Preach the Whole Truth? Yes. Toss a Grenade In Your Sanctuary? Not Wise.
The objective is to preach the whole counsel of God, including the unpopular parts. It’s also to equip church members with answers, so they can remain confident in the faith in spite of opposition, and so they know what to say when they’re asked. God’s goodness is under attack. We’ve got to know how to clearly explain that He really does love us; He really does know what He’s talking about; His way is the way of genuine love.
Followers of Christ need that. That’s why churches must teach it. But the objective is not to blow up their ministries in the process. Lutzer’s article shows how likely that can be. (That church suffered serious ministry losses following a sermon on transgender issues.) Given that reality, we must be wise as serpents. So what’s a pastor to do?
No single answer could be the “right” one for every church. Let me offer these ideas anyway, since they’re certainly in the mix.
Be Very Clear on What the Church Believes
Pastoral staff, elders, teachers, and other guiding committees must be clear and unified on the church’s beliefs. This includes abortion, religious freedom, homosexuality, and transgender claims above all. These are the most potentially explosive topics today.
Unity must come first. No good comes of a church body diving into controversy when the staff and teachers haven’t settled it among themselves.
(If your church cannot come into alignment on these matters, you’ve got more of a leadership problem than I could hope to address here.)
The Sunday Sermon May Not Be Your Best Vehicle
Churches must speak the whole truth — but they don’t have to do it in the Sunday morning sermon. The sermon might even be the worst place to do it. Here’s why.
First, the Sunday congregation will have a wide range of responses on these topics, from rousing agreement to bitter anger. Good communication would seek to address every one person’s response, but that’s completely unrealistic to expect of a Sunday sermon. For some people, in fact, the only fitting way to handle these topics is in the warm connection of a one-to-one conversation.
Second, these topics are very complicated. To address cover them well requires:
- Explaining the Bible’s teaching, including answers to some of the better-publicized challenges to traditional interpretations.
- Unfolding human reason and experience (or natural law, for those who use that term) that shows that the Bible’s teaching accords with what we can know is good for us.
- Unpacking what isn’t true about a wide range of false views of sexuality.
- Teaching how to interact with LGBT people and “allies” in truth and grace.
But that’s not the worst of it. You might feel that you have to say everything at once, or someone will say, “See, he doesn’t believe in grace!” or “He’s ignorant — there are lots of other interpretations!” When in fact you just haven’t had time to say everything. It’s as if once you start, you don’t dare stop until you’ve taught it all; but you can’t do that in one sermon.
The great risk there is that members of the congregation will shut you down for not saying what they think you should have said. Once they do that, you’re done teaching them. They won’t listen again. That’s the risk, at any rate.
Risk and “Blast Radius”
So how can a church teach the whole truth without any risk of a blow-up? Sorry, wrong question. It’s a matter of weighing objectives and risk, and possibly even what the military calls the “blast radius.” The better question is, how do we make our position clear and equip the church, without putting more of our ministries at risk than necessary?
This isn’t completely in your control. You could do everything perfectly and still have something blow up on you. I was teaching on homosexuality once to a very conservative Christian women’s group. No one knew there was a lesbian there that night, who was prone to anger. She launched into an extended outburst that lasted several minutes. until the meeting host had her escorted out of the room. We spent the rest of the session processing how to love an angry objector — but there was no denying that a grenade had gone off. Better there than at a church, though. The effects dissipated when the women went back to their separate churches.
Some “blasts” are contained and hidden, by the way. A church member may sit, fume, and then decide to leave not only your church but the entire faith.
You can’t control every outcome. Still you must not let the risks keep you from equipping your members to follow Christ fully in this challenging day. You sure can try to find wiser ways to do it, though.
Other Ways To Teach the Whole Truth
So here’s where the wisdom of serpents slips in. Consider whether these would work for your church:
- Select four or five of the best books on the topic, and put them on sale at your church. Do it visibly enough that their very presence tells what your position is. Encourage members to read them so they’ll get the prep that they need.
- Write your church’s position paper on each of these topics, and make it visible enough that members and visitors will know where you stand.
- Offer question-and-answer forums. Suggest that people attend if they’ve been challenged on these questions at work, at home, or in social media. (This is a great place to watch for those silent, contained “blasts,” and then to follow up personally.)
- Teach and train on these topics in smaller groups, including youth groups, with ample opportunity for dialogue.
- Make it a matter of prayer. Consider forming “current issues” prayer groups, especially for people who have already been equipped with good information and perspectives.
- Advertise good books (or even The Stream) through posters and/or your church bulletin.
- Invite members to write relevant book reviews for your church newsletter.
- Offer a DVD (or YouTube) session using material from Pure Passion Media, for example, “How Do You Like Me Now?,” or which presents solid grace-and-truth guidance for people who find out family members are gay.
Whatever you do, you could always mention it in your Sunday sermon. Or you might even decide Sunday morning really is the time to tackle the topics in depth. If you’ve thought it through carefully, then by all means go for it.
Advancing Truth Wisely
Years ago, my daily commute to work took me through the Yorktown battlefield, where Washington defeated Cornwallis to win the Revolutionary War. The original earthworks still remain there, covered in grass now — lines of trenches with small hills of dirt piled in front.
American and French soldiers weren’t cowering there, and they weren’t hiding from the battle, either. They were there to end the war. They were just using proper wisdom, to avoid unnecessary losses. God protected and provided for them by way of two very well-timed storms that worked to their advantage.
We need to advance, too. We must advance; we’ve been in retreat far too long. But do it wisely. Trust in God being on your side. Accept the necessary risks. You could still suffer losses to your ministry. Some of those losses may be necessary, the unavoidable results of ministering with integrity. But use wisdom to avoid the unnecessary ones.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.