Posts Tagged ‘pastors and controversial issues’

One Sunday morning many months ago, I received a phone call from a layman who attended a church in another state.  He had read the following blog article discussing whether pastors should preach on controversial issues and he wanted to talk.


He told me how distressed he was that his pastor didn’t preach on anything controversial and wondered what, if anything, could be done about this problem.

We proceeded to have an impassioned discussion about the reluctance of most pastors to talk about the moral and social issues of our day.

Since the decision to affirm gay marriage in all fifty states by the Supreme Court in late June, I’ve been wondering why so many evangelical pastors have been reluctant to say much … if anything … about this issue.

Weeks ago, I wrote my mentor and asked him if he knew anyone I could speak with about why so few pastors talk about anything controversial anymore.

He directed me to a veteran pastor and former Christian university professor.  When we had lunch several days ago, I shared with him some reasons why I felt pastors were silent, and he told me, “You have an article right there.”

So … why don’t most pastors preach on controversial issues?

Let me give you six primary reasons:

First, most pastors are feelers rather than thinkers.

As I mentioned in my book Church Coup, Dr. Charles Chandler from the Ministering to Ministers Foundation states that on the Myers-Briggs test, 77% of all pastors are feelers, while only 23% are thinkers.

This does not mean that feeling pastors don’t think, nor that thinking pastors don’t feel.

But this statistic indicates that nearly four out of every five pastors are governed more by their feelings than their reasoning.  I would think this applies not only to their leadership and shepherding duties, but also to their preaching.

Here is an example of a scenario that I faced all the time when I was preparing a sermon:

Let’s say that I’m scheduled to preach on the eighth commandment this Sunday, “You shall not steal.”

As I’m preparing my message, I remember that a man in the church was caught embezzling funds at his work … an “investor” cheated another man in the church out of several thousand dollars … and a high school kid was arrested for shoplifting.

While I certainly don’t want to preach at those individuals … and given the announced topic, they might not show up that Sunday anyway … do I pull my verbal punches because I might say something that causes them pain?

My guess is that the “feeler” pastor will pull his punches.  The “thinker” pastor will prepare and preach as if those guilty of theft won’t even show up.

I’m more of a thinker than a feeler … more prophetic than personal … and even though the faces of the “thieves” would flash before my mind during sermon preparation, those faces wouldn’t stop me from saying what I believed God wanted me to say.

But those faces would affect the “feeler” pastor.

Second, most pastors lack the time or motivation to properly research a controversial issue.

I once heard that one of America’s great Bible teachers spent only 6 to 8 hours preparing each sermon.

Rick Warren promised the people of Saddleback in their early days that he would spend a minimum of 15 hours per week in sermon preparation.

We were taught in seminary that a pastor should spend 20 minutes in preparation for every minute in the pulpit.  That’s a minimum of 12 hours of preparation for a typical 35-minute message.  (Some homiletics professors say that a pastor should spend one hour in preparation for each minute in the pulpit, but that seems hopelessly unrealistic to me.)

In my case, I spent an average of 15 hours on every sermon I preached.

But 4 issues each required more than 20 hours of study: abortion, atheism, evolution, and gay marriage.

I studied my brains out for those messages because I needed to:

*know what I was talking about.

*familiarize myself with the various views.

*think through and refine my own position.

*present my material in a biblical and interesting manner.

*address any objections and questions that people might have after the message.

On those rare occasions when I scheduled a sermon on a major issue, I tried to clear my calendar ahead of time so I could devote my best thinking to that message.

Most pastors just won’t … or can’t … do that.

Third, most pastors would rather address spiritual topics than cultural ones.

Last year, I visited a megachurch close to my house.

The pastor was preaching through Ephesians and came to chapter 5, verse 18, which says:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit.

The first thing the pastor said was, “Now I’m not going to talk about alcohol.”

Alarms started going off in my brain.  I might even have said, “What?????” out loud.

If you’re a pastor, you have to talk about alcohol in this verse because Paul’s whole point contrasts alcohol with the Spirit’s filling.  Alcohol is a depressant … the Spirit is a stimulant.  Alcohol abuse leads to wastefulness … the Spirit leads to productivity … and so on.

