Preaching the Controversial Sermon
My goal is to take away the emotional flash point by affirming truth, not by castigating falsehood and wrongdoing. Truth delivered in the right spirit will eventually win the day.
A few years ago I preached about alcohol. I raised an issue that had never been addressed in the history of the church. It had been ignored perhaps because there are two views on drinking in our congregation.
Some people in our church want the Bible to say, "Don't drink." Others, the larger element, have no problem with light social drinking.
After the sermon, as you can well imagine, one group was angry because it felt I had opened wide the door to drinking. These people thought all the young people were going to go out and get drunk.
Another large group of people said, ironically, "Boy! You've sure made us feel uncomfortable about using any alcohol."
That's the nature of preaching on controversial topics—it can create even more controversy! Church controversy is inevitable, and sometimes it's the preacher who generates it.
Why Preach about Controversial Subjects?
I don't particularly like preaching on controversial topics. I've learned that most of the time when I do, there's a price to pay—I'm bound to make somebody angry. Sometimes I feel that in raising issues, I'm threatening the very existence of my ministry or the church's ministry.
So why do I do it?
• To fulfill an obligation to the truth. I have an obligation to respond honestly to issues that impact the church. To ignore them is to ignore the reality of the world in which people live.
For example, not long ago, our church rethought its views on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, essentially changing what our church had practiced for 60 years. We had to face these issues in light of the rising divorce rate in the last couple of decades. As a consequence, I had to preach on these subjects, to make clear our church's new policies.
Women in ministry is another issue at the center of controversy in churches today. To ignore it is beyond comprehension to me; it's one of the key issues about which people are confused. There are a lot of women in high levels of management who are asking questions about women in ministry. They have a right to hear legitimate, reasonable answers from the church.
For me to ignore such realities is to be less than concerned about the truth. Scripture has something to say about every great issue of the day. It's part of my calling to speak forth what I believe the Bible to be teaching.
• To fulfill an obligation to people. After I once spoke about the need to forgive others, I received a note that said, "I'm 18 years old. When I was 14, my dad raped me, and I got pregnant. Now I have a 4-year-old kid. And every time I look at the kid, I think of my dad. So how can you sit up there and tell me to forgive? My dad still denies he ever even touched me."
It's not just issues that I'm concerned about but also the people who struggle with those issues. Women are wondering how to respond to feminism, teenagers to sex, businesspeople to ethics, and on and on. Individuals are struggling with controversial issues. If I want to be their pastor, if I want to help them in their Christian walk, I will have to deal from the pulpit with their concerns.
Keeping Conflict Out of the Controversy
I've discovered my own attitudes affect how my message is received. The spirit in which I deliver my sermon is often reflected in the response people give me. I've discovered several things that have helped me minimize needless antagonism.
• Get the view from the pew. I've found it helpful when dealing with controversial issues to soak in the viewpoints and feelings of those who differ from me. But I've got to get out of my study to do that.
Often after I've prepared my sermon, I sit in the auditorium and try to put myself in the place of people who will be sitting in that pew on Sunday. 1 try to imagine what they went through over the last week, what their relationships are like, and what they're struggling with. I keep asking myself, "What difference will this sermon make? How will they see it? What conclusions will they draw from it?"
Of course, there's nothing like direct contact with my people to keep me in touch with their views. In our Saturday night service, which is for unchurched people, we have a period for questions and answers at the end of every talk. People write questions related to the topic for the service, and I try to respond to them. Doing that week after week gives me a window to see where people are coming from and what they're really thinking.
Best of all, I get the view from the pew by hearing personally, after worship and during the week, the dilemmas that my people face.
One man in my congregation worked on a business venture for a year and a half and stood to make a six-figure commission. Then at the last minute, somebody at the bank got involved and bypassed him, violating the law in the process. He came to me and asked me what he should do.
"Do I sue," he asked, "or is God trying to tell me to let go of all this money?"
It's one thing to preach platitudes about materialism; ifs another thing to answer a direct question: "How does your sermon apply to me when I've been cheated out of money I can't afford to lose?"
When I know the real dilemmas that my people face, my preaching is not only more realistic, it's more compassionate, and needless controversy, due to a simplistic judgmental spirit, is avoided.
