What topics does your pastor avoid? When was the last time you heard sermon dealing with depression? Sexuality? Race? Immigration? I’ve been part of more than a few conversations with congregants who have complained either that we don’t preach enough on a particular topic (ironically, this often occurs right after we preach on that topic), or that they hope we will not be like their old church that never preached on a particular topic.
Christianity Today puts out periodic issues which highlight particular topics. In those issues, they often have polls where they report how often respondents say their pastors speak about that particular issue. Unsurprisingly, the polls always show severe neglect of the given topic. I’m grateful for Christianity Today—they do great work and I benefit from their excellent writing and reporting. But I’m wary of the criticism that pastors don’t preach often enough about any given issue for a few reasons:
1) These issues are usually tied to the cultural moment.
Cultural moments come like waves. And there is biblical truth to bring to bear on each of these moments, whether they be immigration or homosexual marriage or abortion or incarceration or indebtedness or international conflict. There are times to craft sermons and sermon series around these cultural issues. However, I would be concerned by a pastor who chases cultural issues to the determinant of the core issues of the faith. If we chase the news cycle, we will always follow the culture as opposed to helping our people lead and shape culture. Whose Facebook or Twitter feed ever provided them a balanced spiritual intake?
2) I doubt the widespread neglect.
We are forgetful. What did your pastor preach on this past weekend? How about in May? January? It takes me a bit to recall the answers to those questions, and I’m preaching! In our own practice of crafting our preaching calendar and considering the books of the Bible we are walking through, we are aware of issues, both cultural, personal and societal, that impact the body. We are fallible and surely don’t address every issue as often as we should, but in the past year we’ve addressed money, depression, sexuality, politics, race, vocation, abortion, and gender roles, to name just a few. My hunch is that most in the congregation if given a poll wouldn’t remember that we spoke on all of these issues. But I don’t think that means that it was wasted breath. It’s likely that the reflections on those cultural moments, as engaged by the natural exposition of scripture, have been absorbed into their own thinking and framing of those issues. My sister the other day shared an anecdote about how she coached her eleven year old daughter about a decision she was making. My sister was trying to give her appropriate space to make the decision her own and so provided her counsel and then backed off. Later that night my sister overheard her eleven year old report on the decision she made to her dad. My niece parroted back my sister’s advice to her dad with the addendum, “Well, dad, I thought about it and it occurred to me that it would be most wise if…” My sister reflected how encouraged she was by this. She didn’t want credit for the idea. It was better if her daughter owned the opinion as hers, even if she hadn’t actually formed it herself. So it is with your pastors. We delight when God’s truth is proclaimed and then comes back to us from those we help lead. I have no desire that the congregation give me credit for their opinions that were shaped by ideas I preached on. It’s better if they own those opinions themselves and fine with me if they forget they were ever preached on!
3) We should be imbalanced.
My final issue with this critique of neglect is that there should be an imbalance in our preaching. The Bible speaks much more about the character of God and his redemptive story than about direction regarding any particular issue. Our preaching should reflect this imbalance. The good news of our sovereign God’s redemptive story for creation that he is inviting us into ought to be front and center week after week because it is front and center in the Bible. Our need for redemption because of our sin, the purchase of that redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the cross, these threads are present on every page of scripture and deserve our attention, week-in and week-out. Sin, the cross, forgiveness, resurrection are not merely four topics among many, they are the truths from which all over truths spring. Praise God if our preaching is imbalanced in this manner.
As pastors, do many of us need to grow in applying the counsel of God to cultural moments? Surely. But let us be patient when our pastors don’t preach as much about a topic we’re particularly passionate about as we want. There might well be good reasons that they aren’t.
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