Preaching in Political Age
The old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
A few years ago, I taught a course for our undergraduate ministry students called "The Church in Contemporary Society." As a class, we reflected together about what it meant to live and lead as Christians in the here and now. Part of curriculum was, understandably, a walk through the significant issues and themes of the day. If I were teaching the course right now, we would definitely be talking about the election.
One of the sections of the course focused not so much on contemporary issues, but rather how we might approach or address them as leaders. To help think through this, we read a book called Prophetic Preaching by Lenora Tubbs Tisdale. This itself was preparatory for a significant course assignment: preaching on a current issue. War, abortion, electoral politics, racial issues--these were the kinds of things students were asked to address.
An assignment like this challenges students to clearly consider the places where the outflowing of the Christian witness intersects with our times. This is, obviously, an important consideration, and one which can be easy to shirk from. Combined with this was the use of Prophetic Preaching, which challenged students to learn how to do it well. The simple head-on approach (saying what you think/do, what others should think/do, and then moving on) is tempting in its simplicity and ability to "get things off our chest," but is not necessarily effective. To help people consider new, unexplored possibilities, something else might be required than simply saying what we think is true and then feeling good about ourselves for having said it.
I used the Tisdale text because it provided some more thoughtful strategies and forms for preaching. Ways in which we could bring hearers along on the journey rather than simply confronting them. The latter approach, while certainly one of the tools we possess as preachers, is nevertheless risky. For despite our hopes, it can lead not to changed hearts or minds, but rather the opposite: a strong and negative reaction to what we preach. Why not, instead, invite our listeners to reframe the issue, consider things in a new way, or learn what it is to walk in someone else's shoes? Such methods do not ask us as preachers to let go of our of Christian convictions or our call to lead others in righteousness, but they do mean that we dig deeper and with more patience.
For we preachers and Christian leaders, I believe the struggles of our day demand both clarity and strategy. There are times when definitive statements and the "head-on" approach makes sense. But then there are other times. Moments when we know that coming at a topic so strongly might have the opposite effect on those we lead. Rather than spur conversation, it will actually shut it down. In these instances, more care is needed.
For an example of the complications inherent in all of this, we need look no further than the fraught conversations about race that many white churches had over the last six months, or the ways in which congregations representative of a divided electorate are approaching this election. We could just as well think about abortion or economics. I believe that God has thoughts about these things. I believe that the Scripture and the Spirit's leading can help us understand a Christian position on them. But the ways in which we help our people resist defensive postures, rethink long-held positions that have might little to do with the gospel, and live as citizens of the Kingdom of God? This takes time, effort, a guarding of our own heart, and a continued openness to the Spirit. Because we, after all, have more to learn ourselves.