Why Churches Shouldn't Avoid the Hardest Issues
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Javier_Art_Photography
This notice appeared on the front page of the July 4, 2004, issue of the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader:
It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.
When that newspaper’s staff decided to prepare a special edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, they began combing through their archives looking for local material. That’s when they discovered a complete lack of such information. The newspaper had simply not covered the civil rights movement, period.
A local African-American leader said, “The white community just prayed that rumors and reports (of the civil rights movement) would be swept under the rug and just go away.”
As odd as that is, it will not come as a surprise to many that a lot of churches lived through the same revolution in this country without the first mention of it from the pulpit. (And we wonder why outsiders found our sermons irrelevant.)
Churches are prone to forget the things they do not want to acknowledge.
In 1995, when Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing a great many people, this nation went into shock. Life in America changed that day. But not in my church.
That weekend I had to be out of town and had one of our staff members bring the Sunday sermon. On my return, a letter came from a lady who had been visiting in our church. She said, “Pastor, I cannot tell you how disappointed I was that not a single word was mentioned in your service last Sunday about the Murrah Federal Building’s being bombed. This was inexcusable.”
I had a quick meeting with our staff to share that letter and let them know how completely I agreed with the writer. I take the blame, but there was enough to go around. I hope we never made a similar mistake again.
Churches overlook movements and trends they do not understand and cannot appreciate.
Entire segments of the evangelical church in former years completely “forgot” that there is more to the Christian life than the salvation experience. In their zeal to get the lost into the Kingdom, they put all their emphasis and resources into conversion evangelism and none into discipleship of the saved—teaching the Word, instructing believers in the disciplines of the faith, grounding them in doctrines and service.
Now, some churches have gone in the opposite direction, treating everyone as though they were the redeemed and gearing all their teaching and preaching toward obedience and discipleship but with no mention ever being made as to how people enter the kingdom in the first place.
In 1968, the Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated, I changed my sermon and preached to the congregation at Greenville, Mississippi’s Emmanuel Baptist Church about what our country was going through. In the middle of the message, a lady got up and walked out. I know she did, because she phoned me that afternoon to let me know she had.
“What are you going to be preaching tonight?” she asked.
I told her, then said, “May I ask why you wanted to know?”
That’s when she told me she had walked out that morning. She said, “We come to church for some peace and quiet. We get enough of the world situation on the news, and don’t need to hear about it from the pulpit.”
I couldn’t resist. “You come to church for peace and quiet?” She had no response and ended the call.
No doubt there were any number of churches, even in our own Southern Baptist Convention, where she could have attended every Sunday for years without learning there was a civil rights movement going on all around her. But I was determined that ours would not be one of them.
Someone told me of a Baptist church that will not sing any hymn with a reference to the blood of Jesus. I wonder what they do with the Bible which gives prominence to the Savior’s saving blood throughout. Do they leave out those references also? (I assume they do.)
There are churches which seem to have forgotten that our salvation has to do with the Lord Jesus Christ. Read their prayers, listen to their hymns and sermons, and it’s all about “God,” with never a mention of Jesus. I find this completely mind-boggling.
Scripture has much to say about marriage, sexuality, and immorality. But a large segment of Christianity has chosen to ignore those teachings and to parrot the culture.
Those lapses—leaving out the blood, Jesus, marriage, faithfulness—are not matters the church has accidentally forgotten, of course, but purposefully erased from their minds. They will answer to the Lord for this.
The solution is twofold.
First, preach the whole Word of God.
In his final epistle, the Apostle Paul cautioned Timothy and the rest of us about the last days. “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
Pastors who preach through the New Testament regularly do not fear omitting some unpopular doctrine, for it will all be there in one way or the other, sooner or later.
Second, stay alert to the world around you.
The image that comes to mind has the pastor standing behind the pulpit holding the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. On the one hand, he carries the timeless Word of the Living God. On the other, the means to make it timely.
Pastors know this, but sometimes need reminding.
The Sunday after September 11, 2001, there was scarcely a pastor in this country who failed to talk about what America was facing. It was on everyone’s minds and could not be ignored.
Likewise, after Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf South in late 2005. Sermons referenced it in a hundred ways.
The doctrine of hell takes the gold medal for the most forgettable of all the Scripture’s teaching in our day. No one likes the doctrine, for obvious reasons. However, we cannot explain it away, we’re embarrassed when outsiders throw it up to us, and yet there it is, throughout the New Testament. So, many of us simply choose to forget it.
On a Saturday afternoon, the pastor was struggling to finish his sermon. He told his wife, “I just need that final illustration to tie it all together and really bring it home.”
She suggested they go for a drive in the country to rest his mind. Maybe something would occur.
Several miles out in the countryside they came upon a burning farmhouse. Neighbors were arriving in cars and trucks and jumping out and rushing into action, forming a bucket brigade to bring water from a well and throw on the flames. Off to one side stood the grieving family who were losing their house. People were hugging, everyone in tears.
The pastor told his wife, “That’s it. That’s the perfect illustration for tomorrow’s sermon.”
The next morning at church, when the pastor came to the part of the message where he needed to pull it all together, he told his story. He told how he and his wife had been enjoying their drive when they suddenly came upon this dramatic scene. Cars and trucks arriving, people frantically rushing about, helping one another, building a bucket brigade, neighbors showing love and compassion, and the sad family off to the side receiving love from their friends. It was all very touching and moving, he said.
On the drive home, the pastor said, “You know, honey, my great story didn’t seem to work. The people just sat there staring. They didn’t get it.”
His wife said, “Well, John, you forgot to tell them the house was on fire.”
Much of our preaching today has lost its sense of urgency because we have left out what our Lord had to say about many things, including hell. We are trying to motivate our people to do all the right things but without telling them that the house is on fire.
Seeing that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness (2 Peter 3:11).
Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.