We are living in interesting times, to put it lightly. This past year has been one of the most politically and culturally tumultuous many of us can remember. And as pastors who stand in front of a congregation every week, we’re faced with a frequent question: How can we address issues that are affecting our congregations without allowing the 24-hour news cycle to drive the content of the worship service?
On one hand, some pastors make the decision to rarely, if ever, mention the news on Sunday morning. Their goal is to keep the Word elevated above the fray of everyday life. But this strategy can sometimes send the unintended message that the Bible doesn’t address contemporary issues, resulting in a congregation missing the connection between urgent, real-world issues and the gospel’s powerful response.
On the other hand, other pastors choose to regularly address current events from the pulpit. For these pastors, the question becomes: When do you stop? Which news stories do you address and which do you ignore? The news cycle is relentless, and it can drive the focus of the service and easily take over the liturgy.
Every church family is different, and pastors and church leaders will arrive at different decisions based on their congregations’ needs. But as you navigate the news and determine whether the headlines intersect with the Sunday worship service, here are some questions to ponder.
Does this topic relate to the passage at hand?
We have all heard sermon illustrations that have nothing to do with the passage, but there are times when the Scriptures directly address the latest news story.
I gave a recent sermon out of the Beatitudes that included Jesus’ call to love our enemies. This passage gave me the chance to ask how we were applying that command in this political climate. I wondered whether what we were reading and hearing made obedience to this command feel impossible to live out. What were we feeding on throughout the day that fueled a hatred of those we viewed as political adversaries? And how would obedience in this one area transform our Christian witness to our neighbors?
There are times, however, when a pressing issue in the news may not fit with the main point of the sermon but you still feel the need to address it. In times like this, here are some things to consider.
Does this news story or event affect my church family?
There are times when current events strike very close to home for a church family. When this is the case, we must address them. In cases like these, many people are coming into church to learn how faith intersects with this pressing issue. This proverbial “elephant in the room” means that everyone is waiting for someone to acknowledge the current event. When the news hits close to home, we really don’t have our congregation’s attention until we speak to the issue on everyone’s mind.
For the church family at New Hope Church outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the death of Philando Castile in 2016 had a powerful effect on the congregation. Castile was fatally shot in front of his girlfriend and child during a routine traffic stop just a short drive from New Hope Church. The following Sunday, senior pastor Matthew St. John led the church through a service that focused on the uncertainty, grief and pain the community was struggling with in the aftermath of the shooting. The church leadership knew it was especially important to affirm the people of color in the congregation, sharing that the New Hope church family was walking through the pain with them and that the church was a safe place to process the tragedy.
Does this issue speak to a blindspot we have as a church family?
As a pastor or church leader, it’s likely you know your church family’s blindspots well. For example, do you pastor a congregation that is primarily white and thus may not be as aware of the issues facing brothers and sisters of other ethnicities? Or do you serve a church that is economically or socially separated from segments of your community that hinders you from loving them well? When events occur that touch on these uncomfortable topics, we have a perfect opportunity to illustrate biblical principles powerfully.
After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, Pastor Matthew took a few minutes in the Sunday service to remind the New Hope congregation that the people of God could not tolerate the evil of racism and hatred that had been on display in Charlottesville. While this message took just a few minutes in the service, Pastor Matthew knew it important for the church family to hear from him on an issue that the Scriptures addressed so clearly and unequivocally. It was an opportunity to bring moral clarity where some may have seen blurry lines.
At my church, during last summer’s rash of police shootings of young black men, we took a moment at the end of a service to address racism. We urged the church family to engage in self-reflection and called for prayer for our country and our neighbors. We asked what the Lord would have us to do in the face of such heartache and injustice. This message was welcomed by some and uncomfortable for others, but we trusted that it was an issue that needed to be acknowledged.
With the modern deluge of news, should we let CNN or Fox News set our order or worship? I hope not. But we all have a calling to connect God’s timeless Word and the good news it proclaims with the struggles we see going on around us. As church leaders, we would all do well to remember that Paul’s letters are his Spirit-filled responses to various challenges that churches were undergoing in their day. May we continue to point God’s people to the eternal truth in an ever-changing landscape. We need to be refreshed by this truth now more than ever.
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