(Creative Commons Image by Greg Peverill-Conti on Flickr)
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a pastor address this issue, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has experienced it, so let’s just jump right in and say it:
I preach to people who believe things that I don’t believe.
I’m not speaking politically, although I’m sure there are those in my congregation with whom I agree on virtually nothing in that area. While sermons must at times bleed into the political, I am cognizant of the need to avoid partisanship.
What I mean is that I preach to people who believe things about God that I don’t believe.
Again, I’m not speaking about the occasional visitor who wanders into the worship space, nor the cantankerous, oppositional eccentric. I’m speaking of faithful, active, generous Christians.
Here are just a few examples of what I’m referring to. There are a significant number of people to whom I preach who believe, for example, that:
- All things happen for a reason
- God decides when our time on earth is up -- that death is a result of God calling people home at a particular time
- God never gives us more suffering than we can handle
- Material good fortune in life is a result of God’s blessing
- God condemns unfortunate people to eternal torture
- Loved ones are sitting up in the sky, in heaven, looking down on what is transpiring down here on earth
- Genesis’ creation story, Noah’s flood, the tower of Babel, and so on, are literal accounts of actual historical events and that snakes and donkeys were once capable of speech
I beg to differ on all these counts.
I have been around long enough to know that they are not going to change their minds about such things regardless of what I say. Some will always be concerned or anxious, or even suspect a pastor of heresy who professes beliefs counter to theirs.
What is a preacher supposed to do about this religious disconnect with the very assembly he or she is entrusted to instruct, enlighten, and inspire?
It’s a question that I have pondered often. In my wrestling with the situation, I have come up with two principles that seem to help:
1. Love the congregation.
I have seen people who have a sense of urgency in destroying others’ beliefs. I have seen the damage that can be done to people when theology becomes a battleground, with winning as the objective.
As a pastor, it is not my job to tear people down.
I make no secret of my beliefs, even those that run counter to those of parishioners. I feel obligated to share the benefit of my education and experience with the congregation, for I have been call to that purpose. There are avenues that allow for me to do this in greater depth with those interested.
Ideally, all Christians would be open to engaging in wide-ranging and challenging discussions about Christianity. I think it would result in stronger, deeper, and more authentic faith for everyone involved.
But that is not the world in which we live.
Therefore, I have to recognize that those in the congregation whose theology is way different than mine are free to discount what I say in those matters, and indeed, avoid even thinking about them, as long as I:
2. Preach the Gospel.
The message that we are commissioned to proclaim is the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. My job in a sermon is to proclaim that message as clearly and as inspirationally as I can. While I can and do advocate for my views in a sermon, it can never be at the expense of that central message.