Words That Heal
A pastor’s words from the pulpit can often be divisive and sharp—and not necessarily in tone or delivery. Preaching requires standing on God’s Word, revealing weakness and sin, and calling out for obedience or repentance. Sometimes, thought, the controversy is less clear-cut. In our minds we’ll ask “What would Jesus do?” to try to bring a Christ-centered perspective, and occasionally we just don’t know.
Preaching should not shy away from such controversy. But we must approach it carefully, in a way that unifies the church, seeks to bring closure, and points people toward Christ. There are so many cultural and controversial issues before us as the church. Consider just a few of these that have graced the pages of local newspapers around the country in the recent months:
- Does it damage our testimony when Christians, even ministers, drink alcoholic beverages?
- Should the children of homosexual couples be allowed in church daycare?
- Does God ever endorse war and killing of our nation’s enemies?
- Is abortion a sin in the case of rape or incest?
- Should a divorced man who has remarried be allowed to teach in the church?
We must realize that some controversial issues cannot be avoided, especially if it impacts the church directly. A pastor has an obligation to the Truth, and to his congregation, to address issues that his congregation has real questions about. When teaching through a controversial issue, here are a few practical handles to remember:
Frame the argument. Often controversial issues come with much baggage—history, culture, choice words and poor responses. Start by clearly defining the issue you want to teach through. Keep the focus narrow and to the point. If you are going to talk about war, narrow the focus to the Iraq War or a specific instance, versus trying to cover the topic of all war throughout history. You’d spend a four-week series covering the political and cultural issues alone if you did. Answer one question well. Don’t try to marginally answer all broad questions on a topic—you can’t accomplish that in a sermon.
Present both sides. A preacher who immediately declares one side or the other on a controversy risks alienating a sizable portion of his audience. Worse, he risks dismissal of his argument entirely on the premise that he is predisposed, and has not sought to identify or think through the other side of the issue. Instead, present both sides, without initial leaning to one or the other. Put yourself in the shoes of each position and try to present an unbiased view of them.
Accept emotion. Controversial issues are by nature emotional. Your conclusion may be simple and matter-of-fact, but you must acknowledge pain, grief and deep-seated thoughts and history that many people may have about it. Failing to do so can make your argument sound trite and inconsiderate. If you are unemotional and dispassionate about the subject, your audience will be equally dispassionate about their engagement in the topic.
Don’t step beyond the Word. Sometimes God’s Word is clear on a controversial issue. Other times God’s Word is silent. Still another case is that God’s Word does touch on a topic, but does not present a black-and-white stance. In any case it is important when speaking with biblical authority to never go beyond what the Bible clearly says. God never said, “You shall not drink alcohol”, nor did He always choose peace over war. Putting God in an absolute position on these issues is not in keeping with scripture, despite what your own personal beliefs may be.
Opinion is okay, when stated reasonably. When talking through controversy, your own opinion as a pastor and leader is valid and can be expressed. Let’s apply this to the alcohol issue, for instance: “Though God never says one can’t drink alcohol, I’ve decided in my own life that it would not be wise for me to do so. I’ve seen it destroy the lives of some of our families, so I often recommend to others that they choose to abstain as well.” Here you see fact separated from opinion, and the opinion offered reasonably. Not all members may agree with your opinion, but delivered reasonably, they are more likely to respect it.
The end result. The desired result of preaching on a controversial issue is to bring the congregation to a biblical understanding of it, to address any specific needs in your church, to give people a means to respond or deal with the issue personally, to share your heart and leadership as Pastor, and unify the church in the process. These goals require words that heal versus words that cut. If the argument itself cuts, then the words must be doubly tender and reasonable.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.