• Affirm truth more, condemn error less. In my sermon on drinking, I was careful not to impose false guilt about drinking. I merely explained some of the reasons I abstain. I talked about the drug and substance problem in our country, about research that shows some people to be genetically predisposed to alcoholism, and about the terrible pain that alcoholics go through.
"For all those reasons," I said, "I've chosen not to drink."
I also made sure that my approach was thoughtfully reasoned and that I was fair to each side's position. My goal is not to split the difference between factions or to find politically safe ground. My goal is to take away the emotional flash point by affirming truth, not by castigating falsehood and wrongdoing. Truth delivered in the right spirit will eventually win the day.
• Make careful use of surprise. Sometimes, when used appropriately, surprise provides the spark to drive a point home without alienating people.
When I preached about drinking, I set people up. I listed from the Bible those who abstained from wine because they wanted to be unique and separate, such as those under a Nazaritic vow and John the Baptist. And as they listened, all the non-drinkers were thinking, This is great!
Then I said, "Now let me show you some who didn't abstain." And I immediately mentioned Jesus. People told me later that when I did this, they were compelled to listen to what I was going to say next.
I can't use surprise, however, simply to shock people. It must be scriptural in intent or content, and it must be pastoral, seeking in love to speak the truth. When I sense I'm not motivated properly, I'll drop the surprise.
• Be fair to opposing views. When preaching on controversial matters, it's often a temptation to treat unfairly those whom we oppose.
For example, I once preached on Jesus' statement, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." Since about 10 percent of our Sunday morning congregation is Roman Catholic, I wondered how I could address the fundamental issues without attacking Catholics personally or labeling them as ignorant, unbiblical Christians.
So I read a great deal of Catholic theology on the subject. Then when I preached, I said, "Some biblical scholars interpret the passage like this …" And I explained the strongest argument from a Catholic position.
Then I said, "Now let me give you four or five reasons why I believe this passage ought to be interpreted this other way."
The Catholics thought it was wonderful. They said, "I never saw it that way. It makes sense!" They could respond positively because I didn't single them out. I treated them with respect. In fact, I hadn't even labeled their scholars or doctrine as "Catholic." Still the Catholics recognized what I was talking about.
Labeling, in fact, is a special temptation in controversial preaching. But I avoid it at all costs, and I encourage my listeners to avoid it as well.
In my sermon on drinking, after laying out my reasons for and against drinking, I said, "We may not be able to come to agreement about this issue. But let's do at least this much: let's not call each other 'legalists' and 'liberals,' but just 'brothers' and 'sisters.' "
• Keep my ultimate focus on God, not people. Although I want to be sensitive to people, I don't want to let their reactions control how I preach.
I went through a terrible episode a couple of years ago. In that case, it wasn't my preaching that caused the problem, but the actions of somebody else. Still, the situation elicited the same kind of emotions in me as when controversial preaching is involved.
A woman in the church came to see me and asked, "Have you been looking at me? "Have you been making eyes at me while you're preaching?" She was convinced I was attracted to her.
"No, I don't even know who you are," I said. To head off the problem, I asked my wife and the woman's husband to join the woman and me for a counseling session. Afterwards, she admitted she had a lot of emotional problems and agreed to get professional help.
But she still continued to tell her friends that the preacher was making eyes at her. She'd sit way out in the congregation thinking, When he preaches, he's giving me the eye. I can tell he's in love with me.
I turned the problem over to the church board, asking them to deal with it, and I tried to relax, but every Sunday for about six months, whenever I came to the pulpit, I knew that woman was sitting out there somewhere, thinking I was loving her from a distance.
I became self-conscious as I preached. Every sermon was weighted with deliberate effort to be careful where I looked. I tried to lose myself in worship and focus on God, but most of the time it didn't work. I'd catch myself thinking, I wonder where she's sitting. If I happen to notice her, I'll look to another section. Everything I did was affected, and she severely limited my spontaneity.
After the service, I'd think. Let's see. If I stand here to shake hands with people, will she and her husband come down this aisle? I'd wonder, What else is she saying to people?
