In a Society—and Church—That Is Often Bitterly Divided, Our Preaching Can Show a Better Way
How do preachers build spiritual unity during divisive times? That’s a pressing question for pastors as they deliver sermons to congregations that are splitting along political and ideological lines. This is incredibly challenging considering the believer’s calling to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:4). So how do preachers use the influence of the pulpit to build unity? Here are three suggestions.
Preach the Simplicity of the Gospel
First, preach the simplicity of the gospel. In my early twenties, I stumbled across a verse that has stuck with me. The King James Version reads, “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Paul issued his warning in response to false teachers who were preaching “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached” (2 Corinthians 11:4). He was fearful they were being duped by a different gospel that isn’t the gospel! After thirty-plus years of pastoral ministry, that verse has been a steadying influence when tempted to drift from preaching “Christ crucified” to Christ politicized.
Why is preaching the centrality of the gospel so crucial in this cultural moment? Because many minds are being, to use Paul’s vernacular, “corrupted.” I recently heard of a longtime church member who was “beguiled” into embracing outlandish conspiracy theories. She self-isolated from her church community as she increasingly immersed herself in a toxic cesspool of social media. As a result, the more she believed the lies, the deeper she sank into irrational fear, paranoia, anger, and hatred. False teachers had led her astray from the “simplicity that is in Christ.” As a result, her life is subtly destroyed by a cultural narrative antithetical to the gospel message. She practiced a modern form of syncretism, comingling fabricated falsehoods with the gospel to create a non-gospel!
Especially during divisive times, keep preaching the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus.
Preach a Better Narrative
This leads to the second way to build unity during divisive times, preach a better narrative. Preachers are to challenge current cultural narratives with a better one. Rev. Steve DeNeff explains:
Our narrative is shaped by the movies, the media, and political bantering. The media has created a brand of news-telling; and with the brand comes brand loyalty—followers. That has played on these two sides, so you turn on one station and they’ll say all good about the one without doing so with the other one. And that would not affect the church unless it was the church’s dominant narrative. And that, I think, is the real tragedy. The church’s culpability is that it has not filled that vacuum with a better narrative. We have to stand up and say, “You are children of God, you are bearers of the light, children of the Kingdom of God—these are your ethics and values.”
That’s why preachers must place the current cultural events within the greater biblical storyline. The biblical narrative acknowledges this world is fallen. It is filled with pain, suffering, and injustice. But the better narrative of the gospel is that God’s Son came as the redemptive solution to our sin and separation from God. The believing sinner, through faith in Jesus, will be adopted into God’s eternal family.
All believers have a greater narrative for their life to follow. And the faithful preacher must continue to remind people in their churches of God’s better narrative. The classic hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” still reminds us that the gospel gives us “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow”!
Preach with Grace and Truth
Thirdly, we are told that Jesus was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). So, in one sense, a preacher’s sermon should be bilingual, which metaphorically means developing the capacity to preach in both the language of grace and truth. Or, to mix metaphors, a preacher should speak with both a shepherd’s voice and a prophet’s voice.
One way of preaching on a potentially divisive topic is to preach with a shepherd’s voice. For example, find common ground with those who may reject the basic premise of your message. Tim Keller writes, “…the basic way to handle objections is to sincerely agree with your listeners’ beliefs at some point, but then to question a second, mistaken belief on the basis of the first. It is to say: ‘Since you believe this, why not believe that?’” (Keller, 112).
The initial agreement with at least part of the other side’s argument can accomplish a couple of things. The listeners may sense your empathy, causing them to feel heard and understood. Then building upon that mutual agreement, the preacher can move the message toward making a point that may initially be rejected. This better enables the preacher to be bilingual—to speak with a prophet’s voice, authoritatively encouraging God’s people to obey God’s truth in their life and situation.
For example, if preaching a sermon a few weeks before a national election, the pastor may preach from 1 Peter 2:17. That’s where Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” And the proposition statement for the message is, “How to honor our next president?” The preacher could open by using a shepherd’s voice, by acknowledging the concerns of both sides of the spectrum. The pastor could even tactfully admit their past struggles with honoring past presidents—even recounting examples of frustration when hearing others dishonoring a president the pastor honored. If done well, this could initially establish rapport with the parishioners on the political left and right.
But at some point, the preacher must pivot to speaking the truth in love. They must find their prophet’s voice because this verse, and others, explicitly command Christians to honor those in authority. What that means and how it is obeyed is complicated. But it’s the preacher’s responsibility to preach this text bilingually, with grace and truth. When this is skillfully done, it can build unity in the church, even during divisive times!