By / Feb 23

How do pastors preach on contemporary cultural issues? Or should they? This is a question every pastor faces as he contemplates both the spiritual needs of his congregation, the questions swirling in society, and the weighty commission to preach the Word of God. When I pastored, I constantly wrestled with when to address certain topics, how to address them, and in what format. I’ve also observed and watched pastors of large and small churches organize their preaching. Here are a few ways I’ve seen pastors address contemporary cultural issues:

1. Textual: Personally I feel the most healthy way for pastors to structure their sermons is through the systematic preaching of Bible books. Expository preaching guides a pastor along, presenting to him every Sunday the text he is to preach, not the text he wants to preach. It helps avoid the kind of cut and paste approach we often take to favorite verses and help the hearer soak in the cultural background, the context, and the biblical author’s original intent. There is a richness to studying an entire book. What’s more, it prevents us from skipping over texts that are difficult or controversial. So how does this kind of preaching lend itself to addressing contemporary cultural issues? It simply forces us to address what the text addresses. It’s nearly impossible to preach through a book of the Bible and not hit on a contemporary cultural problem. The key for application is to not just apply the text in ways the congregation is already assuming, but in ways they are not. We shouldn’t just aim for amens from people who already agree, but to find ways in which they will be provoked to think differently. So, for instance, preaching on the Great Commission in Matthew forces us to think through what it means to “make disciples of all nations.” How does this affect our view of different people groups, of immigrants? Preaching through Genesis forces us to think through our views of the sanctity of human life. James confronts our attitudes toward the poor. Peter counsels us in our posture as counter-cultural “exiles” representing the Kingdom of Christ.

2. Topical: Though I favor expository preaching as the majority of preaching content during regular worship, I do believe there are occasions for topical messages on cultural issues, particularly during times of heightened awareness, such as dominant news story or special Sundays (Sanctity of Life Sunday, etc). I think this can be done in a well-thought out way. Sometimes this kind of message is called for if it is a time of crisis and this particular subject is all people are thinking about. There are ways to do this well, I think. First, I think even topical messages should be grounded in a specific text, if at all possible, to prevent proof texting. Some issues are easier to do this on than others. With some topical sermons on cultural issues, it’s helpful to walk through the development of an idea as it moves through the canon of Scripture. I’ve also seen pastors do a topical series on cultural topics. This can be done well also, but we should guard against picking topics that conform to our own political positions or topics that we know will automatically get amens from our audience. We should be holistic and address topics that the Bible clearly addresses, regardless of how they might be perceived in the audience. I think it’s also important, during a series like this, to ensure the congregation that the choice of cultural issues to be discussed is not exhaustive and that the Word of God is driving the messages, not a set of talking points from a political party or movement. Pastors also need to work especially hard at separating their personal political opinions from what God has declared in Scripture. What God’s people need from the pulpit is not a copy of what they get from cable news or talk radio. They need to hear the Word of God.

3. Shoehorn: A shoehorn is a hybrid between a textual message and a topical message and it’s something I was often tempted to do as a pastor. It goes something like this: You have your preaching calendar worked out for the entire year but something big comes up and you want to address it so you find a clever way to make the text you are assigned to preach speak to the current cultural moment. I don’t advise this. People can always tell when you’ve shoehorned something into the text that isn’t there, making the text say something that it doesn’t say. Better to do one of two things: a) if you deem the current cultural moment important enough to address on Sunday morning, offer a 5-10 minute intro before your sermon where you stop and say something like, “We are going to continue through our current series, but I felt it important to address this . . . .” b) schedule a special time for a talk on the subject or c) send an email or post a blog with your thoughts on the subject. d) if it’s really, really important, change your Sunday morning message and adjust your schedule. I think this option should be used sparingly, otherwise, you become a slave to the news cycle rather than a servant of the text of Scripture.