I sensed this pastor was comfortable talking about the Spirit, but uncomfortable talking about alcohol.

But the passage clearly says “don’t get drunk” … not “you can’t ever drink anything.”

When the pastor came to the end of the chapter … where Paul compares the union of Jesus and His church to a marriage between a husband and wife … the pastor punted on the whole issue of gay marriage as well.

This is pietism, pure and simple … the spiritual view that all that matters in my life is my relationship with God and my relationships with God’s people.

But what about what’s happening out in the culture?

Many years ago, I gave a message on a culturally sensitive issue, and a man at my church … who was an electrician … thanked me profusely for that talk.  He said that now he could speak intelligently with his fellow electricians about that issue.

To me, that’s a major part of what Ephesians 4:12 means by “to prepare [equip] God’s people for works of service” … and I don’t think that service only applies to the four walls of the local church.

In fact, when a believer tries to share his faith in the marketplace, it’s common for an unbeliever to bring up the existence of God … the authority of Scripture … and the latest cultural issue.

If God’s people know how to answer people intelligently (1 Peter 3:15), they’ll be better evangelists.

Fourth, many pastors are afraid they will turn off potential converts by discussing hot topics.

Several years ago, I attended an Easter service where the pastor … who was preaching on Christ’s resurrection … twice criticized the practice of abortion.

That seemed odd to me … especially since there’s nothing in any of those resurrection texts about killing a fetus.

My concern was, “Of all Sundays in the year when you want to focus on Christ alone, this is the one!”  His comments turned me off … and, in the words of Neil Diamond, “I’m a believer.”

I once knew a veteran pastor who espoused this “drop in” technique.  He believed in discussing a hot issue for just a sentence or two … and then moving on to the main issue.

But for me, I’d rather devote an entire message to a controversial issue and “make a case” for the biblical/Christian position.

I would never just spring such a topic on a congregation.  Instead, I’d announce it ahead of time, so that those who didn’t want to hear that message could plan not to attend.

Back in the early 1990s, when I was relearning how to preach, I noticed that Bill Hybels … pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, the nation’s largest church at the time … never shied away from anything controversial.

In fact, he did a series called “Our Modern Moral Trifecta,” bringing separate messages on abortion, racism, and homosexuality.

Hybels is primarily an evangelist … by his own admission … but wow, did he ever hit those topics hard … and his church was reaching unbelievers in droves!

I believe that every area of a Christian’s life should be lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ: your home life … your work life … your financial life … your citizenship … your sex life … your leisure time … your church participation … everything.

If that’s true, then shouldn’t a pastor be willing to preach about anything and everything as well?

As my friend Dr. Donald Shoemaker says, “Preaching that avoids what is timely is unworthy preaching.”

Fifth, many pastors are afraid they will hurt or offend people in their congregations.

Here’s how this thinking goes:

“I don’t want to preach that homosexual behavior is wrong because I’m sure there are some gay people in my congregation and I don’t want to condemn their behavior and turn them off to Christ.”

“I don’t want to preach against adultery because I know people in this church who have had affairs and talking about the issue will only bring them pain.”

My first reaction to this kind of explanation is, “Then why didn’t you become a therapist instead of a preacher?”

I recently heard a Jewish commentator on the radio chastise evangelical pastors for not talking about anything controversial, and I thought to myself, “Christians leaders are farming out these issues to Bill O’Reilly … Rush Limbaugh … Sean Hannity … and Michael Medved because we refuse to address them.”

I believe a pastor has to do two things with any controversial issue that is clearly mentioned in Scripture:

*He has to say, “This is where the Bible comes down on this issue.  Let me tell you what this means … why God said this … and how doing this will help you in your life.”

I believe it’s helpful for unbelievers to hear a pastor talk about sanctification … how to lead a holy life … so he or she knows what God expects of them if they do come to faith in Christ.

Paul loved to preach the gospel … as he did in Romans 1-11 … but then he talked about how to live a Christian life in chapters 12-16.

We can’t do one or the other: we need to do both.

*A pastor also has to say, “If you’ve crossed the line on this issue, and you’ve confessed your sin to God, He will forgive you … each and every time.  But you may also have to repent by changing your behavior.  We’re here to help, and here’s the help we provide.”

