Addressing Cultural Issues in the Pulpit
How do pastors preach on contemporary cultural issues? Or should they? This is a question every pastor faces as he contemplates both the spiritual needs of his congregation, the questions swirling in society, and the weighty commission to preach the Word of God. When I pastored, I constantly wrestled with when to address certain topics, how to address them, and in what format. I’ve also observed and watched pastors of large and small churches organize their preaching. Here are a few ways I’ve seen pastors address contemporary cultural issues:
1) Textual: Personally I feel the most healthy way for pastors to structure their sermons is through the systematic preaching of Bible books. Expository preaching guides a pastor along, presenting to him every Sunday the text he is to preach, not the text he wants to preach. It helps avoid the kind of cut and paste approach we often take to favorite verses and help the hearer soak in the cultural background, the context, and the biblical author’s original intent. There is a richness to studying an entire book. What’s more, it prevents us from skipping over texts that are difficult or controversial. So how does this kind of preaching lend itself to addressing contemporary cultural issues? It simply forces us to address what the text addresses. It’s nearly impossible to preach through a book of the Bible and not hit on a contemporary cultural problem. The key for application is to not just apply the text in ways the congregation is already assuming, but in ways they are not. We shouldn’t just aim for amens from people who already agree, but to find ways in which they will be provoked to think differently. So, for instance, preaching on the Great Commission in Matthew forces us to think through what it means to “make disciples of all nations.” How does this affect our view of different people groups, of immigrants? Preaching through Genesis forces us to think through our views of the sanctity of human life. James confronts our attitudes toward the poor. Peter counsels us in our posture as counter-cultural “exiles” representing the Kingdom of Christ.
2) Topical: Though I favor expository preaching as the majority of preaching content during regular worship, I do believe there are occasions for topical messages on cultural issues, particularly during times of heightened awareness, such as dominant news story or special Sundays (Sanctity of Life Sunday, etc). I think this can be done in a well-thought out way. Sometimes this kind of message is called for if it is a time of crisis and this particular subject is all people are thinking about. There are ways to do this well, I think. First, I think even topical messages should be grounded in a specific text, if at all possible, to prevent proof texting. Some issues are easier to do this on than others. With some topical sermons on cultural issues, it’s helpful to walk through the development of an idea as it moves through the canon of Scripture. I’ve also seen pastors do a topical series on cultural topics. This can be done well also, but we should guard against picking topics that conform to our own political positions or topics that we know will automatically get amens from our audience. We should be holistic and address topics that the Bible clearly addresses, regardless of how they might be perceived in the audience. I think it’s also important, during a series like this, to ensure the congregation that the choice of cultural issues to be discussed is not exhaustive and that the Word of God is driving the messages, not a set of talking points from a political party or movement. Pastors also need to work especially hard at separating their personal political opinions from what God has declared in Scripture. What God’s people need from the pulpit is not a copy of what they get from cable news or talk radio. They need to hear the Word of God.
3) Shoehorn: A shoehorn is a hybrid between a textual message and a topical message and it’s something I was often tempted to do as a pastor. It goes something like this: You have your preaching calendar worked out for the entire year but something big comes up and you want to address it so you find a clever way to make the text you are assigned to preach speak to the current cultural moment. I don’t advise this. People can always tell when you’ve shoehorned something into the text that isn’t there, making the text say something that it doesn’t say. Better to do one of two things: a) if you deem the current cultural moment important enough to address on Sunday morning, offer a 5-10 minute intro before your sermon where you stop and say something like, “We are going to continue through our current series, but I felt it important to address this . . . .” b) schedule a special time for a talk on the subject or c) send an email or post a blog with your thoughts on the subject. d) if it’s really, really important, change your Sunday morning message and adjust your schedule. I think this option should be used sparingly, otherwise, you become a slave to the news cycle rather than a servant of the text of Scripture.
Other ways to address cultural issues:
There are other ways to address cultural issues than the Sunday morning worship time. For instance, churches could schedule a series of classes or talks on specific issues. Tim Keller has done this with great success at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, building an event around a particular topic. Matt Chandler has also done this at Village Church in the Dallas Fort Worth area with forums on weeknights. I’ve seen other churches do similar things. I kind of like this format. It allows the church to go deep on particular issues in a way that may not fit for a Sunday morning series. It might also allow the church to leverage expertise from the congregation or from outside the church, giving people the opportunity to hear important perspectives from issue experts.
The church may also see fit to partner with other evangelical churches in the area to host a conference on a particularly important cultural issue or point their people to conferences hosted by other Christian organizations (like ERLC, for instance!). Other ways to educate and inform people is through targeted teaching in small group sessions, book studies, and the use of the church’s online media (blogs, videos, podcasts).
Bottom line: Pastors should not ignore cultural issues, but should shepherd their people well by helping them think through issues biblically. There are ways to do this through faithful application of the text of Scripture.