“There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
—Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy said this in 1966, but it rings particularly true today.
Expressions of overt racism and prejudice are increasing.
Common civility is decreasing.
Political positions are championed as if they determine eternal salvation or damnation.
Loyalty is tested to party, country, family, church, and God—and many are certain they are qualified to judge.
Not since the Civil Rights era have preachers been so called upon to discern and proclaim what it means to follow Jesus Christ and love one’s neighbor as oneself.
With so many competing viewpoints, so many people unwilling to dialogue, and so much fear driving people apart, how can preachers proclaim the dignity of every human being in a way it can be heard by people on both sides of the divide?
Clarify Your Intentions: What Do You Want to Accomplish?
Do you want to persuade to action?
Open someone's mind?
Create empathy for a different viewpoint?
Establish a standard of treatment or response for those within your congregation?
Whatever you hope to accomplish, the Gospel must be central. It cannot be an accessory to the heart of the sermon. It must be the substance itself.
Why? Because every belief, thought, prejudice, and action can be traced to our understanding of God's relationship to us. The Gospel must be proclaimed so we come to believe we are loved, secure, forgiven and at peace with God.
- When we believe God holds us in contempt, we are defensive, harsh, and quick to point fingers.
- When we believe God loves us—delights in us—we love generously, indiscriminately, and sincerely.
- When we believe we are right, we seek to change, control, and dismiss.
- When we believe we are secure, we long to know and understand each other.
- When we believe God is angry with us, we approach those around us with judgment, criticism, and even condemnation.
- When we believe we are at peace with God, forgiven and accepted in Christ by grace, we approach the fallen world with grace, seeking peace.
The Gospel shapes our worldview which shapes our actions: "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). For listeners to offer greater love, justice, mercy, and grace in our "interesting times," they must first experience love, justice, mercy, and grace for themselves in Christ.
Then they will grow mindful of the last and the least.
Then they will share their attention, resources, time, and energy with those who are marginalized, discarded or otherwise held down by our culture.
Then they will lay down their shields of certainty to live in the vulnerable, messy tension of nuance.
Then they will look beyond the surface of issues to the root causes and systemic injustices at play.
Ask yourself, what motivates you? What invitation do you wish to issue through the sermon? Identify that, and then ask what your listeners need to better understand about God's character and relationship to them in order to receive your invitation.
Preach to Yourself
Consider a topic that feels politically fraught. If you were listening to a sermon that disagrees with your point of view, what would help you remain open to listen?
What tone of sermon would I want to hear?
When you hear a sermon on a difficult or controversial subject, what tone of sermon do you find reaches you best?
- Is it a “raise the rooftops” kind of sermon? That is, one in which the preacher is utterly convicted by the rightness of his or her take on the Gospel and persuades through strong rhetoric?
- Or one in which a central story brings you and others along together?
- Or maybe it would be an educational sermon to show the history and movement of a theme throughout scripture leading to a conclusion that makes you rethink your convictions?
If you heard a preacher preach on one of those topics, do you want to sense there is room for alternate views? Or maybe you find it reassuring that a preacher is leading with the strength of conviction that leaves little room for dialogue?
How would I want the preacher to behave?
Not only does the preacher’s message needs to be congruent with the Gospel but so do the preacher's actions. What does that look like?
In other words, what behavior would you hope to see during the rest of the liturgy, after the service, and in meetings or events outside of the sermon?
- What kind of posture would foster a deeper relationship with that preacher—whether in spite of or because of their conviction?
- How would that preacher talk about those who hold differing convictions?
- How does that preacher receive criticism or disagreement after a sermon?
What kind of invitation would I find genuine?
If a preacher is truly interested in a dialogue with his/her listeners—one involving speaking AND listening, one where they are open to be persuaded—what would communicate that openness?
- a continuing ed series?
- a roundtable discussion?
- set times for coffee talks?
How would you wish to be invited to engage?
We must be proactive in fostering opportunity for a two-way conversation if we wish to do more than pay lip service to our desire for discussion.
Preach with Humility
More likely than not, your views on passages of Scripture, cultural flash points, or political issues have evolved over time.
You've lived more. Studied more. Experienced more. Encountered more perspectives.
You may believe differently now than you did ten or twenty years ago. And it's likely some views will shift in another ten or twenty years.
This is a natural aspect of growing in maturity and faith. As we mature, the substance of our faith changes. In fact, Scripture makes it clear that, spiritually speaking, we should be moving from milk to solid food as we grow. The teaching we receive and offer matures as our faith matures.
As a result, everyone's views are in process—including ours.
At any point, we’re offering our best educated guess. This means that while we have wisdom to offer those behind us on the journey, we may also have wisdom to gain from others.
Trust the congregation’s wisdom.
Be willing to be persuaded.
But also honor the authority and wisdom you've been given. You needn't to shy away from conviction or difficult truths. Indeed, the last and the least need us to speak on their behalf. The privileged and comfortable need to be woken from their slumber.
Ultimately, how you treat each other in the conflict and disagreement is more important to being heard than the sermon itself.
Become a Student
Complex cultural and psychological factors are at play any time we invite change, particularly of closely and sincerely held beliefs.
There is always something at stake for the person considering a change. Inviting a new way of thinking or seeing is not as simple as just "changing a mind." Often, change is accompanied by shifts in relationships, lifestyle, or even the use of resources.
Understanding the layers of meaning beneath a belief or attitude will help us issue invitations with respect and tenderness.
And learning how our approach to sensitive topics creates either resistance or openness will help us lead with greater grace and efficacy. Our Preaching in a Divided Culture Workshop dives deeper into these principles, which are more important than ever in our current climate.
We cannot assume a well-crafted sermon alone is sufficient to speak through the noise of our culture and reach hearts on both sides of an issue.
Informed, gospel-centered preaching accompanied by humble self-awareness and grace-filled invitations increase the odds that our message will be heard, even by those who disagree.
Interested in learning more about preaching across the divide?
We'd love to have you join us for our live 2-day, online workshop: