The horrific events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past Friday and Saturday set our country reeling.
White supremacists rallying in town were met with peaceful counter-protestors. Several incidents of violence erupted, including a car intentionally plowing into a crowd, killing at least one peaceful witness and injuring nineteen more.
Shockwaves of anger and fear went out through social and other media. Tensions ran high.
Those of us preaching on Sunday faced an immediate decision: leave our finished sermon as it was originally written, modify the content, or scrap the whole thing to start over.
Some events demand attention from the pulpit immediately. The tragic events in Charlottesville qualify, but there are others:
- a shocking or sudden death of a parishioner
- a natural disaster affecting the immediate location
- a national or global crisis or tragedy
- even a miraculous recovery or other surprise of good fortune
It is simply a fact of the preaching life that, at times, we will be required to set aside our prepared sermons and speak to the events which surround us, testifying to how we see God in and through them.
How do we decide when to continue with our sermon as prepped versus adjusting our sermon at the last minute?
Consider the event.
Not every event needs to be mentioned specifically from the pulpit.
Careful discernment is needed. There are crises and tragedies of consequence daily, but a constant litany of the world's troubles can leave our listeners feeling berated, discouraged, or even desensitized.
Some people come to church to be comforted and uplifted. They often see this time as a buffer from the bad news they encounter every day. However, when the world erupts, we do need to speak the truth in our sermons.
As you decide whether to address an event in your sermon, consider:
- whether the event is local or having local impact
- whether the event is so big or significant as to be universally relevant
- whether people in your congregation are affected, physically or emotionally
- how in need of strength and guidance you judge your people to be
The events in Charlottesville resonated to the core of how we see ourselves as citizens and Christians, meeting the test of being relevant across geographical boundaries and needing urgent attention.
Not every piece of shocking news is the same.
Remember that, though we are preachers expected to offer insight, comfort, or hope, we also are having reactions to sudden events.
It's crucial to take time, even a few moments, to acknowledge our own feelings before we undertake revising or re-writing a sermon.
Simply being aware of our own fear, anger, confusion, etc. helps us better filter our reaction so that when we speak, we share the Gospel. Acknowledge your reactions and feelings as you listen for God’s voice and guidance for your words.
In addition to whatever unsettling event is going on, you may also need to process any nerves or stress you may have about changing or rewriting your sermon. There is grace in attempting to wrestle a difficult event into a sermon at the eleventh hour since listeners will surely understand the sermon was finished at the last minute.
Feel free to keep your message simple and short.
Remember your (lack of) perspective.
If we are amending our sermons last minute in response to something shocking, then we will, by definition, be lacking full information and perspective.
The basics may be clear, but the details may not be.
It is not uncommon for some early information to be wrong. We may not know if this event is isolated or part of a series of events or reactions. We can't predict whether something may resolve the tensions surrounding an event, or whether something else will move the crisis forward (or backward).
In the midst of uncertainty, go to the heart of what is happening and don’t dwell on the details, as they may change.
Likewise, if a crisis ventures into territory you feel ill-equipped to handle, acknowledge your limits.
It is essential that we recognize where we lack information, experience, or first-hand understanding of the issues raised by an event. This self-awareness is essential to preaching both authentically and with humility.
You are not required to have the answers. In fact, simply showing up to say you don't have answers but are listening and learning can model a healthy approach to difficult, nuanced, or emotionally-charged events.
Address the political, but not the politics.
What happened this weekend in Charlottesville was horrific, and it is easy to clearly condemn hatred and bigotry.
Even so, though very, very few would support the extremist views on display in this instance, there are political aspects to what happened and is still happening around this and other events.
As preachers we are called to speak boldly against evil and sin, and to promote peace, love, forgiveness and justice in the name of God.
Our footing is less strong when we advocate particular political parties, stances, or causes.
It is a thin but important line which we can find by asking ourselves about the things that unite us and our congregations in faith, rather than those which divide us in policy.
Backstory Preaching offers two free, relevant resources for preachers facing the pulpit in the midst of crises and ever-changing headlines:
- 6 Tips for Preaching in a Divided Culture: Use these 6 concrete sermon prep suggestions to navigate division in the culture and the pews.
- A Guide to Preaching on Current Events: This collection of wisdom from 25 well-respected preachers addresses if and when to preach on current events, and how to do so effectively.
Find the good news.
Ultimately, what defines a sermon is Good News.
If we have a clear message, based in Scripture, illuminating the love of God, we may only need to do a bit of adjusting to the sermon we've already written.
In the face of tragedy, we can and should bring in hope—in resurrection, in redemption, in forgiveness, in God’s abiding strength and presence.
Hatred and evil will never have the last word in the face of all-powerful love.
No matter what else we say or reference in a sermon, our job as preachers is to bring this proclamation to the people.