The whole experience taught me a terrific lesson about trusting my reputation and my effectiveness to God. Gradually I learned to speak freely even though I felt oppressed. Even while struggling with inner conflict, I found I could be faithful to the text. If the passage called for confident or joyful delivery, I could do that out of obedience, and God brought results regardless of what I felt inside.
As pastor I have to tell myself on occasion to put my feelings aside and be professional about fulfilling my responsibilities.
The Place and Use of Scripture
The Bible, handled correctly, also can keep me out of needless controversy. Scripture helps me zero in on what really matters and guides me in the way I approach people. Here's how I use the Bible whenever I face controversial issues.
• Let Scripture determine which battles will be fought and when. Especially during periods of conflict, my sermons must begin and end with Scripture. This is where expository preaching has kept me out of trouble.
I know that whatever crisis erupts this week, this coming Sunday I'm preaching the next sermon in my series from the Gospel of John or Romans or wherever I happen to be in the Bible. I don't allow myself to react, to let the events of the week unduly influence what I preach—I try to let the upcoming text do that. Like a governor on an engine, expository preaching helps me maintain a proper speed and not get carried away.
Expository preaching will, in its own time and place, address difficult topics. I preached on drinking, for example, simply because I was preaching an expository series through the Gospel of John. And there it was: Jesus turned the water into wine. People asked, "What kind of wine was it?" It was a legitimate question that needed to be answered. And because it was addressed in the context of expository preaching, people didn't feel like I was "dumping" on them.
• Use Scripture to defuse emotional feedback. A scriptural foundation also helps me deal with emotional feedback after the sermon. My defense to critics is, "If you can show me where I misrepresented the Bible, I'll correct it. Did I say anything unscriptural? Did I say anything wrong from the Bible?"
One woman heard on the radio the sermon about drinking. It troubled her because her son is an alcoholic. In fact, he was in church that Sunday. When he returned home, he said to her, "Dobson said drinking is okay." So she called me up and blasted me.
"Every person killed by a drunk driver will be your fault," she said. "And the blood of people in this community will be on your hands."
But I said, "Now, tell me from the Bible what I said wrong."
"Well, that's not the point," she answered.
And I said, "That is the point."
I try not to defend myself (which is my tendency) or to get cynical. I simply try to keep coming back to the Bible.
• Use Scripture in proportion to the issue. Some churches are embroiled in battles over issues the Scriptures do not address. If the Bible allows room for various interpretations, I want my sermon to give space too.
For example, some people in our congregation want me to debate the merits of public, home, and Christian schooling. But I've retreated from that battle because I can't honestly see how the Scriptures make a hard case for any of the options. It seems to me that individuals will have to make that decision for their families on a human, not a scriptural level—based on preference and broad biblical principles, not biblical absolutes.
Naturally, which topics have strong biblical roots and which don't is a judgment each preacher has to make. But here are some principles that guide me;
1. Defend Christian distinctives at all costs. There are some absolutes of the Christian faith—those beliefs that distinguish a non-Christian from a Christian, the things on which we all must agree: the gospel of grace, the incarnation of Jesus, the centrality of Scripture, among others. There can be no disagreement on these without compromising the integrity of the church. So these are issues that must be addressed, directly and indirectly, from the pulpit regularly, even if they raise havoc.
2. Preach convictions, but acknowledge other views. Next are matters of conviction—beliefs we each hold about non-essentials.
As a congregation, we have established certain convictions about such things as eschatology and dispensationalism and baptism. It is our conviction, for instance, that infants shouldn't be baptized; so we don't. But we don't rebaptize people who, as infants, were baptized and now wish to join our church.
Yet even though they're not biblical absolutes, convictions are legitimate topics for preaching. As pastor, I believe our church convictions, and I'm called upon to defend them. However, I always qualify what I say by adding that other sincere Christians may disagree with our convictions.
3. Hold preferences loosely. Finally, there are preferences. Our style of worship, for instance, is a preference. Dress and externals are all preferences to me. If I accept people with different convictions, there is no way I can judge people because of their preferences. The Bible allows room for a wide variety of preferences, and in my preaching on controversial subjects, I have to remind people of that from time to time.
