Pete works for a high tech company in a major American city. He’s 32-years old, has a Master’s degree in computer programming, and is married with one child.
Oh, yes … Pete has also been a Christian for less than two years.
Some of Pete’s co-workers know he’s a Christian. He attends a prayer meeting during lunch time on Wednesdays, and he’s had to turn down a few social invitations on Sundays because he takes his family to church.
Pete has been growing in his new-found faith, but something happened at work yesterday that’s really bothering him.
During a break, someone brought up the topic of gay marriage. Pete tried to avoid the discussion, but before he could leave the room, his boss said, “Hey, Pete, you’re a Christian, aren’t you? What does your church think about gay marriage?”
Pete sat there tongue-tied. He honestly didn’t know.
Coming from a secular background, Pete’s family automatically took the positions of their political party on every moral/social issue imaginable. On those rare occasions when Pete’s family did discuss a controversial issue, they spent most of their time ridiculing those who didn’t agree with their views.
Pete knew what his family of origin thought about gay marriage – but he didn’t know where his church family stood.
Because his pastor never said anything about it. Not once.
Since Pete didn’t know what his church or pastor believed about the issue, he was uncertain where he himself stood. So when Pete got home, he went online to find out what Christians believe about gay marriage, but what he read just confused him even more.
He asked a church friend about the subject, but his friend said, “I honestly don’t know where we stand on that one. But personally, I’m all for it.”
So Pete sent his pastor an email, asking him where the church stood on gay marriage. The pastor replied, “This issue is so divisive that we have decided not to discuss it.”
When Pete went back to work the next day, he candidly told his boss, “You know, I don’t know where my church stands on gay marriage.” Pete’s boss said, “Well, I’m all for it, and here’s why …”
I chose gay marriage in this post merely to illustrate a point: since many pastors are afraid to speak on anything controversial, the culture is capturing Christian hearts and minds by default.
Let me make four points about this:
First, Christians want to hear their pastor’s position on relevant moral and social issues.
Back in the 1990s, I pastored a seeker-targeted church in Silicon Valley. People were always asking me what my views were on the issues of the day. I’d share with them positions informed by Scripture, but sometimes I’d wonder if they’d leave the church over what I’d said. In nearly every case, they stayed.
One year, I was in the bookstore at Willow Creek Community Church, and I noticed that Bill Hybels had preached a 3-sermon series called Our Modern Moral Trifecta. I bought the series and went home to listen how he handled sermons on abortion, racism, and homosexuality. His sermons were biblical, practical, sensitive … and edgy. In my mind, Hybels hit the ball out of the park with each message.
Did addressing those topics empty out the church? Hardly. Willow was the largest church in America at the time. In the same way, Pastor Don Wilson touched on a variety of cultural issues at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix when my wife and I attended there from 2010-2012 … and the church grew into the stratosphere.
I only visited the Crystal Cathedral one time – in February 2000. That morning, Robert Schuller spoke on the seventh commandment – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – and he absolutely nailed that message. I know that Schuller had a reputation for soft-pedaling tough issues, but that morning, I was proud of him for telling it like it is. People want the truth.
Look, I know there are some issues we probably shouldn’t touch … mostly because the Bible doesn’t touch on them. For example, in 36 years of ministry, I don’t think I’ve ever said anything about gun control … although if I pastored in Newtown, Connecticut, I might be forced into taking a position on that subject.
But if the Bible is clear about an issue – and it’s clear on marriage (Moses, Jesus, and Paul all agree on its essence) – then we can speak about it with boldness.
Second, a pastor may only have to speak on a controversial issue once.
I don’t want to attend a church where the pastor is ripping on abortion or condemning the government all the time. Even if you agree with the pastor, it’s wearying. If some pastors are thinking, “I won’t preach about moral/social issues because some people are going to insist I speak about them regularly,” then I understand the reluctance to address them.
