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Preaching on Sensitive Subjects

  • Joe McKeever
  • Updated Mar 27, 2009
Preaching on Sensitive Subjects

I thought I was the first to discover this technique of dealing with controversial issues from the pulpit. But it turns out this littlefind of mine has been unearthed many times in the past.

Galileo, for instance, demonstrated it in the 17th century. His message was burning a hole in his heart and soul. He absolutely had to tell the world the truth about the universe as he was beginning to understand it. The problem was that he had been warned not to spread his heretical teachings any more. The religious leaders of his day had lost patience with him and had him on notice that they would not tolerate any more of his insolence.

So,the scientist decided to tell a story.

Galileowrote a book in which he created three characters and had them discuss the matters he wanted to put before the world. One man represented his antagonists, the second presented Galileo's views -- without ever mentioning his name -- and the third moved the discussion along.

When he presented his book to the authorities for their approval, they naively saw nothing wrong with this harmless discussion of these issues. Too late, they realizedGalileo had slipped one past them. By then the book was everywhere and recalling each volume was impossible.

In his defense, Galileo pointed out that all he had done was tell a story. It was an argument hard to deny.

Tell a story. No technique has ever been found that works better when presenting difficult truths to an unreceptive audience.

Abraham Lincoln had the method down pat. He knew a good story can work wonders of a hundred kinds, everything from changing the subject to easing tension, from infusing a discussion with a needed bit of levity to making a crucial point at a critical time.

But neither Lincoln nor Galileo--and certainly not I--created this technique. It's been around forever.

Our Lord was a master teacher and thus knew the power of a well-placed story.

"Who exactly is my neighbor?" a man challenged Jesus. The Lord answered, "A certain man was going down to Jericho and fell among thieves." This tale we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates the concept of neighborly love and human kindness better than any argument could.

The fact that Jesus made the victim a Jew and the care-giver a Samaritan enraged some in His audience, but it was a wonderful point well made.

"You're receiving sinners and even eating with them!" they accused Jesus. He said, "A shepherd had a hundred sheep and lost one." "A woman had ten coins and could not find one." "A man had two sons." Three parables, three stories, all to answer the charge of partiality toward the fallen.

These poor creatures are valuable, they are God's. He loves them and welcomes them back. A point made with a story.

I came by this the hard way. Over four decades of pastoring churches across several Southern states, Ifrequently found myself in situations where the sermon addressed issues on which the congregation wasdivided. Racism, prejudice, ministry to the homeless, our position on homosexuality. social drinking, the responsibility of the wealthy to help the poor--and a hundred other situations come to mind.

I once preached God's message of love to all people of all colors in a Mississippi church I had just gone to pastor. What makes this special is the year was 1967, Martin Luther King was at his most influential, and racial tensions in the Mississippi Delta were high. And yet there was no question in my mind concerning my duty. We must not be a reflection of the culture around us, but speak to it from God's Word.

Being young and inexperienced, I knew of only one way of approaching any subject: head on. To their credit, the congregation received the message. I did, however, receive a visit from the chairman of the deacons. "What you are saying is right, Pastor," he said, "But I need to remind you that your predecessor preached to these people for 9 years that segregation was God's way." He let that soak in, then said, "You can change them. But you'll need to be patient with them."

It was good advice, which I needed and almost heeded. Three years later, I was a staff member of the largest church in the state and once in the pastor's absence was invited to fill the pulpit. I waded in and preached on racial prejudice. (I was against it, in case anyone wonders.)

Immediately following the service, a retired pastor called me off to the side. "Joe, what you said was right. But may I give you a word of counsel?" He said, "Carlyle Marney once said the people are stuck in the mud and you throw them a rope. Now, if you jerk the rope, it breaks and they're in there for good. The best way to get them out is by keeping a steady pressure on the rope."

As the Lord sent good counsel by these men, I began to see there were better ways of addressing these hot-button issues than taking them by the horns, so to speak. It's possible to do an end-run -- to use a football analogy -- and come at the matter from a different direction.

The prophet Nathan and John the Baptist were given the same assignment: confront a king about his immorality and adultery. John waded in boldly, pointed his finger in the face of the ruler, and announced, "It is not right!" Nathan told the king a story and showed him the unfairness of what he had done. John was thrown into prison and later beheaded, while Nathan had the pleasure of seeing King David humble himself and repent.

As with a lot of illustrations, this one has its limitations. Herod Antipas and King David were opposites in a hundred ways, and any preacher would have preferred Nathan's assignment to John's.

On several occasions when the Apostle Paul was in shackles and about to be lynched -- either by a mob or a government official -- he defused the hostility and made his point by telling a story. The story was frequently his own testimony, but just asoften was the story of Jesus. He was a powerful and effective evangelist.

At a national meeting of our denomination some years back, we were trying to conduct a business meeting with 30,000 people in a room, and each one with the privilege of speaking into a microphone on the issues at hand. Pity our poor presiding officers and parliamentarians! We were deeply enmeshed in some controversial point when Bob Franklin of Montgomery, Alabama, was recognized to speak.

"This whole matter reminds me of something that happened when I was growing up in rural Alabama," he began. "Sometimes the calf would get out of the pasture and my dad would keep me home from school to help him find it. I still remember the time we were walking up a holler, when we came to where it forked. Mydad said, 'Son, you go that way and I'll go this way. Because I just have an idea that calf could be on both sides of this ridge!'"

His story addressed our situation so perfectly, making the point that the truth might indeed lie on both sides of thematter we were discussing.

Now, I'm a conservative Bible-believing Southern Baptist preacher. The positions I hold on most doctrinal and social issues are also held by another40,000 or so of our pastors and millions of our people. And yet, there are points to be made to our folks.Someone has to remind us to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, not to overlook the homeless, to welcome the fallen, and to forgive sinners. And as a pastor, that's my job.

