The Common Good
November 2009

Preaching on the Tough Issues

by Adam Hamilton | November 2009

During health-care reform efforts this summer, it was suggested that pastors preach on the topic. This sounds like such an easy and simple thing to do—if you are not a local church ...

During health-care reform efforts this summer, it was suggested that pastors preach on the topic. This sounds like such an easy and simple thing to do—if you are not a local church pastor! Preaching on hot-button issues is never easy.

I serve a church that has sought to welcome all people, including Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor. Sixty percent of the congregation members are Republicans; 40 percent are Democrats. When preaching prophetic sermons, I’ve learned to ask myself if I merely want to irritate people, or truly influence them.

Congregants will leave church frustrated if they feel you took a complex subject, oversimplified it, made a “straw man” of their views, and then offered your political views under the guise of preaching scripture. Few change their minds as a result of these kinds of sermons.

If you actually want to influence people, it will take more than a simplistic sermon. Here are a few different approaches to addressing controversial issues with your congregation:

  1. Prepare a position paper. When an issue is complex enough that you cannot adequately deal with it in a 30-minute sermon, consider writing a position paper that you can announce to your congregation and have available for pick-up as they are leaving the service. I’ve done this on several topics, including the Iraq war prior to the launch of hostilities and embryonic stem cell research. For an example, see www.cor.org/about-resurrection/adam/papers.
  2. Sponsor a forum. My church gathered experts and leaders from a wide array of fields representing most sides in the health-care reform debate. We invited people to join us in person or online, where we simulcast the event (you can view it at adamhamilton.cor.org). This allowed people with divergent viewpoints to feel their opinions were heard, while also revealing some points of agreement.
  3. Personalize the issue. Though I did not preach on health-care reform, I told the stories of two of my family members who were not covered by an employer and could not afford health-care coverage, and noted that members of our church were in the same situation.
  4. Teach on divisive issues. Consider leading a study on divisive issues in which you invite people to consider the issues and offer their views, and you have the opportunity to offer your own.
  5. Preach on divisive issues. I devote the first third of such a sermon to making a compelling and sympathetic case for the viewpoint that is opposite my own. My goal is that advocates for this view will feel it was represented well. I devote the next third of the sermon to describing the opposing view in the debate, again arguing as compellingly as I can. Finally, in the last third of the sermon I articulate, with humility and a willingness to admit I may be wrong, my own view and why I hold it.

When I have used this approach, I’ve seen people who held strong convictions about an issue change their mind. Even when someone’s views did not change, they gained a greater appreciation for those with opposing views.

Will some people leave your church when you address controversial issues? Yes. I’ve got a stack of e-mail and letters on my desk expressing anger, disappointment, or disillusionment that I would speak to the issue of health-care reform. But when we seek to address controversial issues in a way that is intended to influence, rather than merely irritate, most people will respect your approach and at least consider the position you advocate.

Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and the author of Confronting the Controversies: A Christian Looks at the Tough Issues.

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