Adam Hamilton is pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a United Methodist Church in Leawood, Kan., which is a suburb of Kansas City. Adam’s church is one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, particularly among mainline churches. He has been identified by Religion and Ethics News Weekly as “One of the Top 10 People to Watch.” His most recent book is Seeing Grey in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him to discuss the book and the challenge of preaching in a political season.
Preaching: Your new book is subtitled “Thoughts on Religion, Morality and Politics.” This is a timely moment for discussion of religion and politics, isn’t it?
Hamilton: This is the time when everybody is wrestling with these issues. I wanted the book to be timed to the elections to help shape the dialogue in our country among thinking Christians about how we bring together our faith in the areas of politics, religion and morality.
Preaching: What do you see as the role of preaching in dealing with these public-square issues?
Hamilton: In some churches where you’ve got an entire congregation in total alignment in terms of their politics, you might have one answer to your question; but in most congregations that’s not the case. There’s a large Southern Baptist church here in Kansas City. I was talking with the pastor, and he said, “You know, 40 percent of our members are Democrats. It’s a working-class congregation.” Most pundits wouldn’t anticipate that.
When you preach on political issues in any congregation, part of what you’ve got to take into account is you’re standing in the place of God in the pulpit. People are coming not just to hear a lecture or your opinions, but they’re coming to understand what is God’s will. And when it comes to addressing the issues of politics, that calls for a great deal of humility and care in how we go about addressing those issues.
I fear that many times we as pastors have violated the commandment to not misuse God’s name or to use God’s name in vain by attaching God’s name to our own political persuasions or positions. So we have to be cautious about it. But at the same time, we’re going through a really important time of making decisions about the future of our country and our leaders, and our faith needs to be brought to bear on those issues. I like the way Carol Lasswell defined the issue of politics, as “Who gets what, when and how.” When you think about that-the issue of who gets what, when and how-that’s a very moral issue. Those are questions that have to do with justice. They have to do with our world view. They have to do with our faith. And so if we’re not bringing our faith to bear in the area of politics then what are we using to decide who gets what, when and how?
Preaching: Where do you think the lines are drawn? Pastors often struggle with that issue. They want to be able to deal with moral issues, and yet everything touches on politics. At what point do you step over that line and move into what may be inappropriate for a pastor?
Hamilton: Well, first of all I think when we start endorsing candidates from the pulpit or claiming that “unless you vote with this particular political party you’re not a faithful follower of Jesus Christ,” I think we’ve stepped across that line. And the IRS thinks we’ve stepped across that line, as well.
I preached a series of sermons that were drawn from this book Seeing Grey-a series of five sermons at the beginning of the year timed to begin the week before the Iowa Caucuses and to end the week before Super Tuesday. In that series I was challenging our people to think for themselves. I was challenging them to pray and to bring their faith to bear on their decisions and to look at how their faith shapes their politics.
So we talked about some of the issues that are often talked about in churches. We talked in particular about abortion in one of the sermons, but we moved beyond that to talk about some of the broader issues as well-issues of poverty, justice, how we bring our faith to bear in talking about things like immigration reform.
In our congregation I don’t tell folks, “This is exactly how you have to vote.” What I do try to do is say, “Here is an issue that surely our faith must affect or must be brought to bear on. Some people who are thinking Christians come out on this side of this issue. Some people who are thinking Christians come out on this side of this issue.” I try to paint a picture of both sides as if it’s a debate. I try to do that in such a way so that wherever you are, you’ve heard your position represented well.
Often when I preach on controversial issues I’ll have members come up and say, “I didn’t agree with your conclusion, but I was so honored by the way you represented my position that I couldn’t not listen to you. I couldn’t really get too mad because you fairly represented my position.” And I think where people get upset in the pews is when a pastor stands up to preach a sermon on a particular issue about which they have fundamental disagreements with the pastor, and the pastor either creates a straw man that he tears apart easily-and that doesn’t really represent this person’s views-or the pastor has misrepresented or not represented well the views of that particular person. But if you can say, “Here’s where some people come out, and here’s why. Here’s where some people come out, and here’s why. Now, I’ll share with you how I see this issue and what I think Scriptures are teaching. But I could be wrong about this.” If you come with that measure of humility-if you’re able to recognize the opposing view from your own and to fully understand it-I think people are more willing to listen.
Preaching: In your experience as a preacher, are there particular issues you touch on in the pulpit that you get the most hostility or negative response from the congregation? Are there particular issues that just tend to be hot buttons?