A well-placed story can work wonders. Here are two or three whichI've found to be of great value.

Harold Bales was myneighboring pastor in Charlotte, NC, in the 1980s. His church faced a city park where the homeless often congregated, so he began to send his people out to meet them early on Sunday mornings. They would feed them breakfast and bring them into the worship services.

One day an older lady in Harold's church said, "Pastor, why do we have to have all these people in our church?" Harold said, "Because I don't want anyone to go to hell." She said, "Well, I don't want them to go to hell either." He said, "I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about you."

That story makes the point of our obligation to minister to the needy as well as anything I know.

I received a phone call late one Sundaynight from a pastor of a huge church in our state. To this day, I still don't know why he called. We chatted about various things, then he said, "Boy, I really got 'em told tonight." I said, "What did you preach?" He said, "I preached that passage in I Corinthians 6 about the homosexuals and others not going to heaven."

I said, "Did you preach the whole thing?" "What are you talking about?" he said. I said, "After giving that long list of moral failures, Paul says, "But such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified." I let it soak in a moment and said, "Did it ever occur to you that if that church in Corinth was reaching homosexuals for Jesus they must not have had a sign out front saying 'fags will burn in hell forever.' They must have been loving those people into the kingdom."

There was a long pause, then hesaid, "I sure wish I had talked to you before preaching that sermon."

Sometimes I tell our people a story about a gay man I used toknow to give them a little glimpse on what he has had to go through. Bill used to watch our worship services on television and decided to drop in on me one day. "Ifelt I could talk with you," he said.

He had beenraised in a Baptist church in another county and was nowliving on a farm near our town. He knew I did not agree with the life he was living and we would discuss what the Bible says on the subject.I felt he needed a friend and endeavored to be that for him.

One day my wife and I werevisiting the used car lotsin our town, looking to buy her an automobile, and entered one where our salesmanturned out to be my friendBill. He was friendly and helpful, and onthe way home, Margaretbegan asking questions about him. She knew a single young lady or two she might want to match Bill up with. That's when I told her about him.

A couple of weeks later, Bill came to see me. "I left that car lot," he said, and told why. Acustomer had come in and asked about a certain pickup truck on the lot. "I told him what we would take for it, but he wanted to pay a lot less. I told him we had more in it than that and couldn't sell it for that amount. He looked at me and said,'You will sell it to me for that or I'll go in and tell your boss what you are.'" Bill said, "Igot up and walked into the boss's office and handed in my resignation. I'm backworking on my farm."

Regardless of one's position on homosexuality and lesbianism -- as well asadultery and every other variation of sexual sin -- there is no question that God's word instructs Christians to act in love and Christlikeness in all we do.

Concerning racism, I tell my people about a conversation I experienced in a family-style restaurant in McComb, Mississippi, a few years back. Two men set their trays down at my table, and after we nodded greetings, the first began to try to get a conversation going.

"What do you think the legislature is going to do?" he said. I told him I was from New Orleans and didn't have a clue what they were doing in Jackson. He said, "Well, who are you folks going to elect as governor next year?" I told him of a mayor who was running and thought I'd vote for him. He said, "What do you think of Donald Racist's chances?"(Obviously, I'm changing the name here. He was referring to a well-known member of the Ku Klux Klan.)

I said, "Not very much." He said, "Why's that?" I said, "Donald Racist believes some things our people don't believe." "Such as?" he said.

I said, "Such as the superiority of the white race." He said, "Well, that's a little hard to argue with." I closed the book I was trying to read and looked at him and said, "I'll argue with it." But he was ready; he'd had this conversation before.

"Then tell me," he said, "why it is that down through history whenever whites and blacks have lived together, the blacks have ended up as the slaves of the whites. Tell me that."

I'd heard that before and said, "Sir, you'll be glad to know that's not right. It did happen a few times, but not very many. But, even if it did happen, if anything it would say more about the inferiority of the whites,for makingslaves out of their brothers."

He didn't bat an eye. "That brings up the matter of slavery, doesn't it."I said, "It does?" He said, "I see you have aBible there." Then he said, "You know there's not one word in all the Bible against slavery." I said, "Are you serious?" He said, "Show me oneverse in the Bible that says slavery is wrong."

What happened next was one for the books. Over the next couple of seconds,my mind was feverishly whirring as I tried to come up with some Scripture against slavery. I couldn't think of a thing.That's when the other fellow spoke up.

He had not saida word the whole time, and I hadjust assumed they were two peas of a pod, that one was speaking for both. When his friend challenged me to give him one verse ofScripture against slavery, this fellow turned to his friend and said,"How about 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself'?"

I said, "Great answer!" It was the perfect comeback. I was so relieved I felt like running around the table and hugging the man.

His companion never let on that he had been skewered, but tried to change the subject. I asked him to excuse me, that I had some reading to do. But the truth is, I never readanother word. I sat there for the rest of the meal thinking what a satisfying retort that brother had furnished his friend.And he had done it with a verse of Scripture I had always believed but had found boring and tame. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" had just nailed a racistlie to the wall.

A year or two later, the sheriff in my Louisiana parish was in the local news calling for a casino to be built in our part of the world. Iwrote him a note, suggesting that he provide moral leadership for our people instead of agitating for a gambling establishment. To my surprise, he answered it.

"Reverend," he began, "I am offended you would imply there's anything immoral about gambling." Then he said, "Give me one Scripture in the wholeBible that says there's anything wrong with gambling."

I wrong back, "Dear Sheriff: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

They say that humor is like a rubber ball, that it lets you make a point without drawing blood.

A good story does the same.

Matthew tells us (13:34) that our Lord never preached or taught without telling a story.

He knew.


Joe McKeever is Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. His website is