Should I Go Political on Sunday?

pulAs Wesleyan preachers we have a long history of preaching politically. At the youth camp I attended in North Carolina as a student, I could walk over to the old Wesleyan Methodist church building and put my finger in the bullet holes. Those preachers were preaching abolition in a slavery state. It is difficult to imagine something more political or more divisive than that. They were calling slavery sin and an evil and rejecting the hermeneutic that claimed the Bible ordained slavery since it mentions it, commands slaves to submit, and condoned slaves’ free choice to remain slaves for life. They were political. How do we maintain that commitment to social justice without losing our scriptural moorings? How do we proclaim prophetic truth without merely grinding personal axes?

Writing a sermon on a public issue is one of the most challenging pulpit tasks a pastor faces. A public issue is one that is relevant to congregation members as citizens and requires an ability to bring their Christian convictions to bear on civic concerns. As a result, it is generally political in nature and requires an extra level of sensitivity to differences among listeners from the pastor.

I believe if you follow these steps to write a sermon on a public issue you will be faithful to the Christian tradition, to the congregation, and the context in which the issue arises. In short, you will preach publically and faithfully at the same time.

1. Prayerfully reexamine whether or not this issue is something to preach about directly.

Political debates and issues are constantly flooding any democratic state’s consciousness. Whether it is issues of security and defense, economic viability and strategy, or civic policy surrounding people groups and circumstances issues are always around. Decide if this public issue fits these criteria:

– Of pressing concern for your particular community.
– Has serious ramifications for people’s well being in the world.
– Requires a distinctively Christian witness.

An upcoming vote on policing of immigration policies in your state likely fits the bill whereas a town hall discussion of whether or not to repave Maple Street may not quite reach the bar.

2. Diagnose the public issue for what is really at stake.

Become familiar with the actual details of the issue relying on statistical data, several sources of reporting, actual copies of bills and proposals (rather than news media summaries), and other investigative activities that will educate you on the issue at hand. What is at stake for the various congregation members in your church? What is at stake for community members? What understandable motivations are behind the various positions on the issue? Avoid giving simple and easy glosses to complicated issues.

3. Reflect theologically on the public issue.

Your sermon’s goal is not to tell people what to think, but how to think as Christians in your faith tradition. The goal is to open up more possibilities for faithful Christian response while closing down possibilities that contradict the Christian tradition. What theological themes might help your people frame this issue faithfully? Are impoverished people groups involved? How might hospitality, grace, redemption, and reconciliation themes give perspective to the issue?

Find one or at most a few texts that speak to the theological framework you think your congregation should hold for considering the issue.

Do not simply grab a concordance and look for a verse that contains a key word you want to address. Instead reflect on your knowledge of scripture searching for verses that intentionally address the theological perspective you think best frames the debate for Christians.

4. Allow the text to speak in its own voice.

Once you have decided on a text (or texts) you will need to give it full exegetical attention. This is why you want to limit your choices of texts. The temptation to use proof texts to support your own political position is incredibly heightened with public issues sermons. Study the text in several versions, ask imaginative questions of the text, study its historical and literary background, place it in context with its surroundings, and seek to continually ask how this passage reframes this issue theologically. Be especially careful of turning biblical passages into party-line slogans and stump speeches.

5. Summarize the theological claim of the passage in a sentence.

Shoot to make this sentence clear, informative, and relevant to the broader issue this particular public issue is involved in. Consider reading this sentence to someone else in your congregation during the week to see if the sentence is clear enough. Haddon Robinson calls this the “Big Idea”, Tom Long calls it the “Function Statement,” and Fred Craddock calls it the “one thing, and only one thing” you want to get across. Whatever you call it, you need it.

6. Allow the passage to change your perspective.

If the passage does not change your perspective in any way your exegesis should be suspect in your own mind. It is highly unlikely that you can wrestle with scripture prayerfully and not be shifted in your perspective by it, even if in the most incremental degree. No matter how clear and central you think your position is on a public issue, the scripture will likely challenge and upset your preconceived notion. If it has not done so, dig more in the text and commentaries and listen to other people’s views of that passage.

