Preaching and Politics: How Pastors Can Handle Hot-Button Topics
Politics and preaching don’t mix, most people assume. But do pastors really need to steer clear of political topics and cultural debates? Should ministers and teachers reveal their political leanings during sermons and Bible classes? Is it okay to address tough issues that divide modern-day congregants? These questions often arise in America’s churches, especially as each new election cycle heats up.
When pastors start talking about politics or a political issue from the pulpit, some people in the United States object and call for churches to lose their tax-exempt status. Hashtags such as #TaxtheChurches trend whenever a pastor or church makes headlines for alleged wrongdoing.
Because Christians live in the world but are not of the world, preaching about politics and societal issues might feel like walking a tightrope. Yes, every preacher is called to share God’s holy truth with believers and nonbelievers alike. But interpretations of biblical edicts vary widely among different denominations, families and individuals. Even though a wide range of sensitive subjects may cause strife in U.S. churches and communities, pastors can play a key role in calming the tensions and antagonism.
Let’s look at the relationship between pastors and politics from a few different angles. Keep these thoughts in mind as candidates hit the campaign trail (again).
Politics and the Pulpit: 5 Considerations for Today’s Preachers
Not all aspects of preaching politics are negative. A senior pastor and Christian church also can focus on the Bible’s instructions about Christian living.
1. Explore Our Dual Citizenship as Christians.
In Scripture, Jesus commands people to obey their rulers, follow laws and pay taxes (without complaint). All these aspects of citizenship are fair game for sermons. During messages and Bible studies, pastors can encourage each church member to vote, explore Christian ethics and maintain political engagement.
Research shows that people of faith excel at many aspects of citizenship. For example, compared to their nonreligious peers, religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. Plus, religious people “are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones.” From the pulpit, a sermon can encourage church members to stay active with community government, attend civic meetings, and voice their opinions (respectfully) as constituents and taxpayers.
2. Dig Into Scripture.
Although pastors shouldn’t endorse specific candidates from the pulpit, they can preach thoughtful sermon series on numerous hot topics. No tax-related rules prohibit sermons on an issue such as love, unity, life, justice, relationships and parenting, for example. Without mentioning secular divisions of Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, or blue vs. red, pastors can shine God’s light on a range of moral issues that end up on the ballot.
What values should shape a modern-day Christian voter in America? In Psalm 146 we read about God’s values. God is the one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind” (vv. 7-8). Although good Christians certainly debate how our society can best address these concerns, no disagreement should remain about their priority to God. In other words, pastors can recommend that people take God’s priorities into account when making personal voting decisions.
In Psalm 146, we also see how God’s values undergird his entire being. “The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (vv. 8-9). In every time and place, God lifts up the burdened and loves people who are in a right relationship with him. God has special concern for those who have no way to provide for themselves. Again, honest disagreements exist about how best to meet these needs, but the needs themselves are indisputable.
3. Love and Pray for Our Political Enemies.
Many political issues have no easy solutions; that’s why they’re in the news year after year, administration after administration. Remind worshipers and students of all ages to regularly pray for the country and its leaders, even the ones with whom they disagree.
Jesus’ difficult command to love our enemies can feel irksome, especially regarding political foes and people on the other side of the proverbial aisle. But we can love people whom we might perceive as going-to-hell reprobates. How? Because Jesus asks us to take only one action at a time. Each example Jesus suggests in the Gospels involves a concrete, positive action. So we can love our enemies simply by engaging in one act of kindness at a time. Prayer is a great way to start loving those enemies in a consistent way.
“Far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist,” preached Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command [to love one’s enemies] is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization.”
4. Focus on Christian Unity, Not Divisions.
Even churchgoers with wildly divergent political views have many qualities in common. So don’t preach politics per se. Instead, preaching about people’s shared traits — Christian faith plus all the fruit of the Spirit — will ease the “us vs. them” perceptions that sometimes infiltrate the church pews.
We encounter a wide range of people in church life who hold positions quite different from our own. Beyond politics, this extends to parenting, marriage, money management, nutrition, recreation, education, vocation, human sexuality and more. Engaging in honest discussions in both large and small groups leads to discoveries about people’s similarities and commonalities. So does hosting fellowship events where a range of diverse participants can mingle and get acquainted. Breaking down barriers is a key task for pastors when it comes to political debates. Remind congregants to talk respectfully and to stay open to learning from people who seem different from them politically, socially, economically and religiously.
5. Help Your Church Spark Positive Change.
When national politics threaten to separate congregants, churches should always take the high road and focus on the good news of Christ. Pastors and lay leaders alike should set an example by staying calm and positive. Rather than letting politics poison the pulpit, preachers can focus on what they do best: worshiping, praising and teaching. But outreach is possible too, even in areas deemed quasi-political. At community gatherings, churches might want to set up booths, hand out water bottles and distribute flyers about upcoming events. Churches can open their doors to unhoused people, providing temporary shelter and necessities. Food banks and pantries are in high demand, especially during a recession, so stocking shelves with nonperishables is a way to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus.
Some churches serve as polling places during local and national elections. Although electioneering on the premises is off-limits, congregations can take advantage of the influx of traffic through their facility. For example, an outreach committee might want to display posters publicizing worship opportunities, concerts and other events the community will enjoy.
The apostle Paul knew what it was like to live by faith in the middle of political changes, joys, sorrows, triumphs and setbacks. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, he described himself and his colleagues as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul felt this way because he took the long view, praising God in good times and bad, and teaching people to live according to God’s values. So can we, no matter the politics surrounding our churches and people.
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