I recently spoke with a preacher who is positively shell-shocked after attempting to preach on a very difficult topic for Churches of Christ. The minister did his homework, incorporated a diversity of voices, and felt that he had developed a strong sermon on the topic of gender inclusion. With careful attention to the sensitive nerves of his more traditional congregants, he approached the topic with grace and gentleness. And yet, of course, all went awry. The more traditional congregants were angered that the minister would dare to sway them on such a bulwark of Church of Christ values, and the more progressive congregants were angered that the minister did not speak more clearly, boldly, and unwaveringly on such an important matter. Nobody was pleased, people were angry, and everyone had words for the preacher.
I would imagine that this scenario sounds pretty familiar to most of you. Either you or a friend attempted to walk with your church through a challenging yet pertinent problem, and the backlash was so severe that you thought, “Well, let’s never do that again.” But before you become embittered by the experience, I want to offer some thoughts to help you process what took place.
First of all, if you recognized the delicate nature of the topic that you approached, then you probably carry a strong awareness of the importance of unity. You tend to heed the words of Christ when he prayed for his disciples to be one. Your desire to unite the church leads you to carefully weigh your words before you release them. And still, you dared to approach a difficult conversation because you realize we cannot be united if not everyone is involved. You now find yourself lodged between a rock and a hard place, longing for inclusion, open-mindedness, and diversity, while fearing that you might divide your congregation if you press any further.
So after much consideration, you preached the sermon because you believed it was important enough—maybe even crucial. Christians are not called to be idle, mindless, or passive; we are called to actively and intentionally form our communities into the likeness of Christ! You chose to step out in courage and faith in order to press toward the Kingdom of Heaven, and you should be affirmed in that decision.
But now you sit with the pulsating aftermath of a slap across the face, wondering why you even dared to open your mouth. Perhaps you even regret the sermon, believing that it has done more harm than good. Well, first of all, you are not the first preacher to get slapped around. People have asked me which is more difficult: preaching for a congregation or teaching at a university. I would say, undoubtedly, preaching is more difficult for this reason: your congregation will rough you up. Dare to preach the sermon that has been keeping you up at night, and no matter how calculated or conscientious you are, you will ruffle some feathers. And yet, this is our call. We are called to be faithful and truthful stewards of the voice of God.
If you are wounded and shell-shocked, I want to encourage you to find some healing. Do something that is life-giving, meet with a counselor, or go grab coffee with a respected mentor. But as you heal, please keep this in mind: you might have risen to the occasion to preach on behalf of people in your community who are underrepresented or voiceless, and maybe you were attacked for it. But you have only experienced a small portion of the burden that the underrepresented community bears. While you are recovering in your church office, developing your next series of sermons that will likely be congenial and soothing, the community with which you briefly aligned yourself is still suffering. You took your place alongside us and received a beating, but now your position allows you to retreat. Meanwhile, we don’t get to retreat away from our painful experiences. Please don’t forfeit the call to walk with us. Do invest in self-care, and please listen for the prompting and the timing of the Spirit, but please don’t neglect us. We need people who will speak up, who will take a beating, who will help us carry this yoke.
Now, a word to my fellow congregants who have ever been disgruntled with the preacher for saying the wrong thing: remember that our preachers are not invincible. Many of them are receiving angry emails and phone calls all the time. Our preachers pour out love, thoughtfulness, gentleness, compassion, and forgiveness day and night—and are often met with words of disapproval, frustration, and correction. I can’t tell you how many of my preacher friends have asked me, “Am I doing anything right?” Remember that your preacher has the insane task of helping to unify a body of wildly different people. Many of our churches are politically, socio-economically, racially, and educationally diverse. If your church lacks this diversity, it may be why your preacher is preaching a difficult word in the first place. While our country continues too drive a wedge along these fault lines, your preacher dares to speak a word to the whole church on Sunday mornings. Listen with grace. Temper yourself with humility. Remember that God is redeeming all of us and continues to call all of us to bear one another’s burdens. Traditionalists, progressives, educated, uneducated, women, men, young, old, every color and every tongue in existence—let us bear one another’s burdens. Church is not about me, and it’s not about you; it is about the global us—all of creation journeying back to the heart of God. If your preacher says something that makes you uncomfortable, pause and reflect, extend grace and humility, and try to imagine what God is up to.