7. Imagine or examine your congregation’s potential objections or concerns.

You will need to give voice to the various perspectives and concerns represented in your community on this particular issue during your sermon. If they do not feel heard, you will likely not be heard. Attempt to understand their point of view from their point of view with significant empathy. Return to the passage with these perspectives in mind and allow the text to speak to them. One way to ensure you will come across more thoughtfully to differing persons is to actually discuss your sermon with people who hold opposing convictions to yours. They do not have to convince you. Yet their concerns can temper your tone, and inform your rationale.

8. Gather sermon illustrations or examples from other Christian communities on similar issues.

A public issue sermon still needs to move beyond mere information and argument just as any other sermon does. Metaphors, images, or concrete examples of real lives of faith are what it takes to make any sermon come off the page.

Keep this primary focus in mind: Show your people how to think as Christians; do not show them what to think as Christians. Give them space throughout your sermon to come up with other faithful alternatives, but challenge them to think about the issue from a Christian perspective, not just a political one. Church is not a political vehicle, but it does address political issues.

A Few More Tips on Public Issue Sermons:

  • Sermon illustrations should demonstrate faithful Christian thinking and witness, not simply particular political positions.
  • Avoid choosing texts that are so generic they could apply to any and all public issues.
  • Seek to be informative, empathetic, interested, and holistically engaged with the issue.
  • Be sure you do not have any vested interest in preaching on the particular public issue.
  • Avoid using the pulpit as a power move to tell others how to act or what to think.
  • Before preaching, ask yourself how a seeker from a different political persuasion will receive your message. Even if they disagree with your way of thinking, will your tone woo them toward Christ or push them away?

What advice would you give to other Wesleyan preachers who are seeking to address public and politically charged issues with faithfulness?

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6 thoughts on “Should I Go Political on Sunday?

  1. I also recently read some comments by John Michael Talbot, a Catholic, Monk/Musician, on politics. I think it is worth sharing:

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    I have been gladly silent during the Republican and Democratic Conventions. I will only say this:

    We had all better pray! I feel like a person on a ship that has gotten so big that no one remembers how it was built, how it operates, and how to pilot it. I am relying on The Pilot.., Jesus! My citizenship in an earthly nation is good, but is secondary to membership in the Kingdom of God and the Church. When that is fully in peace I remain at peace.

    As is usual, though I found found good things in both, neither Convention fully represents my position as a Catholic Christian obedient to the teaching of the Church as found in our bishops and Pope. Both used talking points and set up straw men to knock down that did not fairly represent their opponents. Eloquence abounded, but real content and solutions were rarely heard. That’s convention politics that rallies the base and converts the undecided who are unsure of the facts.

    As a Catholic I stand for real religious freedom, pro life, traditional marriage, care of our poor, investment in the future through education, employment and health care for everyone, a military that insures peace, and care for the earth we all share, just to name a few things. We also must realistically balance the budget, and pay off the debt! Neither party represents THAT platform. Only Jesus and the Church stands consistently for those things.

    As did Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, we need to prayer with and for both parties represented in the recent conventions.

  2. I discovered an article from Relevant Magazine: http://bit.ly/QwyLXm

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    Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity—the environment in which our sin is excused. Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas.

    Not only are believers excused for their political indiscretions, but they are often applauded for committing them. Slander is explained away as righteous anger; winning arguments are esteemed higher than truthful ones (whether or not the “facts” align); and those who stir up dissension are given the pulpit. So I balk when pastors tell me the Church should engage in the political process. Why would we do that? The political process is dirty and broken and far from Jesus. Paranoia and vitriol are hardly attractive accessories for the bride of Christ.

    Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.Here are seven things to remember about politics:

    1. Both political parties go to church.
    There’s a Christian Left and, perhaps even less well-known, there’s a secular Right. Edwina Rogers is a Republican lobbyist and head of the Secular Coalition for America. She’s a Republican, and her entire job is devoted to keeping religion out of the U.S. government. Party lines are drawn in chalk, and they’re not hard to cross. The Church must be engaged in politics, but it must not be defined by the arbitrary lines in politics.

