There are preachers, perhaps, who speak to congregations filled with brilliant doctors of this and that who understand every nuance of complex social issues. These wondrous listeners welcome radical pronouncements from the pulpit; they sizzle with energy when exhorted to do something about the world’s myriad messes; they read tomes on liberation theology with their whole-grain breakfast cereal and their coffee most assuredly not grown by oppressed peasants.
More power to you preachers so blessed, I say — and skip on. You don’t need this article, which is intended for the rest of us, who preach to busy, tired, bewildered people. Such people are overwhelmed already by the small and personal details of life.
“Please,” they plead, “please (though underneath they weep with fear and grief for their world’s pain) don’t burden us now almost to breaking, with worries of war and hunger and racism and sexism and trees slaughtered by the millions. Enough already!”
Particularly do they say this if they are also rather traditional people, trying to be good in rather small and traditional ways — ways they believe will only be corrupted if the preacher turns radical and prophetic on them, mixing politics and religion when these (like oil and water) should always be kept strictly apart.
When we preachers face such people, we face great danger. There is the danger of speaking a language so foreign we simply cannot be heard. And there is the danger we will be heard, but that in hearing our listeners will find only more reasons to stagger under burdens of heaviness and helplessness and guilt.
Yet the world is in a mess, and complex social forces have conspired to cause the mess, making escape from social issue preaching difficult for any preacher who believes Christians are called to help heal the mess. Are there ways for the preacher to encourage concern for social issues and be heard in ways that are comforting and empowering rather than alienating? I believe there are, and that they include the following: recognizing that social issues are multidimensional, offering grace, respecting the power of story, and understanding reversal.
Recognition that social issues are multidimensional offers a crucial way of lessening the dangers of social issue preaching. Such preaching often bombards people with the demand that: a) they see that such a social problem as world hunger is caused by complex social/economic/political structures, institutions and forces; and b) they do something to change these structures.
When your marriage is rocky, your child is crying or your boss yells at you all day, it’s hard to figure out how to help the President of the United States change his policies, and it’s hard to know just where to begin reforming the economic system.
So you need to know that such intervention reflects only one dimension of social issues — the structural dimension. It is a crucial dimension, and world hunger will not end until that dimension is addressed, but I suggest there are at least three other dimensions, and one of them may offer a more appropriate, less overwhelming way to begin to care about world hunger:
There is the personal dimension. Hunger happens not only at a broad impersonal level but to individual people who can be helped at a personal level, such as through soup kitchens.
There is the interior dimension. What goes on in our depths, our psyches, our souls, our internal lives, impacts on how we deal with external world issues. A needless split often occurs in thinking about social issues, leading to the conclusion that internal growth is privatistic, spiritualized, withdrawn from the world’s troubles — and the antidote is to turn outward.
In actuality, as we find internal healing, we find new energy to care about external woes. This means an appropriate first response to hunger might be, paradoxically, to turn to a counselor or spiritual director.
Finally there is the dimension that enfolds and undergirds all the rest, and that is the transcendent dimension — the realm of God’s presence and action in the world. Social issue preaching is too often functionally atheistic — it acts as if God does not exist and only human effort will solve the world’s problems.
Preaching alive to this transcendent dimension knows all human work to end hunger is vanity if God is not, in the end, given space to work through and beyond our efforts. When this dimension is acknowledged, prayer is one valid response to hunger.
As preaching highlights the existence of these four dimensions, it gives listeners a chance to respond to social issues at a level appropriate to them, in a way that respects their gifts and personalities and situations in life. It then encourages them to grow in their ability to incorporate an increasing number of dimensions into their understanding of and response to the issues.
Implicit in such an approach is grace, because it invites rather than commands people into issues. Grace is so important it demands some explicit comment. Grace is often discarded by preachers on social issues, who are seduced into thinking, “Now I’ll be prophetic! And prophets are fiery types who flail people with the ugliness of their sins and tell them to shape up or woe, woe, woe shall be unto them!”
