Is the church going to make a statement?”
“Are you going to speak out?”
“What does the church have to say about this?”
These are text messages I have received since 2016 following various political events. Some of them filled me with excitement (because I did have something to say), others filled me with dread (because I had nothing to say), and others filled me with confusion (because I wasn’t sure what was going on).
Fifteen years ago, when I started in pastoral ministry, I was expected to refrain from commenting on political issues. Now, my congregation expects that I comment on every political issue. If pastors don’t make a public statement in reaction to the news, we’re not doing our jobs.
The pastor and the church sit in a strange place. Pastors often function as mediators of the Word for the lives of their congregants. But this has been twisted. In a time of political obsession, pastors and churches are no longer “mediators” of a mystery but public relations representatives for the American church.
Many look to the church to provide and maintain a favorable public image of God or to take a hard stance in an increasingly polarized world. We likely chose our church because of shared values; so we want our pastors to tell us how we are feeling and to reflect our feelings back to us—to say what we cannot say. Many of our expectations come from a misunderstanding of what the church is and what the pastor’s role should be.
Public relations serve to maintain image and brand. Those in PR are interested in supplying a kind of language that satisfies a consumer—the public. Public relations firms spin messaging to convince someone of something that (most often) does not exist but should.
In today’s landscape, we hear “what the Chipotle founder has to say about gun violence” or about “Bass Pro Shop’s commitment to anti-racism.” Like the political statements of corporations, we look to our church’s social media accounts, seeking a finely crafted statement that matches the capitalist model of placating our emotions to drive our pecuniary interests.
The church is many things: a body, a bride, and a family, as well as a social organization, religious institution, and community hub. It is also a lot more. But it might be important to consider what the church is emphatically not: a PR representative.
We can consider these questions: What do I expect of my church and why? Is our local congregation required to articulate the emotional moment we (and millions of others) are experiencing?
As a pastor, I respond to current events because I want my people to know I live in the same confusing and painful world as them. To love and disciple my people, I want to acknowledge our shared, bizarre reality. And yet, I also sense a drift from my calling as I am often expected to comment on every news item that comes into our feeds. Here are a few ways I have come to think about tackling headlines from the pulpit.
First, the church bears witness of Christ’s life and resurrection but is ultimately presented to Christ himself (Eph. 5:27). True churches that serve the purposes of Jesus do not maintain an image; they announce the good news of the resurrection of Christ. “Spin” for a church would be sin.
The Resurrection shapes how we might think about any given event. There are new events that we will speak about, but there is nothing new the church can say that it has not already been saying for 2,000 years: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
Second, crafted political statements can actually remove us from our work. So long as we are creating a palatable statement for social media or Sunday’s sermon, we are not praying, worshiping, or organizing ourselves for meaningful action. But in today’s culture, the appearance of morality is more important than moral actions, and speaking is more highly valued than praying.
While the church is not a media firm, it is a meaningful community that gathers to worship and sit under preaching. We gather to cry out to God—to seek his forgiveness as we live in a sinful country, to ask for his provision and wisdom when we are lacking them. And we organize efforts to bless our cities with a lasting effect toward justice, not just temporary resonance.
Pastors are also different from celebrities or social influencers. Like heads of corporate brands, pastors are often viewed as “thought leaders” and “representatives” of Christianity. As celebrities mention their disgust over police violence or abortion, it makes many wonder, Shouldn’t my pastor say something as well? But this fundamentally misunderstands the pastor’s shepherding and teaching role.
The pastor differs from the celebrity in that he or she is a teacher of God’s Word, a steward of a mystery (1 Cor. 4:1–2). The pastor is there to pass down what has been told to him or her (2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:14). Pastors are not in churches primarily to “offer some thoughts” on any given subject; they are there to announce a message that is not their own.
Pastors do not get to “say what we think” about any given thing or present a new idea we’ve been contemplating. We declare something we have heard (1 Cor. 15:1–4). We communicate an idea that did not originate in our brains or online but on the highways of Judea. That is, the primary mode of a pastor is “delivery” or “witness” (1 Cor. 11:23; Acts 1:6–8). The PR firm massages their message to make it palatable. The pastor takes the message and hands it over with as few blemishes as possible.
The pastor certainly delivers this word to a particular people in a particular place. Paul handed the message to the Corinthians while James witnessed in Jerusalem. Corporations and celebrities craft statements for the world, but the pastor speaks and teaches to Ephesus or Antioch—a particular place that requires specific terms, tones, and emphases.
Good pastors are slow to speak, while effective celebrity personalities are first to prove they are insightful and aware. For the celebrity, to not say anything is to allow the “other side” to win, but the careful pastor knows that silence is sometimes God’s most effective language.
Those who ask us to say something immediately after an event assume that speaking first is always the right thing. But the Bible makes several strong warnings about speaking quickly or first (Prov. 18:17; James 1:19) and instructs us to be “prudent” (Prov. 10:19; 12:23; 17:27).
Ecclesiastes says we will all experience “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 3:7). As a shepherd, the pastor exists to care for the flock (1 Pet. 5:2–3)—which means the pastor must listen before he or she speaks. The PR firm crafts a statement immediately. The pastor bends an ear: “What is happening here? What am I not understanding?” This type of response is pastoral to any event, from an election to a divorce.
There are, of course, many times to speak. Scripture is unabashed in its denunciation of all kinds of evil. The prophetic literature is ridden with full rebukes against sexual immorality, idolatry, and oppression of the poor. But the prophets spoke full of the Holy Spirit, driven by a “divine pathos,” as Abraham Heschel says, rooted in communion with the living God. And they were often told to seek silence because silence is one of God’s dialects (Isa. 30:15; 41:1; Hab. 2:20; Lam. 3:26).
It is from this posture of communion with God and our congregation that we take seriously our call of discipleship. Our churches need instruction for how to respond faithfully. But this takes so much more work than a statement. This involves teaching, leading our people in collective prayer, and exhorting them toward righteousness and humility as a way to respond to the terrors of this world.
Chris Nye is a pastor in Silicon Valley, a doctoral student at Duke University’s Divinity School, and the author of several books, including A Captive Mind: Christianity, Ideologies, and Staying Sane in a World Gone Mad (Wipf & Stock, 2022).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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