Hamilton: There are, and some that tend to change over time. The war in Iraq has been a hot-button issue in the past. At the time that our nation was going into war-before we had made the decision to go into war-I had preached a couple of times on this issue and raised some concerns: “Is this the right time? Does this meet the qualifications of just war theory?” I tried to do that very carefully and gently and at the same time invite people to think about it and tell them I could be wrong on this. I’m just asking you to think as Christians about this. And we had people leave the church over that issue. We had other people come and join the church over that issue.
On the weekend leading up to Earth Day, we talked about a theological framework for looking at the environment and environmental concerns. When you start talking about global warming, of course, you have people with strong feelings on that who are going to see it differently than some other folks. So to be able to present both sides of that and to be able to challenge people to take action and to act-there were probably some folks upset about that. But most people came away saying, “You know what? I don’t necessarily agree with you on this, but I appreciate the way you approached it. It made me think about it more.”
I would say there are hot-button issues. In mainline churches homosexuality is one of those hot-button issues where there’s a lot of debate and argument. So when you preach on those kinds of issues, you know there are going to be people on either side of an issue like that. They’re going to have their antennae up and be waiting for me to say something they can jump on.
Preaching: You pastor a church that has grown a great deal under your leadership. One of your books, Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic, talks about keys to growing churches. What do you see as the role of preaching in growing a church?
Hamilton: I think preaching is critical in growing a church. I think it’s possible to be an average preacher and grow your church, but you’re going to have to make sure that you do other things extraordinarily well. And I think all of us can be better preachers, and we can improve our preaching. Today there is no excuse not to offer the best-informed sermons and to have the most tools at our fingertips to prepare excellent sermons, with the Internet and other resources.
If pastors are working hard on their sermons, they are inviting the Spirit to guide them, they are applying the Scripture to daily life, people hear that. When they walk away feeling like they were touched, they were equipped, they were helped, they were inspired-they are going to go tell their friends. Their friends are going to come, and they’re going to find their own hearts “strangely warmed” in the words of John Wesley, and they’re going to go tell their friends.
So I think preaching isn’t all there is to developing a great church; but if we’re preaching and our preaching is effective, people’s hearts are touched. People are equipped. They’re inspired. They’re motivated to live differently. They’re taught, and they encounter God in profound and powerful ways. So I tell pastors that other than maintaining our own spiritual health and our families well-after those two things, I don’t think there’s anything more important to the overall health of the church than preaching excellent sermons. If we preach excellent sermons, people come to faith in Christ. If we preach excellent sermons, people are discipled, and they grow in their faith. If we preach excellent sermons, people give more money in the offering plate, and we have more money to give to other resources. If we preach excellent sermons, they invite their friends. If we preach excellent sermons, they volunteer more, and they get involved in mission. They seek to change the world.
Preaching: In your own preaching, do you preach mostly in series? How do you go about planning what you’re going to do in the pulpit?
Hamilton: I do preach mostly in series. During the season of Advent I’ll go back to the Lectionary, and occasionally I’ll use the Lectionary, but generally we preach in series. There are five types of sermon series that I’ll try to preach every year.
Let me just take a step back-about 10 or 15 years ago I had a sort of revelation for me. Many of your listeners probably already had figured this out. But we talk about our church’s purpose as being “Building a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.” And I tell all of our staff: that drives everything we do. I think Rick Warren is right about this. Our purpose drives everything we do.
But I wasn’t thinking of my preaching in terms of that purpose. And one day I realized that my sermons should do everything a sermon could do to build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians. Then I began to ask, “What kind of sermons would I have to preach to see that happen?” And there are five types of sermons in the end that I’ve sort of settled in on.
One type of sermon series we call “Fishing Expeditions”-those are sermons that are going to be specifically aimed at scratching where the unchurched itch, answering the questions they’re wrestling with or addressing the kind of concerns they deal with in daily life. A second type of series is our “Discipleship Series,” where we’re going to take people deeper. So we finish the fishing expedition, where at the end of the series we invite them to come to faith in Christ; and then the next series we’re going to come in and teach them and disciple them and equip them to go deeper in the faith.
The third type of sermons is “Pastoral Care” sermons, where we’re going to look at “Where are people hurting?” and “How do we help bring healing in their lives?” The fourth type is “Equipping and Sending” sermons. These are sermons where we’re going to talk about ethics. We’re going to talk about mission. We’re going to talk about evangelism, and we’re going to teach people how to live out their faith. The last types of sermons are called “Institutional Development” sermons-those which strengthen the church as a whole.
