If you watched this year’s Super Bowl, you might remember several ads that lifted up messages of inclusion, diversity, and kindness. They were reportedly in production for months, but given the nationwide atmosphere they seemed especially relevant, drawing expressions of gratitude from some and derision from others.
The thing about these ads, though, is that none of them mentioned any politician or hot-button issue by name. They simply painted a picture, even though many ended up reading current events into them.
They didn’t have to reference specific issues to promote love. But their messages were still pitch-perfect for our national moment.
But not all who prepare weekly sermons feel free to take this approach.
“If your pastor doesn’t mention this issue this Sunday, get up and walk out.”
“Preachers had better be re-writing their sermons this weekend after what just happened.”
“Your church is irrelevant if the sermon this Sunday isn’t about this policy change.”
I’ve seen sentiments like these shared on multiple social media platforms lately. The call for those in pulpits to address specific events set in motion by the new administration has been constant and strong. Many Progressive Christians long to hear those entrusted with the Ministry of Word take on the issues of the moment. Embedded in this longing is usually the implication that if a preacher does not directly engage the news cycle, they (and by extension, their church) are not fulfilling their vocation as disciples.
I understand. The old saying attributed to Karl Barth that one should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other is one that has endured for good reason. If the church is not wrestling with how to live its calling in real-time response to current events, it faces the danger of becoming Jesus’ proverbial salt that has lost its flavor; worthless to a world that often could benefit from a voice of reassurance and peacemaking, as well as challenging us to be about the work of love and justice.
And given that the weekly gathering of the people for worship continues to be the most visible and obvious opportunity to hear such a voice, it becomes natural for many to expect that the application of Bible to newspaper take place in that moment. The more pointed, overt, and prophetic, the better. Anything less than this would be unfaithful, especially in these current times when a new outrage seems to come every day.
But by adopting this approach to sermon preparation, preachers risk several things.
First, it will inevitably lead to a steady stream of “Saturday night specials” where only the headline the day before sets the weekly rhythm. This constant waiting until the last minute threatens to wear on one’s spiritual, mental, and physical health, to say nothing of how it might cut into time spent with family or observing Sabbath.
Second, it will place the preacher into a writing mode that is solely reactive, where our national climate dictates our message rather than the work of also listening to God’s voice through the scriptures and reconciling them with the particular needs of those who will gather to listen.
Times will come that call for sermons directly aimed at something that has happened in the past week—events or issues so devastating or all-consuming that will be at the forefront of people’s minds.
Newtown. Mother Emanuel. Drastic and draconian changes to immigration policy. They will require us to give a faithful response because they’re too big to put off.
But most weeks will call for painting a picture of what the people of God are meant to be about: welcome, service, breaking down walls of suspicion and hatred, and loving neighbor and enemy alike.
And if we preachers do our work right, a lot of that is going to sound like it’s speaking to our current times, whether we mean it to or not.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. He is author of the book Coffeehouse Contemplative: Spiritual Direction for the Everyday. He lives with his wife and two children in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves in ministry at Grace United Church of Christ. In his free time, he enjoys playing music, reading, and keeping up with Michigan sports teams. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture athttp://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.