But if a pastor speaks on a moral/social issue once – and really does his homework – that may be the only time he ever has to speak about it … and homework may include making sure there is a consensus among the governing leaders on that topic.
After Bill Hybels spoke on abortion, churchgoers could not only buy the tape (now CD) of his message, they could also buy a booklet that covered the same ground. If anybody in the church asked, “What is the pastor’s position on abortion?”, they would simply be directed to the bookstore. Since Hybels had already gone on record about abortion, he didn’t need to deal with it repeatedly … and those who knew his position could represent him accurately.
I tried to include at least one culturally relevant topic inside a series maybe 3-4 times a year. For example, when I did a series on tough theological questions, I dealt with the New Atheists. I’d announce the topic ahead of time, and if people didn’t want to come that Sunday, that was their decision.
But if a pastor is going to speak about a controversial issue, he really needs to know his stuff. When I spoke about intelligent design at my last church, I studied more for that message than any I’ve ever given. Although the message was long, I remember receiving applause from the congregation when I was done … not because they were glad I was finished, but because they knew I cared enough about them to do my homework. (An atheist became a theist that day.)
And after that Sunday, if anybody ever asked me, “Jim, what do you think about intelligent design?”, I could give them a copy of my manuscript or send them to the bookstore to buy the CD. Nowadays people can go to their church’s website and watch an archived video message or download a podcast.
People want their questions addressed. They want the nuances. They want to represent Christ well, both at home and in the culture. Seems to me that’s part of equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry.
Third, there are some issues that pastors cannot ignore.
When the Bay Area was hit by a massive earthquake on Tuesday, October 17, 1989, the area was also hit by scores of aftershocks afterwards. The earthquake was the only issue on anybody’s mind. So when Sunday came, I preached on Psalm 46, which begins: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way …” People needed assurance that God was still sovereign after that quake.
After 9/11 – which happened on a Tuesday as well – it wasn’t time to say, “Well, we were in Ephesians 3 last week, so we’re in Ephesians 4 this week.” A shaken group needed to know that God was still in control, so we talked about the differences between Christians and Muslims and how what happened fit into God’s ultimate plan.
On occasion, pastors have to address the issues that are foremost on people’s minds. For example, during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal in 1999, some churches openly talked about that issue because topics like leadership character and moral outrage were being discussed all over the country.
Six weeks before the vote on Proposition 8 in California, I preached on Jesus’ view of marriage from Matthew 19. Although some people didn’t like what Jesus said … or what I said … I felt that God was compelling me to preach on the issue even though our community was a gay haven. As Paul asked in Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Scripture, Jesus, and the Christian church have a unified position on marriage. If pastors don’t let their people know where they stand on this issue, they’ll turn to NPR or Rush Limbaugh or MSNBC or Michael Savage for their information instead of the Word of God … and they’ll take a political position rather than a biblical one.
Every church in America is going to have to take a position on gay marriage, one way or the other. Isn’t it better for pastors to lead the way than to lead from behind?
Finally, pastors need to speak on tough issues with a gracious tone.
I grew up in fundamentalist churches. There’s a tone that fundamentalists preachers use that I despise. It’s condescending, sanctimonious, and condemning. They don’t say “we” but “you.” They act like they’re perfect and you’re a mess.
If a pastor is going to speak on a controversial topic using that kind of tone … forget it.
But where the Bible is clear, let’s preach boldly but lovingly. Where the Bible is silent, let’s preach humbly … but let’s not shy away from topics because they’re controversial.
Pastors once spoke freely about heterosexual marriage. It was the most benign of topics. Because marriage has now become a topic of dispute, are we going to avoid it because it might provoke some opposition?
But we can’t shut our Bibles when people need a word from God. Read Matthew 22-23. Jesus never shied away from discussing any issue … and He always based His positions in the Word of God.
Pastors should feel confident and free enough to speak on any topic … because the Petes attending our churches need to know God’s viewpoints on today’s issues.
Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.