Such temptation can be tempered by seeing grace as crucial to all social issue sermons, though it can be expressed in at least three ways:
First is comforting grace. The preacher will eventually want to grapple with the fact that we are all implicated in structures that oppress others. I believe, for example, that American affluence is bought at the expense of inequities between rich and poor, requires vast militarization to defend it, and leads to environmental damage which threatens the very future of the planet. But comfort, comfort, even for us implicated in such living, is crucial before more painful words can be heard. Even as our living hurts others we, too, need balm in Gilead.
Second is empowering grace. As we move from comfort to encouragement to action, inviting our listeners to respond to the Jesus who calls His followers to costly obedience, we need to stress that those who respond to the invitation are not left to struggle alone. If the call is to simpler living as a way of reducing the damage done by affluence, response to the call will draw forth God’s gift of empowering, energizing grace.
Once the groundwork of comfort and empowerment has been laid, perhaps the most difficult facet of grace — savage grace — can be explored. This facet suggests that sometimes whom God loves God chastens; sometimes we have to be burned to be healed. This may literally be the case if — as some scientists think — the hot, dry summers of the 1980’s are the result of human-caused environmental damage. The heat may be God’s savage grace warning us to change our ways before it is too late.
All of this is getting pretty complex. How does the preacher respect the complexity while communicating it in simple and accessible ways? Not, I would argue, by doing what preachers often do — drowning people in reams of facts and statistics and arcane theories. Then how? With story.
Story offers a way of weaving complexity into one unified strand listeners can follow. A good novel or movie or TV show can incorporate all kinds of data about social forces and still be widely accessible, because story carries things along in ways a textbook never can.
Back in his “Prairie Home Companion” days, Garrison Keillor told the story of a man tempted to commit adultery who finally resisted, because he had this intuition that his adultery would ripple out across the fabric of his small town in all kinds of ways. Our lives are linked together in such an intricate web that even resisting adultery can be a way of addressing social issues. Telling sermonic stories that show this may help people grasp the truth that their lives are stories encompassing many dimensions and many facets of grace.
Another reason to use story is that it can give the transcendent dimension more room to breathe in our preaching. God’s transcendence is often lost not only in our theologizing about social issues but also in the form we use to communicate.
Too often we wrap God up in a neat and tidy sermonic box with an introduction, three points and a conclusion. This can be a fine way to communicate; it can also embalm God in our limited reasoning and logic. Story helps lessen that danger, particularly if we value the Bible as the source of a grand Story, a sort of true fairy tale told by God, in which all kinds of wondrous things can happen.
Story is also important because it helps the preacher create an alternate house of being in which listeners can be invited to live. That is as much the task of preaching sensitivity to the social arena as addresssing specific issues — to build a house made of the kinds of stories and images and symbols found in the Bible; to help the Bible’s world become our world so thoroughly we can’t help but find ourselves in a war between the world’s stories and our Christian one. Society wraps us in images of sleek cars and the sleek women who sit on the car hoods. The Bible enfolds us in images of washing feet and loving lepers.
And that leads into the ingredient of reversal, which cannot be ignored by any preacher who wants to use the Bible as a key inspiration for addressing social issues. In the biblical Story, things turn upside down.
Surprises abound, expectations are reversed. The poor are exalted, the rich man’s soul is demanded just when the barn is full. God asks us who are affluent and comfortable and secure to recognize we may be headed for destruction — even as our houses grow more plush and our bank accounts fatten. Meanwhile some homeless person may be headed toward true happiness. Using reversal in preaching — without negating grace — stimulates people to rethink their values and priorities and the ultimate outcome of their lives.
Multidimensionality. Grace. Story. Reversal. There is no simple formula for turning them into successful preaching on social issues. Using them will produce sermons as many and varied as there are preachers and theological biases and political leanings.
Yet they can help unleash the grief and fear and helplessness and guilt roiling in so many souls as the planet’s woes mount in this late twentieth century, and turn that turmoil into a healing energy aching to overcome with light a darkening world.
This article draws upon material in Preaching About Life in a Threatening World (Westminster Press, 1987, authored by Michael A. King and Ronald J. Sider.

Share This On: