The Common Good
September 2004

Scared to Talk Politics in Church?

by Brian D. McLaren | September 2004

You don't need to be partisan to be prophetic.

Sometimes I think that the most powerful and popular denomination in America is a stealth one.

Sometimes I think that the most powerful and popular denomination in America is a stealth one. It’s not the Baptists or the Catholics or the Methodists or the Assemblies of God. It’s "radio-orthodoxy"—the set of beliefs promoted by religious broadcasting. Do you doubt the power of radio-orthodoxy? Just try contradicting it, especially in an election year.

The fact is, it’s hard to be a good pastor any time, but during an election year in a country blanketed by religious broadcasting, it gets even harder. How do we preach to and lead our churches in a year like this—with an important and divisive election underway? Over the years, I have tried three main options (I’m not proud about this):

1. Ignore the election completely.

2. Remind people to vote as their Christian civic duty, and leave it at that.

3. Preach on the moral issues related to the election about which my congregation is already in agreement.

This year, compelled by what’s going on in our country and world, I hope to try a fourth option:

4. Preach and educate on the moral issues related to the election about which my congregation is not already in agreement.

It has been said that most Christians in America are, whether they know it or not, more or less Calvinists—simply because of the pervasive influence of Calvinism in our history and culture. Through radio-orthodoxy, I think it could also be said that many if not most Christians in America are more or less tacit members of the Religious Right. It doesn’t matter that you preach prophetic sermons on social justice and care for the poor, the environment, the alien, the enemy. Every day during drive time, your people who tune into Christian radio hear radio-orthodox broadcasts from a different vantage point, and when your confused members have to decide who they agree with—you or the radio preacher—most will decide the guy behind the microphone has more authority than you. It’s a democracy thing: Since he’s on the radio, he’s heard by thousands; he must be right.

So, if you’re going to preach and lead during this election year in any direction other than that of radio-orthodoxy, and if you have even a small prophetic bone in your body, you’ve got a tough job on your hands. How can you do it?

As Adam Hamilton, writing in the Spring 2004 Leadership Journal puts it, "I have watched pastors who were quite proud of their ‘prophetic ministry’ drive churches right into the ground…[or drive] away everyone who disagreed with them, attracting only the likeminded to their church. What they did not manage to do, unfortunately, was to actually influence anyone to change." Instead, Hamilton recommends a five-phase process, which I plan to follow this year:

1. Show respect for all positions on an issue, and for those who hold opposing opinions. It’s tempting, especially when one is reacting against a polemical, biased, chest-thumping opposition, to respond in kind and opt out of the Lord’s command about doing unto others.

2. Understand the opposing side so well that you can present its arguments as clearly as its proponents do. Each position has its upside and downside, as do opposing views. We tend to know our upside and their downside, but fairness requires we face our downside and their upside as well.

3. Begin your sermon by presenting the opposing case’s position. Present it so compellingly that people would believe it’s your position if you stopped your sermon midway.

4. Then present your position, rooting your position in biblical soil, admitting your position’s downsides.

5. Confess your openness to changing your thinking—thus modeling the teachability you hope your people will demonstrate.

This approach, Hamilton argues, is not easy. But it holds a higher probability of changing minds than more direct, confrontational approaches.

Let’s face it. It’s easy to preach up a sweat when you know your congregation is thinking, "Amen! Go get ’em!" But when your congregation feels threatened, intimidated, rebuked, insulted, discomforted, and otherwise unsettled, it’s another matter. Think of the last time a parishioner sent an e-mail or letter telling you how and why you were wrong about something (which happens pretty often for many of us). Did you immediately say, "Wow. She’s right. I’m wrong. I have to call her and thank her for pointing out my errors and prejudices"? Chances are, you thought of packing up and quitting, or of firing off an angry e-mail in return. No wonder parishioners leave when we preach to them without necessary gentleness and respect.