If a pastor just rips on people who have violated God’s Word, I agree … that’s counterproductive and harmful preaching.

A pastor also needs to tell people how to be liberated from their sins … and if you do that, you can preach on anything.

Finally, many pastors don’t believe that a sermon is the best place to address issues of controversy.

This was the view of the late Robert Schuller.  For years, he taught that controversial issues should be addressed in a classroom setting so there could be adequate discussion of all sides.

It’s interesting to me that Blll Hybels’ mentor was Schuller … but that Hybels deviated from Schuller’s practice on this.

It’s also interesting to me that the only time I ever heard Schuller preach in person at the Crystal Cathedral … in February 2000 … he preached on “You shall not commit adultery” … and he hit a grand slam with that message.  In fact, it’s probably the best sermon I’ve ever heard on that topic.

So even Schuller … the non-controversial television evangelist … couldn’t always shirk the tough issues!

Here are five brief ways that pastors can wisely address controversial issues in their churches:

*Preach on the ones you feel strongly about.  I’ve preached on abortion once in 36 years of preaching.  While I abhor the practice, it’s not something that has touched my life personally.  But once I preached on the issue, my position became the position of my church, and if anyone asked where we stood, either I or the other leaders could tell them.

*Invite guest speakers to address specific issues.  When I pastored in the San Francisco Bay Area, I invited Dr. Philip Johnson from the University of California at Berkeley to speak on a Sunday.  His specialty was law and logic, which he used to decimate macroevolution in many of his books.  Or if a pastor doesn’t feel comfortable addressing abortion, he could invite a speaker from the local Christian pregnancy center to address his congregation.

*Allow for people to ask you questions in public after you preach.  This was the regular practice of Dr. R. T. Kendall from Westminster Chapel in London.  When he was done preaching, he arranged for microphones to be set up in the aisles, and people would come and make comments or ask questions after the sermon.  I love this approach and wanted to incorporate it in my last ministry, but we could never work out the logistics.  But I think people would learn a lot more from a post-sermon dialogue than they would from an exclusively pastoral monologue.

*Create a small group devoted to discussing hot topics.  I once led a group where we discussed a different issue every week from a biblical viewpoint.   It could be capital punishment one week … Arminianism and Calvinism the next week … and gun control the following week.  I led the discussion, but let group members select the topics.  This kind of group isn’t for everybody, but it provides a much-needed outlet for people who want to delve into issues with more depth.

*The pastor teaches a midweek class on various issues every summer.  For years, I taught a class on Tuesday nights during the summer on hot topics.  The class was usually well-attended … people got to make comments and ask questions … and I even divided people up into smaller groups for more focused discussion.  If there’s a Bible school or seminary professor in your church who could do this instead of the pastor, that’s fine … but I think it’s important to offer these kinds of classes on a regular basis.

I realize this article has been a bit long, but I wanted to deliver my soul on this topic.  Thanks so much for reading!

What are your thoughts on this subject?

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I recently attended a church service where the pastor engaged in questionable ethics while preaching.  While the congregation seemed to love what he was saying, I felt that he was manipulating them so they would give him the response that he desired.

Having heard … and given … hundreds of sermons in my lifetime, let me share with you four principles for evaluating the ethics of a sermon:

First, the pastor needs to be honest with the biblical text.

When a pastor practices exegesis, he’s taking out truth that God placed in Scripture.  But when a pastor practices eisegesis, he’s putting into the text his own thoughts and ideas … acting like his ideas are better than God’s.

I heard a message a few years ago that I thought was fabulous.  The preacher spoke from James 3:1-12 on taming the tongue.  He dealt with every key phrase in the passage in a way we could all understand.

The message was so good I wondered if I should ever preach again.

But some pastors leapfrog the tough phrases … step around sentences with difficult syntax … and avoid all the tough stuff.  When they read Scripture out loud, it’s unedited … but when they preach it, it’s edited.


Maybe they don’t understand the text they’re studying … or they can’t translate biblical ideas into contemporary language … or they don’t think certain ideas will resonate with their hearers.

When I was a youth pastor and still learning to preach, I chose a text for a sermon.  When I started studying the passage, I discovered it wasn’t saying what I thought it said … and I had little time left to shift gears.  As I recall, the sermon bombed … but I could not in all good conscience twist Scripture to fit my preconceived ideas.

Ask yourself: is my pastor teaching what God’s Word really says … or what he wants it to say?

Second, the pastor needs to preach the entirety of Scripture.

When I was ordained, I was charged with preaching “the whole counsel of God.”  The phrase comes from Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27.

Paul told his friends, “While I was with you, I never held back the Word of God” (NIV).  The phrase is usually taken to mean, “Preach everything that’s in the Bible … whether popular or unpopular.”

If a pastor is truly called by God to preach the whole counsel of God, that pastor will eventually have to preach on controversial issues like homosexual conduct … racism … loving money … capital punishment … gay marriage … substance abuse … hell … child abuse … the role of women in the church … and even political issues.

Here’s why: the Bible speaks to most of these issues, either through direct commands or general principles.  If a pastor teaches what Scripture says about these issues, then his people can penetrate the culture with biblical arguments.  But if the pastor fails to teach what Scripture says, then his people may adopt the mindset of the culture by default.

If a pastor routinely sidesteps controversial issues to avoid conflict inside his church, he’ll cultivate a congregation that’s biblically ignorant and cannot intellligently converse with those outside the church.

Ask yourself: is my pastor dealing with tough issues biblically, or is he sidestepping controversy to be popular?

Third, the pastor must give credit for materials he’s borrowed from others.

I once heard a pastor do a long series on an issue he knew little about … and the more I heard him preach, the more convinced I was that he was “borrowing” his information from another source.

In fact, I was pretty sure I knew who that source was.

My dilemma: if I did the research, and found out my hunch was right, what was I supposed to do with that information?  Confront the pastor?  Take it to the board?

In my case, I decided not to do the research … but plagiarism is a serious matter, especially in Christian circles.

It is unethical for a pastor to take someone else’s quotation … or story … or sermon … and pass it off as his own without acknowledging his source.

In fact, it’s not just borrowing … it’s stealing.

I once used an outline on unanswered prayer that I kept from Dr. Curtis Mitchell from Biola … but when I preached a sermon on that topic, I told the congregation that I was using his outline but that the sermon content was my own.

Whenever I used a story I got from someone else, I would say, “Rick Warren tells the story …” or “That story from R. C. Sproul illustrates the point that …”

When a pastor stands before a congregation, they have the right to expect that their pastor interacted with God and His Word the previous week … and that he didn’t “buy” a sermon from a website for $15 and act like it was his.

Ask yourself: does my pastor give credit to others for ideas, or does he act like they’re all his own?

Finally, the pastor should never manipulate people into doing what he wants.

I know someone who attended a church where the pastor tried to persuade people to attend church services … and would use anger to get his way.

He would say, “If you don’t come to the Sunday night service, I hope your TV blows up.”  (And he would say it often.)

Maybe he was just kidding … or maybe he really meant it.

I learned early in my preaching ministry that “going to the whip” only works once.  A pastor can “guilt” people … or shame them … or threaten them … but most people see through it … especially when a pastor tries to manipulate people into attending services more often or donating more money.

If your pastor does this, here’s how to put a stop to it:

Ask him kindly to show you the verse in the Bible where Jesus or Paul or the apostles use guilt and threaten people if they don’t come to church or give more money.

Of course … the verse isn’t there.

Many pastors use these tactics because they unconsciously seek to control people’s behavior … but it shows an appalling lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit.

I once served under a pastor whose ministry was not going well.  One Sunday, he told the congregation, “The Lord told me that someone is going to respond to the invitation today.”

We sang 12 verses of “Just As I Am,” and no one came forward.

I can’t see hearts, but I suspect that the congregation was being manipulated that Sunday.

Ask yourself: does my pastor tend to manipulate or motivate people with his words?

Let me make one final statement:

If a pastor has been called to teach Scripture … and he trusts the Holy Spirit to use him … and he’s walking with God … and he has prayerfully studied God’s Word before preaching … THERE IS NO REASON TO USE FLESHLY METHODS TO ILLICIT A RESPONSE FROM GOD’S PEOPLE.

In fact, the desire for a visible response may be more about satisfying a pastor’s ego than anything else.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ethics of preaching.

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