It’s common to “preach to the choir.”
We often preach a message people already agree with, a message that reinforces what people already believe. When we preach to the choir, we probably don’t feel vulnerable about the anticipated reaction: we expect more kudos than pushback.
But what happens when we preach against the choir?
What happens after preaching a message that will bring us:
More pushback than kudos?
More whisper campaigns than “bravos”?
More risk of pushing us out of our jobs than pushing for salary raises?
I attended this year’s fabulous Festival of Homiletics, where the theme was “Preaching as Moral Imagination.” The speakers I heard were wonderful, impassioned, persuasive. They encouraged us, gave ideas, and sent us on our way better equipped than when we arrived.
The need is great, we heard, to preach sermons filled with such moral courage and imagination that our sermons might actually get us fired.
They offered the “Bonhoeffer-ian” words we needed to hear, and I am grateful for every word.
That said, there are real and serious consequences to preaching into the issues of the day:
declining church attendance
immigration and kids separated from parents at the border
the culture of fear
Every preacher and parish is unique, but we are wise and faithful to consider the implications of risking position, even career, to preach into issues where we believe the very Gospel is at stake for believers.
In that light, here are two questions preachers need to ask themselves when planning to preach against the choir. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions.
Question 1: Will Your Preaching Voice Be More Effective Inside or Outside the Church?
If you believe a Gospel of love, inclusion, dignity, respect, and justice need to be preached, then in what context will you have the most influence?
The formal authority of the pulpit carries a weight and reach that few other venues offer.
However, that formal authority can be constrained by the parish’s willingness and flexibility to listen. If there’s too much disagreement between preacher and parishioners, you could be fired and lose the pulpit’s reach and impact.
Moreover, if you and the parish disagree so much you get fired, then my guess is there’s a good chance the next preacher they call will be in accord with their positions and they won’t hear an opposing view of the Gospel.
If you intend to preach one or a series of sermons that are incendiary enough your congregation might fire or push you out of your position, ask yourself whether your voice will be more effective inside or outside the parish.
Does that weigh into your decision? Should it? If inside, what does that mean for your message?
If you are fired, however, you may have more informal authority to move people outside the organization.
You might have more latitude to preach the Gospel in multiple contexts. You could have more choices about how, when, and how often to preach your message.
But you’ll have less gravitas and no built-in listeners. You might have to spend your energy finding and building your listeners. And then you may find yourself preaching to the choir again—one that already agrees with you.
How does that possibility influence your decision? Should it?
You are called to preach the Gospel. Where is God calling you to preach it? Where will your voice best be heard?
Question 2: What Happens If You Get Fired?
The consequences of losing your position, personally and to your family, are many and deep.
I don’t believe it’s unfaithful to the Gospel to consider what happens afterward.
After all, the Church may thank you sincerely for your courageous service to the Gospel—but appreciation alone isn’t going to pay your bills.
There are urgent issues that need our preaching attention. Unfortunately, many of these realities aren’t going to change anytime soon. We’re preaching a marathon, not a sprint. You could preach on them next week, next year, or next decade.
The sad reality is this: if you think a message is likely to get you fired, and you believe you need preach it, you can probably get your personal ducks in a row first.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t preach what you feel called to preach, but it will considerably ease the stress of it for you and your loved ones if you think some things through.
How does your family feel about the ramifications of losing your livelihood? How might this affect their church relationships? What will you do about the family’s loss of income or the possibility of moving? Will your kids get bullied at school? Could your spouse also be fired or pushed out?
Would you want to move to a different church position? What are your prospects? Do you have other skills you could make a living at? What’s that job market like?
Do you have savings to rely on during the interim? How long will they last?
How will losing your position affect your health insurance? Do you have dependents for whom this is a hardship? Is their dependence on your insurance a time-limited situation or long-term?
How will this affect you? Your spirit? Your sense of call? Your hopes for your overall ministry to those you serve? Your integrity? Who will emotionally and spiritually support you through this time?
Preach the Gospel! Do! But even St. Paul had to make ends meet, and at times, fell back on his tent making skills. What will you do?
Finally, A Plea to My Colleagues
This is an unprecedented time.
None of us has been through this before. None of us knows quite what to do, or how it’s going to turn out, so it’s understandable many of us are feeling stressed out.
Each of us is unique in temperament, personality, family responsibilities, and parish context.
We’re all going to get some things right and make colossal judgement errors in others. None of us walks in any other pair of shoes—or wears the preaching robes of anyone other than ourselves.
In other words, humility is a good, right, and necessary thing.
Specifically, we can:
model the respect, civility, and compassion we think the world needs with each other
support rather than judge one another in these immensely difficult decisions
ask questions instead of jump to conclusions
trust that we’re all doing the best we can: your colleague knows more about her own situation and context than you ever will
Most of all, pray for one another.
We’re in this together, for the long haul.
Navigating our current climate is easier in community.
It’s also easier when we know who we are, what we’re called to, and what our preaching strengths are.
The Mentorship was designed for this purpose: to bring a small group of dedicated preachers together to learn how to more effectively preach the Good News.
Applications are currently open to members of The Collective. Learn more before applications open to the general public on June 5th.