Author: The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled, Preaching and Social Issues: Tools and Tactics for Empowering Your Prophetic Voice. In the book, I suggest three possible approaches to a sermon addressing a social issue depending on the preacher’s and congregation’s risks and strengths as well as the relationships between the pastor, the congregants, and each other.
Those three approaches are: Gentle, Invitational, and Robust, and include nine tactics to provide a preacher with multiple options for sermons that deal with contemporary topics.
The Gentle approach is for a low-trust, high-stress context. It focuses on naming emotions and framing them biblically and theologically. This approach helps the congregation process inwardly so that they can take tentative steps outward. The three tactics include:
1) Lament. (Articulate the issue and name the range of emotions that accompany it.)
2) Stand with the congregation rather than against the congregation. (Use we rather than you language to indicate that the preacher and congregation are working on this together.)
3) Admit your own struggles with the issue and offer conversation. (Share personal testimony about how the preacher is wrestling with the moral and ethical complexity in order to model vulnerability, sharing, and the process of discernment.)
The Invitational approach is for a moderate-trust, moderately-stressed context. This is a situation with more flexibility and freedom to stretch the congregation with a challenging message but depends on the “temperature” of the topic (cool, warm, or hot). The approach focuses on moving beyond self-protection and toward listening to others, building bridges, finding common ground, and imagining possible next steps. The three tactics include:
4) Sermon-dialogue-sermon method. (Preach a sermon that invites people to a formal dialogue on the topic, moderate the dialogue, and follow up with a sermon that reflects on the group’s discernment.)
5) Tell the story of people’s experiences who have been affected by the issue. (Create empathy and humanize those with whom we might disagree or whom society might look down upon.)
6) Use a congregation’s history as well as current mission to help them envision their prophetic future. (Show that a ministry opportunity is consistent with their past actions as a congregation and coheres with their identity as the Body of Christ in the world.)
The Robust approach is used for a high-trust, low-stress context. In this case, when the preacher and congregation have a healthy sense of their identity as children of God, they are less defensive, more able to be humble, and can practice spiritually resilience. This approach focuses on creative and concrete ways to be transformed by the gospel and make a difference in the world. The three tactics include:
7) Be blunt about the exigence, “bad news,” or crucifixion; be bold about the response, gospel, or resurrection. (No need to use coded language; be direct about the situation and what the community has discerned as a response.)
8) Collaborate before, during, and after. (Work with a team of parishioners to research about an issue, share different perspectives, and explore ways for the church to respond; incorporate this
group into the sermon process and even during the sermon itself through dialogue or testimony; follow-up with a debrief afterwards.)
9) Equip your congregation to be catalyzers and “repairers of the breach.” (Encourage individuals and even the whole church to take action on an issue in a direct way either in the community or the larger society; lift up opportunities for training and direct action.)
How might a preacher apply these different strategies and tactics to a sermon? Let’s consider the passage of Matthew 25:1-13, the story of the ten bridesmaids where half had enough oil to light the way for the bridegroom, but half did not prepare and missed the opportunity to join the wedding feast. Using the Central Question, Central Claim, and Central Purpose process that I developed with my colleagues in the book Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation, our preparation might look as follows:
Central Question: How did Matthew’s congregation prepare for the return of Christ, and what does this mean for our congregation being actively engaged in the work of the church and our community?
Central Claim: The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids teaches that Jesus expects us to use our time wisely and keep our oil stocked for lighting the way.
The Central Purpose of this sermon is to encourage and inspire the congregation to fill their oil lamps and light the path so that they fulfill their calling of discipleship.
A preacher wanting to use the Gentle approach might choose tactic #2: Stand with the congregation rather than against the congregation. For this sermon, the preacher can help the listeners embrace the discomfort of the passage in order to see a new vision for ministry. The message may be that Matthew wants to make us uncomfortable because there are times that being a believer challenges our comfort zones and shakes us out of complacency. It’s appropriate for us to feel stirred and held accountable because we’re called by God to live, act, and believe in a different way. Moving toward a social issue, what might that look like in our context, given our community’s needs?
If the preacher chose to use the Invitational approach, they could utilize tactic #6: Use a congregation’s history as well as current mission to help them envision their prophetic future. They could frame an upcoming ministry opportunity as a chance to use our oil and light our lamps. The sermon might begin by asking: In what ways might we respond as the foolish bridesmaids, failing to prepare, panicking when the opportunity for ministry is passing us by? But then moving to a social issue, we can ask: in what ways can we draw on our history as a congregation who has lived as “wise bridesmaids” in the past so that we can have enough oil for this new venture and light the way for the coming of Christ?
The Robust approach to a sermon on this text could employ tactic #7: Be blunt about the exigence, “bad news,” or crucifixion; be bold about the response, gospel, or resurrection. In this sermon, the preacher could encourage preparation for ministry in the midst of a crisis. How is God urging us to fill our lamps and light the way when the unexpected happens our community (gun violence, mental health crisis, climate crisis, opioid crisis, etc.)? What are ways we can prepare to be the church at a moment’s notice to respond to tragedy, emergencies, and opportunities for ministry? What are examples of churches that have found their way to “wedding feast” because they were prepared with enough oil in their lamps?
However, you choose to approach a sermon that addresses a contemporary topic, my hope is that you will feel supported in your preaching vocation and equipped for the task of bringing the Bible and theology into conversation with the issues that affect your congregation, community, and those most vulnerable.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the associate professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary and author of six books, including Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).