Preaching in the Cultural Moment
How do pastors decide what to say about current events and social issues?
As the story goes, both Karl Barth and Billy Graham said something about reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Whether or not the quotes are apocryphal, the point remains: preaching is contextual. We must know the Bible in its own world and know our world well enough to let God speak His word to it.
But the question is, how? I am not presuming to tell anyone else how they should preach about current events or social issues. I am only pulling back the curtain— or, opening the door of my study, as it were— to let you know how I decide. I can’t speak for every pastor in the world, but I think most of my peers would say something similar to the thoughts I’ve scratched out below.
I want my sermon to be…
1. Rooted in Scripture
While we want to let the word of God speak today into our world, it is the Word of God that must speak. Not the slogans of the day. Not the talking points of journalists or experts. Not the values of a political party. I am deeply committed to reading the Bible in its world so that it can speak into ours. I want to understand the heart of God throughout the Bible; I want to look for the themes and patterns; I want to see how they come rushing together in Jesus. I want to know how the Word of God reveals the God’s character and our calling as the people of God.
So when I wanted to speak to our church about why we should give particular attention to the pain of African-Americans in this cultural moment, the reason was not, “Because we thought it was trendy” or “Because the media has convinced us to do so”. Rather, in the moment of profound and public pain, we search the Scriptures and find a God who always places Himself with the oppressed, the marginalized, and the outcast. Even when God declares Himself to be impartial, He follows up by saying who gets the tilt of His face and favor: the immigrant, the widow, the poor (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). This follows into the preaching of Jesus who, pulling the thread of the Torah and the Prophets, announces His own ministry as being to preach good news to the poor. Or when we wanted to call our church to turn their conviction to action, our text for the week– James 2 on faith and works– was the perfect way to bring a challenge and an invitation.
2. Directed to the Church
Who is the Word speaking to? The Gospel, as missionary theologian Leslie Newbigin said, is a public truth. The Good News is an announcement for all. And yet, the Church is not the World. To paraphrase the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, the Church exists to remind the world that it is “the world”— that it exists in darkness, that it is attempting to organize itself apart from God and, indeed, against God. The Church is in the world to call the world into the Kingdom.
As such, the Church is its own community under its own King. It bears witness to an arriving Kingdom that is here now but not yet. How exactly this plays out has been a struggle throughout church history. Sometimes the Church has used the machinery of the State for its own ends. Other times it has surrendered to the State. Still other times it has rebelled against the State. Sorting out a “political theology” is not easy, though we can learn from the mistakes of the past. Public policy is also complicated. It is not my area of expertise, but I pray for those who serve in those ways.
But my goal is to speak to the Church; to call us to surrender to King Jesus; to allow the Holy Spirit to make us into a different kind of community that stands as a light within the world. As the African-American New Testament scholar, Esau McCaulley has written recently, “My work, as a minister of the gospel, is not to fix America, but to remind it of what it is not. It is not the kingdom of God, our great hope.”
3. Focused on Jesus
Policies need to be adjusted. Real work has to be done for righteousness and justice to be embodied and enacted in the world. The Church can serve as a prophetic witness to the systems of the world, calling it to bend itself toward the Lordship of Jesus. But we must never forget that we cannot and do not bring the Kingdom of God here. As New Testament theologian, N. T. Wright has said many times, we do not build the Kingdom; we build for the Kingdom. We live and work in a way that bears witness to it.
The heart of the Gospel is an announcement, a proclamation that Jesus is the Saving King. Only in Jesus are all things in heaven and on earth reconciled (Ephesians 1:10). Only in Jesus do the dividing walls of hostility between Jews and Gentiles come down (Ephesians 2:14-16). Only in Jesus will our work— our mission and activism— not be in vain (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:58).
Christian hope is not the belief in progress, even social progress. Christian hope is not optimism or wishful thinking. Christian hope is not a departure from “all of this”, the mess of earth. Christian hope is neither the confidence that we can make a better world, nor is it the desire to escape it. Christian hope is resurrection and new creation. When Jesus returns to reign in fullness will every tear be wiped away and death be swallowed up in victory. This is why when Christians confess the “mystery of faith”, we speak of Jesus: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Any preaching that fails to lift from the current cultural moment to a focus on Jesus the Saving King falls short of our calling as preachers.
So, may God help us all.