In May of 2012, for the very first time, a sitting American President publicly and favorably addressed same-sex marriage. I didn’t mention this historic event in church the very next Sunday, or any Sunday for that matter.
A year or two after that particular event, I was at a roundtable discussion with a dozen pastors. One of the leading pastors in our city told the rest of us how that Sunday in May he had set aside his prepared sermon to address President Obama’s remarks and talk about marriage. The way he relayed this detail, he more than implied, "All good pastors do the same."
The One Question Is Many Questions
So, how much should a pastor address current events? Over the recent holidays, my father-in-law asked me this very question. But the question is a tricky one, and to be quite honest, it’s not just one question; it’s many.
If a pastor does address a current event, when should he do it? Should he do it with the church’s weekly email and Facebook page? Doing it this way addresses the event outside the regular worship service, but, if it should be addressed during the service, should it be done between worship songs or within the announcements, pastoral prayer, or sermon? And if during the sermon, how much time should it get? Just a passing comment to show awareness or an in-depth analysis?
Here’s another layer of complexity. Was the current event a national or global event, such as a hurricane or shooting or airplane crash, and thus not specifically related to our city? Or, is the current event a local one, such as the “terrorist” shootings in my community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a few weeks ago? Or, on a lighter note, when the Penn State football team wins their bowl game, should I mention that? (I did.)
Furthermore, timing must be considered. How soon should the event be addressed? For some events, waiting a week or more is too late. While for others, it’s not.
Finally, who gets to decide what is important enough to address? I promise you that what is important to some in my congregation isn’t at all important to others.
These questions aren’t theoretical to me. I wrestle with them 52 times a year. If you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, you probably have an opinion as to what should be done in your church. You might even leave a church and join another because of the way current events are addressed (or not addressed). So, let me ask you, how do you arrive at an answer?
A Guiding Framework
All these thoughts were stirred last week when a friend shared an article on his blog from Trevin Wax. The article was written last September in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests. Trevin Wax writes:
On social media, multiple people counseled churches on how to respond the next morning. Some called for condemning white supremacy and Neo-Nazis by name. Others offered prayer for pastors who were revising their sermons or penning statements to read before the church. This sentiment popped up a few times: If your church doesn’t address this tomorrow, find another congregation. The social media fever implied that failing to speak on the issue indicated you were taking the side of white supremacists.
Wax goes on to mention how his church addressed Charlottesville and offers several thoughtful questions he now uses as a filter to answer whether or not to address such events.
- Is this a history-making event that demands the church’s immediate response?
- How “top of mind” or “close at hand” is the recent cultural event?
- Are you in danger of leading your church to be driven by current events?
- Are we in a cultural moment where the church’s guidance may be necessary?
These questions are helpful. I commend the whole article to you.
My Approach: Less Is Best
Lots could be said about this. For example, we should mention the necessity that what is said on Sundays must be absolutely true. I can walk back a tweet that was hastily thumbed into cyberspace, but great vigilance should be taken that this won’t need to be done for what is said in a sermon.
Above, I linked to an article about the shooting that recently took place in Harrisburg. But that article is from days later, and in it, the Philadelphia news was still writing about whether it should be classified as a terrorist shooting. Before I say that it was terrorism on a Sunday—or a hundred other similar things—I need to know for sure. This level of assurance can’t be reached with a quick scroll through social media, which means I tend to be slow to speak and careful when I do.
To bring my article to a close, let me focus on Wax’s third question concerning churches that are too driven by cultural events. I think some people, including some pastors, love to follow current events the way a sports fan follows his or her team. For these people, staying current is a hobby. They do it because they think it’s important, but also because it’s fun to be in the know. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the danger as I see it, is when these same people spiritualize their interest in current events, not so subtly implying, "All good Christians do the same." As Trevin Wax writes, “In a given week, there is news from all over the world that could, in theory, swamp the service.”
Just to lay my cards on the table, I’m not going to spend an hour before church every Sunday checking online to see what happened around the world while I slept. Currently, my time before church on Sunday mornings is set aside for prayer, study, preparation, and meeting with a few people involved in the service. I don’t have time (and I don’t make time) each week before church to look at Fox, CNN, local news sources, or personal social media feeds.
Regardless, at our church we are committed to expositional preaching. This means most Sundays, we are preaching through one passage of Scripture. See my article “Spring Loaded Camming Devices and The Expository Sermon” where I explain what I mean by expository and why we do it. Rarely at our church will I give a “5-minute standalone” address of an election result, hurricane, shooting, riot, or some other national or global tragedy.
I do remember doing this near the beginning of the service after the presidential election in 2016 where I gave a nonpartisan encouragement towards unity. And, when the riots happened in Charlottesville, our worship leader led us in a corporate reading of a psalm of lament and I weaved a few relevant comments into my sermon. But most of the time when we address an event, we try to do it as naturally as possible, which means it needs to arise from the text of Scripture we are preaching that week. And if it doesn’t, we don’t.
I’m so thankful to have another teaching pastor at our church who can help make these decisions with me, especially when it’s impractical to call an elder meeting.
Discerning the Important from the Merely Urgent
Undoubtedly some people take our lack of frequent and persistent addressing of current events as though we are cowardly avoiding things, or that we are monks retreating from culture, or that we are ostriches with our heads in the sand.
But I don’t think such criticisms are true. Really, what we’re trying to give people is a gift—whether they see it that way or not.
In a world enamored with whatever seems most urgent, we can miss what’s truly important and lasting. The Word of God, while it speaks to every aspect of our lives, will also outlast every personal, local, national, or global crisis. If the Lord does not come back beforehand, the blood spilt on Little Roundtop will one day be remembered the way we remember Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and one day the monuments of Washington DC will become ruins like the Roman Colosseum. And when pastors major on the urgent, we can inadvertently lead people to forget that “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8). It’s this reminder, above all else, that I want to share with our people as a gift each Sunday.