New Testament professor Bill Brosend says that preaching in the age of fake news and alternative facts can be like walking a tightrope. But it’s when the stakes are highest that it’s most important to be disciplined, humble, and aware that actions speak more eloquently than words.
How are we to proclaim good news in the era of fake news? How are we to persuade others of the truth of the gospel when we live in a post-truth age? This is a challenge for which few preachers are prepared, and the strain is showing.
- It feels like a tightrope. The pulpit is like a tightrope, stretched between red and blue, Republican and Democrat, conservatives and liberals. And there is not a net.
- Everything I say is being interpreted and analyzed for things I never even thought about. Joshua and the battle of Jericho has become a commentary on whether or not we should build a wall on the border.
- Pins and needles. Or eggshells. Preaching is like walking on pins and needles on top of eggshells. I used to love to preach. Now I look at the readings for Sunday with my fingers crossed and hope there is nothing that somebody will think is too political.
Shortly after the 2016 election I gave a talk on the topic of preaching truth in this era in which I laid out six claims made upon the preacher. Collectively, they focus on homiletical and pastoral humility and the need to remember that actions do speak eloquently if not louder than words, and they also remind us that it becomes all the more important to be disciplined and ask the homiletical question when the stakes are highest.
1. You may be angry, but that doesn’t make you a prophet.
The last thing in the world I want to take away from a preacher is passion, but when that passion flashes out in a burst of anger or slides into snarky disparagement of difference, it is a problem. Remember that the prophets were not sent simply to denounce the people but to bring them home to God.
2. Do you want to listen as much as you want to be heard?
In my seminary, the students go to chapel and listen to sermons for three semesters before they take their turn in the pulpit. The week before they present their first sermon, the students receive a message that says, among other things, “If you have been waiting three semesters to finally have your chance to straighten everyone out, wait longer.” Every preacher has something she or he is dying to say. But is that what God wants those who are gathered to hear?
3. They know how you voted. Do they know how much you care?
After a few weeks, anyone listening to our sermons probably knows how we voted. This only matters if they do not know of your love for the Lord, the church, and for them, and if they are not learning that you vote the way you do because your faith has led you to do so.
4. Have you laid a foundation for your words in deeds and actions?
Talk is still cheap unless it is surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. After a few years in a particular corner of the kingdom, pastors have laid a foundation as teachers through pastoral care and in involvement in causes they champion. This is why a preacher can talk about things and talk about them in ways she would never dare to in year one.
5. What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?
You must still ask this homiletical question. The more passionate we are about a passage or a topic, the more important this is. We do not want to begin our preparation with, “What do I want to talk about on Sunday?” We absolutely do not want to begin with, “This is the week I finally tell them what I really think!”
6. When the time comes, speak your mind, not just your heart.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that others care about something as much as you do. Do not make the mistake of thinking that caring passionately about an issue will automatically translate into preaching convincingly about it. We have to persuade, and that means making the case, not hoping that our passion will do it for us.
Biblical hope counters cultural cynicism
If the situation is toxic, the challenge is to eschew the rhetorical weapons of the moment, and the opportunity is to invite, welcome, and practice active, engaged listening. Then the way forward is to ground our preaching in the conviction that biblical hope is not just a challenge to be sustained; it is the best response to our cultural cynicism. It is what we have to give to the world.
Our preaching must manufacture hope. Or more accurately, we must fabricate hope. Like Jesus. Fabrication is popularly understood to mean lying but at its root means something much more substantial than telling a lie. To fabricate is to form and fashion something out of that which already exists, like an artist turning items rummaged from the recycle bin into a beautiful sculpture, or a storyteller turning the mechanics of first-century Palestinian family into a parable of the kingdom of God. In an age of alternative facts, preachers need to fabricate hope out of the truth of scripture, the lives of their listeners, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
This article is adapted from Preaching Truth in the Age of Alternative Facts (Abingdon Press, 2018) by William Brosend. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- 4 Tips for Preaching on Politically Charged Topics by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
- “Sacred Resistance,” a Leading Ideas Talks Podcast featuring Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
- 4 Opportunities for the Church in the Current Political Tension by Carey Nieuwhof