Craft of Preaching

No Fact Filter for Sermons

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I feel somewhat sheepish about starting out the year with nuts & bolts procedural issues rather than more lofty attempts at theology or proclamation.

But there is something painfully wrong about our discourse in this country at such a basic level that makes it difficult to convey any message, spiritual or otherwise.

Like many Americans, I recently found myself drawn into a discussion of gun legislation. The person with whom I was speaking declared authoritatively that 465 children had been killed in Chicago schools just the past year. Given that, he wanted to know why people were acting as though this shooting in Connecticut was so shocking or required any examination of gun laws.

At this point, I suspected that further discussion was pointless. Not because of any view expressed or implied, but because rational discussion has to be based on facts, not on imagined realities. Because of my experience as an author of nonfiction, I hesitate to express or challenge anything as fact unless I have adequate data to back it up. So I pulled out of the discussion.

I then researched the “fact” and discovered that the TOTAL number of firearm killings in Chicago was 465 at that point in the year.  Of that number, a very small percentage of victims were school-age children. Of that small number of school-age children, the overwhelming majority were in high school and victims of gang-related deaths. I could not find a single incident in which an elementary student died as a result of a killer entering the school.

It’s not like this was difficult to research. Anyone with a computer could have ascertained in ten minutes that this “fact” that was supposed to shape our conversation was plainly ludicrous.

I run into this kind of thing every day.

We have become a nation where beliefs are more important than truth. We are far more interested in friendly propaganda than news. We accept whatever “facts” are convenient to support our beliefs. When we as a society have so little regard for the truth, rational discussion is virtually impossible.

The WorkingPreacher connection here is that when we use false “facts” to support our faith, the result is an absolutely bogus faith. It’s tempting to use relevant and persuasive “facts” in the pulpit to bolster our claims. Even if we’re trying to be responsible, however, there are so many “facts” masquerading as truth today that it takes some effort to tell the difference.

When I worked in the mainstream publishing world, facts were never accepted at face value. Any claim made had to be backed up by a minimum of two independent, reputable sources. That ensured that claims were made in the light of verifiable data. Thanks to the Internet, there is now no filter for many of the “facts” that are disseminated.

The pulpit is completely unregulated. There is no fact filter for sermons. Combine this situation with the proliferation of “facts” masquerading as truth, and with the sinful trend that opinion is what matters most and that facts are useful only insofar as they bolster that opinion, and we encounter a growing temptation for speaking falsehood masquerading as truth.

That can produce short-term results. Some of these “facts” are compelling and lead to exactly the conclusions we want our listeners to reach. But in the long-term it’s bad for the church. Carelessly relying on bogus “facts” to bolster our claims about him leads to cynicism and rejection of him.

Jesus came so that we might know the truth. All we need do as preachers is speak the truth.

So my pedestrian plea for preachers in 2013 is simply to speak the truth from the pulpit. By all means express beliefs in light of the Gospel. But be careful about using unverifiable “facts” even if they seem to support the Christian message. Take some time to vet the data to which you are exposed before citing it. If you can’t verify it, don’t use it. The Bible has given us plenty of truth to speak without us getting enamored of our own opinions.

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