    2. Political talk radio and cable “news” only want ratings.
    When media personalities tell you they are on a moral crusade, they are lying to you. These personalities get rich by instilling fear and paranoia in their listeners. If we give our favorite political ideologues more time than we give Jesus, we are following the wrong master. There are unbiased, logical and accurate news sources out there. But it’s up to you to be a good steward of information—to fact-check for yourself, take ideology with a grain of salt and make decisions based on facts rather than gossip.

    3. Those who argue over politics don’t love their country more than others.
    They just love to argue more than others. Strife and quarreling are symptoms of weak faith (Proverbs 10:12; 2 Timothy 2:23-25; James 4:1) and are among the things the Lord “detests.” We need to rise above the vitriol and learn to love our neighbors the way God commanded us. We need to love our atheist neighbor who wants to keep creationism out of schools; our Democrat neighbor who wants to make gay marriage and abortion legal; our Republican neighbor who celebrates death penalty statistics; and yes, even the presidential candidate from the other side.

    4. Thinking your party’s platform is unflawed is a mistake.
    The social policies of your party were constructed by imperfect politicians fueled by ambition. It’s nearsighted to canonize them—and it will make you obsolete in a few years. Every four years, the parties adopt a current, updated platform at their respective conventions. And while they stay on general tracks, every four years the platform evolves to meet the needs of a growing, modernized and changing party. The Republican party of today doesn’t look like it did 10 years ago. We need to know when to change our views to meet a changing culture—and when to stand by them.

    5. Scripture tells us to pray for our governing leaders (2 Timothy 2:1-4) and to respect those in authority (Romans 13:1-7).
    Translation: if you’re mocking your governing leaders on Facebook, the Holy Spirit is grieved. We should spend more time honoring our leaders and less time vilifying them. This doesn’t mean praying the President will be impeached; it doesn’t mean praying your candidate will win. God commands us to pray for our leaders—for their wisdom, for their hearts and for them to be led by Him.

    6. Don’t be paranoid.
    The country is not going to be destroyed if your candidate loses. As 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Stand up and demonstrate what God has given you. America has functioned—albeit, at varying levels of success—for years under the direction of alternating Democrat and Republican control, and at every flip, the other side thought it was the end of the world. It’s not. And if we’re a Church that believes God is in control, we have to believe that He is the one in control of the end times—not Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney and not whoever succeeds them.

    7. Stop saying, “This is the most important election in the history of our nation.
    ”It’s not. The most important election in the history of our nation was when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Before that, we thought it was okay to own people. Every generation thinks it’s living in the most important moment in history. We’re not, our parents were not and our children probably won’t be. And that’s OK.

  3. Dave, thanks for the encouragement. Floyd I enjoyed reading these articles through. Thanks for posting them. :) I especially got a great laugh out of “stop saying this is the most important election in the history of the nation.” Let’s see how many times have I heard that now? I suppose it’s logically possible that every succeeding election is NOW the single most important ever. They just keep ramping up. 😉

  4. I also want to highlight the “both political parties go to church” line. I remember a pastor I attended addressing the issue of people’s cars getting pamphletted in an election cycle. We had a diverse church. That meant that we had a diverse political environment too. He explicitly made it clear that the church didn’t approve of the pamphlets, and that both parties were welcome in Christ’s church. He did it in such a gracious way that virtually nobody walked away alienated.

  5. I obviously thought the two articles I posted were well written – I also thought the essay that started this thread was well written. Too often the church, or its members, attempt to say that “all Christians will ___________ ” (fill in the blank). There are some times when this is true (e.g. the cross), but many more times the walls we put up come from human decisions.

    My Bible Study and preaching series these past weeks have come from the book of James. James 3:17-18 reads “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” Too often politics hurt rather than heal. May we learn, this year, to share God’s grace with all – whether they be Democrats or Republicans.