As 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?