then I realized that you were trying to think these things through, and so I decided to stay.” This parishioner was one I regularly struggled to understand even as we became friends. Our lives and ways of seeing and processing the world are radically different. But in that community, we shared ministry and respected each other. Our relationship allowed her to be angry, to disagree, and to keep trying to listen even when she would have been more comfortable to just leave.
2. Humility and openness
Pastor Tom Berlin provides helpful, practical guidance for preaching in a politically polarized congregation. He advises that the preacher begin with humility, do enough research that the sermon is informative and interesting on the topic (not just warmed-over platitudes), and be thoughtful and fair with regard to the variety of perspectives on the topic. Rev. Berlin writes: “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.” It’s very good counsel that reminds me to try to invite the congregation to think things through with me.
3. Ongoing consciousness raising
In times of relative peace, preachers can speak words that help raise the consciousness of the congregation about ongoing issues — things like poverty, the cradle to prison pipeline, rampant materialism, homelessness, climate change, and so on. And in times of crisis, preachers have a responsibility at least to try to offer an interpretive, pastoral, and energizing word to their congregation that provides encouragement and guidance from the biblical and theological tradition, a word that reminds folks of what it means to live as citizens of God’s Kin-dom within the day-to-day challenges of life in this world.
4. When in doubt, preach the text
When I struggle with what to say, turning back toward the scriptural text gives me what is needed. When in doubt, preach the text! One of my favorite lines is, “I’m not making this up. It’s in the book!” I’m not suggesting looking for so-called proof texts that will simply prop up your political or moral position. Rather, you might draw upon the Revised Common Lectionary or some other cycle of readings so that you are challenged to preach on a text not of your own choosing. When I do this, I am always surprised by the resonance I find with what is happening in the world. Regardless of how you choose the text, there is something powerful about a close, deep reading and exposition of a biblical story or passage. What I’ve found is that such a reading will challenge people on all sides of any issue, and it has the potential to provide powerful guidance and comfort as well. I give thanks for a holy and living word that has so much to say to us in every age.
This article is adapted from Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent (Abingdon, 2018) by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- “Sacred Resistance,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
- 4 Opportunities for the Church in the Current Political Tension by Carey Nieuwhof
- 10 Things Great Preachers Do Differently by Charley Reeb