I’ve been running through a thought experiment for the last couple of years that helps me as I prepare to preach in this election year. I imagine I’m living in Alabama or Mississippi, and it’s 1962. I’m pastoring an all-white church of Christians who share the views of their neighbors about integration, equality, and the like. I would like to be truly prophetic. One option would be for me to preach some rip-roaring sermons that would either get me fired fast or send most of my congregation packing for a church more to their liking, leaving the church unable to pay my salary. Either way, I could then move to Massachusetts and get a job there, telling the story of my valiant stand for truth and consequent persecution among the Southern savages, and thereby become a certified hero, well-perched to preach similar fiery sermons against the bigotry of people in the South, to cries of "Amen! Go get ’em!" from my New England parishioners. This would be very good for my career and very fulfilling. I could even write magazine articles about my exploits. But what good would it really do?

Another option: Avoid the subject of racism for 30 or 40 years, until other larger forces have already brought a change in the thinking of my people. Then I could preach about it with gusto. (I recently heard Dr. John Perkins share that he was invited to preach somewhere, and the organizer was very excited because John would be the first black ever to preach there. John wondered, "He’s proud about this?" Wait long enough, and you can have all the excitement of taking risks, with none of the risk.)

This year, I’m looking for a better option than either thundering self-righteousness or avoidance. It will involve risk. But it will also involve patience and gentleness and respect. Yes, I will need to be bold and courageous, but I will also need to be both clever as a serpent and harmless as a dove. Here are some specifics I’m planning for this election season:

First, I’m hoping to sponsor our first-ever "Presidential Dialogue" (not debate), where we’ll ask members of our congregation (perhaps on a midweek evening) to present why they’re voting for their candidate of choice. We’ll establish some clear guidelines for the evening to help people practice respectful dialogue. (I may invite them to follow Adam Hamilton’s five-phase process.) In so doing, I’m hoping that our people will be exposed to logic and concerns from "the other side." I’ll probably give a few words before or after about 1 Corinthians 13—being patient and kind with one another, and so on. After all, "the love chapter" isn’t just for weddings! My guess is that this experience will stretch hearts to love their differing neighbors along with stretching minds to consider their differing perspectives.

Second, we might also encourage people to gather for the televised presidential debates to dialogue about what they see and how they’re impacted—from the vantage point of biblical faith. We’ll assume that there will be divergence of opinion; our goal will be to get people thinking with openness to new ideas and the guidance of the Spirit. And we’ll recommend that they unite in prayer for our leaders and our world to end the evening.

Third, I’ll have several more or less "prophetic" messages through the course of the year leading up to the election. This week, for example, we’re exploring the healing of the man with the shriveled hand (Mark 3:1-6). There, Jesus becomes angry and deeply distressed at the stubbornness of the religious leaders. That will give me an opportunity to talk about how religious people like us can unintentionally find ourselves playing on the wrong side—worshipping a shriveled "household god" (out for me and my kin) or a paralyzing "tribal god" (out for my country and its national interests) rather than the Living God who loves every person, whether "us" or "them." Later in the year, I may preach on Psalm 20 and Isaiah 13, where trusting in horses and chariots is contrasted with trusting in the Lord. These are biblical themes my people probably won’t hear on the radio.

Whether the best candidate gets elected in November or not, I hope through this process that Christians in our country will be wiser, more thoughtful, and more biblically formed and Spirit-guided after the election season than they are now. That’s a challenging enough goal of preaching and pastoring in an election year. And just between us, I hope that through your preaching and leadership, local congregations’ respect for their own pastors will be a little stronger, whatever their denomination, and radio-orthodoxy’s signal will be a little weaker.

Why? Because the gods of radio-orthodoxy tend to be of the household and tribal type, in part, I think, because radio-orthodoxy is funded largely through donations. And it appears that radio-orthodox donations are best raised through greed (prosperity gospel) and fear (watch out, or the liberals will turn all your children into homosexual secular humanist postmodernist relativists who don’t believe in absolute truth). Sermon broadcasts that appeal to greed and fear tend to render their hearers into people who are (surprise) greedy and fearful. Tax cuts and national defense play well to people so rendered; care for the poor and love for enemies (surprise) do not.

But this is exactly the kind of thing you shouldn’t say in your sermon. Or if you do, be careful, more careful than I’ve been here.

Brian McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland (www.crcc.org). His newest book, A Generous Orthodoxy (Emergent/YS), will be released in September.

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