Every sermon series may have bits and pieces of all of those. To give you an example, we had a fishing expedition series a year ago this last January/February-we always announce those on Christmas Eve at the Candlelight service and invite people to come back. We did a series called “Conversations with an Atheist,” based upon Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion. So we took the questions Dawkins raised in The God Delusion, and we addressed those questions every week. And we talked about why he would raise these questions and what might be some biblical responses to them. All of those sermons were rooted and grounded in the Scripture and then calling people to action at the end of the message.
Right now we’re doing a series of sermons called “Seven Simple Truths About Life,” which are preparing our graduates and the rest of our congregation to live out their lives faithfully by looking at some basic, essential truths in the Christian faith. That’s how we pursue sermon series.
Preaching: Through a year do you try to touch on each of those five purposes?
Hamilton: Yes, that’s right. January/ February is our fishing expedition coming out of Christmas. The season of Lent, leading up to Easter, is historically a time when Christians are going deeper and putting their roots down so we focus on discipleship then. We come out of Easter, and we announce a pastoral care series, which also has a strong appeal for non-religious people as well. In this series we’ve dealt with forgiveness, dealing with tough times-those kind of things. Then we go into a discipleship series again in the summertime. In the fall we come back with a series on equipping and preparing people to live out their faith. Then when we get to stewardship time, we do a series on the church’s vision and strengthening the church. And then in December we go into an Advent series on the Lectionary.
I try to lay out our plan about two years in advance. I take two weeks away in prayer and study during the summertime and then share with our worship team and some of our lead staff and lay leaders the ideas that I feel like God has given me relative to sermons for the coming couple of years. I invite our congregation to email me their ideas-what they feel like they need spiritually. Then I put all that together into a two-year plan with about eight sermon series a year in that plan. Then we leave some wiggle room in case we need to cancel a series or change or add something else. It really works pretty amazingly. Somehow the Spirit seems to use that planning process. It seems like just the right sermon series is coming out at just the right time.
Preaching: What are the things you enjoy most about preaching?
Hamilton: I will say first that I approach the pulpit with “fear and trembling,” in Kierkegaard’s words. I feel like every week I’m nervous about preaching even though I’ve been doing it now for 20-something years. I feel anxious about it before I get in the pulpit because I recognize I’m
representing God. That should, I think, make all of us a little bit afraid.
At the same time I have great delight in taking the truths of the Scripture and being able to offer them to people in ways they hadn’t thought of before, or teaching them what they haven’t known before and helping the Scriptures come alive by illustrating them well. When you stand there in the pulpit and you feel like there’s something these people really need to hear-this is a timeless truth of the Scripture-and if they would only live by this it would make all the difference. And you feel like you got that word from God, you’ve done your homework and research, and you’ve laid it out in a way that makes sense and it speaks to their intellect and to their heart and calls them to action-it’s just exhilarating. And when you get done with that and you feel like you can look out and see it in people’s eyes-God was somehow at work in that moment. Every week I pray, “God, help me disappear that they just hear from You and see from You whatever You want to say and whatever they need to hear from You.” And when that happens, it’s magic. It’s just such a joy.
Preaching: If you were talking to some young pastors about preaching or pastoral ministry and could offer one bit of advice, what would it be?
Hamilton: One of the things I’d say is that because preaching is the single-most-important thing you’re going to do in your ministry-after taking care of your soul and taking care of your family-devote enough time to it. And I think to prepare an excellent sermon, there’s no shortcut.
It just takes time. And it helps if you can outline sermons in advance or at least get a head start on your preaching, even if it’s just for the next six months. Then, if you can, dedicate a minimum of 10 hours-for me it’s 20 hours a week I’m going to spend-reading, researching, studying, praying and writing the sermon. Sometimes more than that. In some church sizes you can’t have more than 10 or 15 hours-but at least use that.
What happens is we tend to be captured by the tyranny of the urgent, so there’s a pastoral care thing or a phone call or something else that comes in or eats away at our preaching time. We can have laity help us in doing congregational care, and if we have to give up some of our preaching time, we can reclaim it at night or reclaim it the next day and reschedule appointments.
But take the time. There’s just no getting around the fact that to preach a great sermon, you’ve got to spend the time reading, studying, praying, writing your message and then reworking it until you’ve got it where it can be its most effective.