You feel a knot in your stomach as you step to the pulpit. You are about to preach a sermon on an emotionally charged issue. This issue has been smoldering for weeks in your congregation. People are talking about it, asking questions, voicing strident opinions. You are determined to speak to it from the pulpit.
But now, staring at the faces of the people who trust you and love you, you are having second thoughts. You imagine the reactions your sermon is sure to evoke. Some people will be angry: “Pastor, wish you’d just stick to the Bible!” Some will be shocked, confused: “When my church goes off the deep end, where can I turn?” Some will be supportive: “That sermon took guts, pastor.” Few will be indifferent.
Make no mistake, you are about to drop-kick a hornet’s nest “Why am I doing this?” you think, fringing your hands. “I’m not going to change long-held views in a 20 minute sermon anyhow. Our Fall fund-drive kicks off in two weeks and here I go creating conflict and turmoil. What was I thinking of?”
Capital punishment. Abortion, Homosexuality. Gay marriage. Euthanasia. Legalized gambling. Not for long can a responsible preacher avoid controversy. Sooner or later every pulpiteer has to deal with an emotionally charged issue.
Some preachers are drawn to controversy like moths to a flame. Most ministers, though, are reluctant to deal with emotionally charged issues. Clergy fear that controversial sermons will endanger the congregation’s institutional health. Attendance may decrease. Giving will go south. Members may leave the church and go elsewhere. Even if they don’t change churches, parishioners may be hurt. A good relationship between pastor and people can take years to forge. Why risk fracturing it? Is it worth rocking the boat?
Furthermore, the authority of the pulpit often inhibits the balanced treatment of a controversial subject. Many people feel, quite rightly, that the pulpit is a place for authoritative proclamation. When parishioners’ sense that the pastor is using that authority to push his or personal views, they react negatively.
Over against all these concerns lies the pastor’s sense of call. And what about biblical integrity? If you feel God’s word has something to say on an issue, then shouldn’t you say it? If people are ignoring Scripture’s clear teaching on a certain issue, why shouldn’t they be challenged? The preacher’s job is not just to comfort the troubled, but to trouble the comfortable. Moreover, a controversial sermon gets the issue out in the open. The toxicity of the topic is diminished; honest dialogue can now take place.
To preach on a controversial issue, or not to preach? Before you decide, ask yourself three questions,
1) Are there alternative strategies for addressing this subject?
Sometimes a sermon is not the best way of addressing an issue. Preaching, after all, is monologue. Those who hold opposing points of view do not get equal time to present their side of the story. Would an adult Sunday School class be a better forum for addressing the issue? How about a series of special midweek meetings? Pro and con articles in the church newsletter? Speaking to an issue doesn’t necessarily mean preaching about it.
2) Have I taken the congregation’s temperature?
Talk to a few trusted, candid parishioners, explaining the sermon you have in mind. This will help you get a feel for the congregational reaction you can expect, what questions you ought to address. You might think your congregation will burst into spontaneous combustion at the very mention of a certain issue. But consulting a sampling of parishioners might reveal that people would be receptive to a sermon on this subject.
3) Have I taken my own temperature?
Be honest: are your personal feelings unduly affecting your approach to this issue? Ask yourself: Why am I preaching on this subject? What’s the urgency? Maybe the urgency comes from society, maybe it comes from within the pastor. Either way, you need to know why you feel so strongly about this issue.
So you’ve ruled out alternative strategies, taken the congregation’s temperature as well as your own, and you’re still bound and determined to preach. Now what? Here are some practical steps to take in your sermonizing:
First, if you do feel compelled to preach on an emotionally-charged issue, try to frame the sermon so that people deal not with the pastor’s view, but with the gospel. Let the congregation see themselves addressed not so much by the pastor as by Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah, whomever. The pastor then joins the people under the gospel.
Second, honor the legitimacy of opposing positions. Recognize from the get-go that there is seldom a single, non-debatable, normative Christian viewpoint on any issue. There are almost always two sides. Sincere and thoughtful Christians often come to different conclusions. When you recognize the legitimacy of opposing views, you defuse the “I’m right, you’re wrong” impulse.
Third, name the questions people are likely to have. Voicing the questions people are likely to raise enables your listeners to find themselves in the sermon. It creates the impression that the pastor is sensitive to my concern. He or she appreciates my point of view.
Finally, preach inductively, not deductively. A deductive sermon begins with a major point, then develops it. When your main point is different than that of your hearer’s, their reaction is going to be defensive. Inductive preaching, on the other hand, begins with thoughtful questions about the issue, bits of data, theological insight, biblical truth etc., all of which lead to a major point at sermon’s end. Inductive preaching enables you to take your congregation with you step by step as you build your case, helping them see where you are going and why.
Even when people disagree with you they are likely to concede the validity of your viewpoint if you let them know not only what is your conclusion, but how you got there, and how your convictions are rooted in the faith we all share.

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