I had the privilege of teaching a seminar on preaching this week with about 40 really gifted pastors from around the Southwest. In one of the sessions together we got to talking about how preachers should speak from the pulpit about social issues that have political aspects to them. It was the clear consensus from just about everyone in the room - including myself - that most of us who preach regularly get apprehensive when it comes to preaching about various social issues, not because we don't believe we have something from God and from his Word to say about the issues, but because we all feel trapped between extreme voices within the Church on both sides of the various hot cultural issues of the day.
Just this week I read an interview, in one of the various ministry magazines, with a pastor/preacher who is highly active in various social and political issues. In the interview the pastor was quoted as saying that any pastor who will not speak out on political issues is not being tactful but is displaying the utmost in whimpishness and spinelessness.
At one level he is probably correct. Those of us who shy away from addressing social and political issues in our preaching probably do so in part out of fear. But the problem for me is that the Christian leaders who are most vocal about the need for pastors to be more outspoken in the pulpit are usually closely aligned with one party or the other. So I think what they want are those who agree with their particular political views and political methodologies to speak up because these same leaders are usually very critical, and often resort to name-calling, against those who speak up but who take a different stance, or advocate a different methodological approach, than theirs. I may wrong, but in this particular case I don't think the pastor in the interview is really interested in having all pastors preach on social issues. I think his primary interest is that pastors agree with his political and social interpretation of the gospel, allign with his political party, accept his political methodologies, and then preach on social issues. All others are whimps or heretics.
The criticism for pastors comes from both the conservative and liberal sides. It is not unusual for pastor/preachers to get attacks from those who think the Church is being too close-minded or too legalistic in its stance on various social concerns. Not too long ago I had to decide to take a pastoral stand on how the particular church I lead would approach a significant social issue. After I (with the advice of other pastors and in conversation with the church board) decided how we would address the issue. We in essence decided that although we agreed deeply with the conservative point of view on the issue, we did not share in many of the conservative tactics and so we as a church would take a different approach. I spoke clearly on the issue, but as a church we decided to work toward the issue in the way we thought God was leading us to go. Predictably, I ended up taking hits from both sides. I took criticism from some on the left for being too narrow-minded, and I received a letter from a prominent conservative Christian leader calling me the low point in the 100+ year history of PazNaz. It wasn't enough to agree with him in principle. I had to agree with him in practice also.
With that in mind you can understand why a room full of 40 preachers this week was looking for help in figuring out how to approach social and political issues in sermons. As preachers we all want to be faithful to what we believe is right and is in line with a Christlike approach to the gospel, but it is very difficult to do that in a church world that increasingly reflects in its dialogue the extreme tensions found in the political dialogue of the day. The loudest voices on both margins dominate the political and theological conversations and those of us somewhere in the middle get drowned out.
That is why I am so thankful for a brand new book written by Dr. Dan Boone - A Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things that Divide Us. Dan is the president of Trevecca Nazarene University and he is someone that I consider to be one of the most thoughtful, articulate, and courageous leaders in the Church of the Nazarene.
In this new book Dan argues that the important conversations that we need to have in the Church don't take place as often as they should because of the intimidation caused by the voices on the margins. In the first section of the book entitled "Jihad in the Church" (a section that I wish was required reading for every Evangelical in America), Dan covers seven tactics used by people on extreme both sides to label, villify, misquote, and intimidate others.
I had the privilege of reading the manuscript for this book several months ago before it came out and I will admit that I wept through the first seven chapters. As a child of the Church who is in the middle of my tenure as a pastor, I am beyond burdened about the tone of dialogue and rhetoric going on in the Evangelical world. I remember reading Richard Mouw's book Uncommon Decency almost two decades ago and resonating with the similar themes of civility in Christian dialogue that he highlights there. But in just a handful of years the advent of email and the internet has meant that extreme voices don't even have to spend $.49 to send a letter anymore. They can simply click a button and send statements of destruction literally around the world to thousands of people in an instant. (And once that button is pushed you can't get it back). There was a day when a person had to be biblically and theologically qualified to get their work published by a publishing company. Today self-publishing can be done easily, and is done regularly. And one does not need to be thoughtful to build a web page or start a blog. (This blog being no exception). Any theological illiterate can create a web page and become the faceless source of "discernment" for congregations of Google-ers.
As Boone points out there are at least two tragedies when dialogue in the Church reflects that of the political culture of today. The first is the destruction of ministries and the divisions formed in the Church. Especially in the Wesleyan tradition we have forgotten that important motto often associated with John Wesley: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, but in all things charity."
Secondly, and more central to his book, when we as the Church can't have thoughtful conversations about the most pressing issues of the day, our children go looking for places that will talk tactfully and openly about those issues. However, most of those places are not shaped by the framework of the gospel and so while the Church fights, our children walk out because we are not perceived by them as relevant to their lives or to their world.
The rest of the book takes on several issues in a thoughtful way. Dan takes on women in ministry, alcohol, sexuality, homosexuality, science and religion, and the emerging Church. Each of these chapters comes out of conversations he has helped lead on the campus and Trevecca and they are extremely thoughtful. These chapters are very courageous and he will take hits from both sides for what he writes. I don't agree with everything he writes in this section. But that's the point isn't it? We can model thoughtful dialogue with each other on these issues. We can trust each other's hearts, even if we question each other's heads.
The last section gives really helpful practices and virtues that can help us as Christians learn "the more excellent way" of charitable discourse.
Thanks, Dan, for your courage in giving voice to some of us who are trying to walk faithfully with you in the via media between the extreme voices in the culture and in the Church. I am encouraging every believer I know to pick this book up and find some friends to discuss it with. I would like to make it required reading at PazNaz. You might not like everything Dan has to say. But we can talk about it. Can't we?