Other ways to address cultural issues: 

There are other ways to address cultural issues than the Sunday morning worship time. For instance, churches could schedule a series of classes or talks on specific issues. Tim Keller has done this with great success at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, building an event around a particular topic. Matt Chandler has also done this at Village Church in the Dallas Fort Worth area with forums on weeknights. I’ve seen other churches do similar things. I kind of like this format. It allows the church to go deep on particular issues in a way that may not fit for a Sunday morning series. It might also allow the church to leverage expertise from the congregation or from outside the church, giving people the opportunity to hear important perspectives from issue experts.

The church may also see fit to partner with other evangelical churches in the area to host a conference on a particularly important cultural issue or point their people to conferences hosted by other Christian organizations (like ERLC, for instance!). Other ways to educate and inform people is through targeted teaching in small group sessions, book studies, and the use of the church’s online media (blogs, videos, podcasts).

Bottom line: Pastors should not ignore cultural issues, but should shepherd their people well by helping them think through issues biblically. There are ways to do this through faithful application of the text of Scripture.

By / Apr 29

One of the things that I hope to see us change is there are some people for instance who will address abortion when it is Sanctity of Human Life Day. They will address some of these issues, but they will address them only topically and all together. Now, I think of Christian citizenship on the Fourth of July: that’s fine and appropriate to have those special emphases days. And I think it’s good to step back and say okay, today we are going to talk about racial reconciliation because it is Racial Reconciliation Sunday, or something like that. But that can’t be all that we do. We have to be, as we are preaching through the text, we have to apply the text which means that we are coming through and we are saying where are my people not seeing this? How does this apply to—

So for instance one of the things that I am convicted about is that when it comes to the issue of abortion the devil is working in one of two ways: deception and accusation. So what he wants to do is to say to that young woman or to her parents—and it doesn’t matter whether or not that person says I am pro-life. It doesn’t matter what the ideas are that that person has—when you see the two lines on the pregnancy test, then what happens and what the devil wants to say is what he said in Genesis chapter 3, “You will not surely die.” This is going to solve this problem, and you are going to be able to get over it.

I read an article that just grieved me to the core of my being because it was by an abortion clinic worker who said people assume that the people who come in here are secularists and liberal progressives; they are not. She said most of the people who come into our abortion clinic are Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. And what they say is this: the Roman Catholics say I know—and they are not people who are saying oh, this isn’t a child; this is just a blob of tissue. These are people who say I know what I am doing is wrong, but I am going to go to confession; or I know what I am doing is wrong, but I have prayed to receive Christ and “once saved, always saved.” Now, that is the sort of deception that says, “Let us sin all the more that grace may abound.”

And then the devil wants to work at the level of accusation. So nobody is more pro-choice than the devil on the way into the abortion clinic, and no one is more pro-life than the devil on the way out of the abortion clinic because now he is turning and saying I know who you are. I know what you’ve done, and you stand accused before God.

When I look at the demographics and I realize in every single congregation you are going to have women in that congregation who have aborted. You are going to have men in that congregation who have empowered abortion. And then you have men and women in that congregation who are going to be placed at that moment of decision. You have got to speak to all three of those groups at the same time and speak to the one and say there is accountability before God. The devil is lying to you and deceiving you. So you speak to those who think they are too good for the gospel. And then you speak to those who think they are too bad for the gospel—who think when they say sinners they are talking about people who lose their temper in traffic; they are not talking about people who have aborted a child—to say no, if you are in Christ you have been crucified, you have been raised from the dead. So you speak to that explicitly and you get that out.

And the same thing is when you think about the ubiquity of pornography. I think we have had some really abstract preaching that talks in general terms that doesn’t really address the fact that we have people in our congregation right now who are just erasing their histories on their computer and assuming that that is erasing the history in their hearts. You have got to address that directly.

And if you are calling people to repentance—if you are talking to Zacchaeus you have to talk about stealing money. And if you are talking to the rich young ruler you have to talk about covetousness. So if you are not addressing ethical issues it’s not only that you are not discipling people; it’s also that you are not actually preaching the gospel. Because you have to get at—repent of what! Throw yourself on Christ for what reason? So you have to address those things. So I think that has to be in the ongoing ministry of the word. So you are preaching through any given text, and you are saying what is happening in this text, and how would the people that I am talking to find themselves in this same situation? I think that’s necessary.