In one sermon on Christian music, a hot issue in our church at the time, I acknowledged that some Christians are strongly against contemporary music. Then I pointed out that at one time all church music was contemporary and that we tend to forget that.
Then I dropped the bomb shell. I said, "I love contemporary music. I like Christian rock. Now this is only my opinion—it's not a scriptural absolute or even a conviction. It is a preference." Then to deal with the inevitable reaction, I granted that some of them would think I was crazy, even if I was pretty straight in other ways.
"It's fine for you to think that," I said, "as long as you don't judge me as being less spiritual because of my preference."
Then I reminded those on the contemporary side of the issue—who were feeling a little smug by this time—that they also must maintain a level of tolerance. I told them if they wanted to tell the traditionalists, "Get with the program," then they were being libertarian legalists. And I reminded them that we don't use hardhitting contemporary music on Sundays. Our purpose is to enable and encourage everybody to worship God, not to prove we're free.
When Scripture is used appropriately, then, it can keep the waters of controversial preaching a little more calm.
Mistakes to Avoid
It wouldn't be controversial if an issue didn't engage our emotions. That's the nature of conflict and disagreement. And though I want to be involved emotionally with what I do and say, I cannot permit myself to be carried away by the intensity of the moment; otherwise I jeopardize my ability to lead my congregation.
With a clear head then, I guard myself against several mistakes that can easily trip me.
• Acting like the final authority. Twenty years ago, a lot of churches felt that if the pastor said it, it had to be true. But this is a different generation. People won't respond to an appeal unless the preacher makes a good case for it, and even then they're going to be skeptical. If I come across as an authoritarian, I'm not going to have an opportunity to be heard. People will resist me. I can't get away with simply saying, "The Bible says, 'Don't drink,' " or "The Bible says, 'Women, be submissive.' "
In fact, I regularly tell my congregation, "You have an obligation not to believe what I tell you from the pulpit unless you can prove it from Scripture yourselves. I'm not trying to tell you what to believe; I want to help you interpret and apply the Bible honestly. I'm human; I make mistakes. Therefore the believer's responsibility is to judge what I say with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures."
• Making private matters public. Some internal church controversies do not belong in the public eye. They should be addressed behind closed doors, not from the pulpit. Bringing them out into the open only makes these conflicts worse.
So whether the issue is between angry individuals or church factions up in arms, we try to solve the problem at the level where it really exists. We try never to make a problem more public than it ought to be.
If it's an issue of interpreting the church constitution or some procedural matter, for example, we deal with it at the board level; the elders are the ones responsible to deal with that. If it is aggrieved parties in the congregation, we deal with it at that level and do not make it a public issue.
• Belittling people's experiences. Sometimes I'm tempted to downplay or even make fun of people's experiences if they threaten to undermine what I'm trying to teach. But experiences, no matter how contrary to what I'm teaching, are real, and they must be treated seriously.
During our Saturday night service, one of the notes I received during the question and answer time read, "My mother died, and my dad remarried, and he married a bitch." It went on and on: "When she dies, my greatest joy will be to stand at her grave and sing the Doxology."
People in the room began to snicker, but beneath the sarcasm of this note was a lot of pathos. I started to respond, but the author of the note spoke up from the audience.
"That was my question," he said, "and I didn't appreciate people snickering and laughing. I've been going through hell." All of a sudden the nice, neat theological principle we were discussing—forgiveness—wasn't so nice and neat anymore. It was still valid but not so simple.
I talked directly to him: "I apologize for those who laughed," I said. "It's not funny; you're right. And I want to thank you for your courage to stand up to it."
Then I talked more about forgiveness and letting go.
I went down and hugged him, and a bunch of people came and hugged him. I told him forgiveness was not just a single act but a life-long process of letting things go.
So he's been working at it since. He claims our Saturday night meetings are the only genuine religious experiences he's had, and we're the only church where he has felt loved and accepted.
I can't escape the inevitability of controversy in the church. Preaching, in fact, generates healthy controversy by itself. But when done in the right way, it can not only prevent things from getting worse, in the long run it can make the church better.
Copyright © 1992 by Christianity Today