Preaching in Times of Upheaval
Note from the Editor: Recently I asked Founding Editor Dr. Maxie Dunnam to share about the call of preaching in times of deep upheaval. Following the brutal death of George Floyd, I watched as many Caucasian pastors preached about racial justice – some to congregations that had never before heard a biblical sermon on the subject. I watched too as clergy were startled by reactions against their preaching as otherwise sedate churchgoers sent angry emails, withheld giving, or withdrew membership. As I considered the pushback, Maxie came to mind as someone uniquely positioned to offer encouragement to continue to fight the good fight: early in pastoral ministry, in the violence of 1960s Mississippi, he and other white Methodist clergy wrote and signed a public letter against prejudice, racism, and segregation that led to many of them having to leave the state, receiving death threats, even being implicated in police investigations. Those experiences aren’t something about which Dr. Dunnam is quick to speak; he rightly keeps the focus on the injustices to be confronted. However, he responded graciously when I asked him to share two short essays to exhort and encourage white pastors preaching, reading, learning, and leading toward the good news of Gospel-soaked justice. Here is the first. – Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor
What a time to preach! We may say that with all sorts of emotion and meaning. What a wonderful (challenging, tough, impossible, painful, joyful) time to preach. Who we are, where we are, how long we have been where we are, our past experience and our present understanding and convictions all combine to play huge roles in determining what we say about our present situation in the midst of a raging pandemic and justice issues that may become even more raging than the virus.
It was tough enough, complex enough, challenging enough with the never-experienced-before coronavirus. The sovereignty of God – God’s character, God’s power expressed when love is his defining nature, God’s gift of freedom to us persons, the height of his creation – these core theological issues of our Christian faith all focus in this virus impacting our world.
How much more? How long, oh Lord! Enduring the pastoral demands and upheaval of that confounding epidemic, seeking to be faithful in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, many pastors were already at the breaking point, when wham! Then comes the murder of George Floyd and a social justice struggle more vividly felt and publicly shared than anything like it since the launching and growth of the Civil Rights Movement.
What a time to preach!
I was a young preacher in those late fifties and sixties of the Civil Rights Movement, and my ministry was significantly shaped by the issues raging around that movement. In my reflection and prayers, since I first saw the man in Minnesota being murdered (a modern lynching) with a crowd looking on, and the dramatic, convincing public expression of our deadly disease of racism, I am painfully aware of my failures. I have stood for racial justice and have been righteously indignant at the blatant mistreatment of our Black brothers and sisters. I have worked for justice, particularly in housing and education, which I believe are systemic issues related to the more organic justice issue. But my primary failure has been in not recognizing in myself, in our churches, and in our nation, our sin of racism. I have worked at not being a racist, but in my ministry of preaching and teaching, I have not been consistently faithful in confronting the sin of racism.
That’s not what this essay is about, but I feel I need to make that confession before addressing the subject I have been asked to write about: how do we preach in times like these? More specifically, what pastoral word might I have for pastors who, for perhaps the first time are speaking up and beginning to see the cost?
First, I speak what may be a harsh word. If you have not been preaching on issues like civil rights and racial justice, don’t try to “redeem yourself” by being bold in speaking now. Having said that, I’m quick to say, probably none of us have been as faithful as we should have been in confronting this.
Preach now we must; but let’s be humble. Admit the issues are so complex that it is difficult to speak clearly. Even so: this is a critical issue for the church. Confess that you have failed in not dealing with this issue and you intend to do so now and in the future. “I don’t know as much as I need to know, therefore my sharing may be limited. But what I do know, and what I am compelled to proclaim, is that God’s love is not limited to the white race, and it certainly cannot be withheld from anyone. Justice is for all and should be expressed equally for all races. God’s creation of us humans, and calling the creation ‘good,’ is the basic foundation for us to call for justice for those to whom justice has been denied. The nature of creation alone is also enough to express public lament for violent treatment of any of God’s children.”
Knowing that your preaching is limited in possible impact, don’t see proclamation as your primary witness. Could you do some of these? One, start a three or four week Bible study, focusing on justice and God’s love for all people. Two, find a way to listen to Black people in your community. Three, establish a small leadership group to plan how your church will move into the future, giving attention to this challenge. Resources on this website, sites like Dr. Esau McCaulley‘s, his podcast, or this project, along with people you know, can provide guidance in finding resources to assist you in any of these pursuits.
I have found that when I am honest in expressing my own limitations and my own convictions, which are clearly based on Scripture, in humility and compassion, most people will listen respectfully. If I do not come off as trying to convince folks of my convictions, and if I refuse to be defensive and argumentative, people will listen more. No other profession than our ordination, gives one the setting and the opportunity to express conviction on issues like racial justice, abortion, assisted suicide, support of those in poverty, and equity in accessing education. It’s a treasure that preachers need to value and hold lightly in clay hands that we must keep with strength and integrity.