Preaching Amid Controversy: Pastoral and Homiletical Counsel

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What you do matters — a lot! Weaving together the biblical story and the story of our lives and world so that the good news of God in Christ is proclaimed and heard — what crucial work! Thank you for your commitment to it.

What you do is also challenging. You know as well as anyone the amount of study, effort, and imagination that goes into each and every sermon you offer. But while preaching on any given Sunday is challenging, it is never more so than on those Sundays that fall amid turbulent times and divisive actions, when deeply held convictions collide and emotions run high. Given the votes taken this past week regarding human sexuality at the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, this Sunday and the immediate Sundays to come present many of the preachers who use with such heightened challenges.

In this letter, I want to offer some pastoral and homiletical counsel with regard to preaching amid these challenges. I do not intend to tell you what to preach, nor do I seek to offer a definitive word on the theological and social issues at the crux of this debate; rather, I seek to offer more general guidance for preaching amid controversial and turbulent times. First, however, two caveats:

1. I am responding to the particular events at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many preachers from other Christian traditions also use, and while they may find this counsel helpful, interesting, or applicable to other situations, I nevertheless ask their indulgence and understanding as I respond to the concrete events occurring in the tradition with which I identify.

2. If you are confident in your decision either to celebrate or lament the votes taken this week in your preaching, you probably won’t find this letter helpful. This is not to say that I am necessarily for or against either of these responses, but rather simply to acknowledge that my intended audience is those preachers who, whatever their personal feelings about the votes and issues, are unsure of how to proceed at this moment given the deep divisions in our churches on these issues.

With these two caveats in mind, I would counsel that as we prepare our sermons we remain mindful of what we can and can’t accomplish through our preaching. Any individual sermon, I suggest, no matter how good, will probably not change minds or eliminate whatever divisions you may be experiencing in your setting, and you are likely to be disappointed if you imagine it to be otherwise. What a good sermon can do, however, is offer much needed perspective. That is, through your preaching you can provide a framework which creates an informed and safe space in which your hearers can work through some of the emotions they are experiencing in the present and to think through various dimensions of the issues and arguments at hand in the weeks to come.

There are, of course, a variety of theological frameworks that one might bring to bear. At this point, just after the votes of the Assembly and mindful of the high emotions that likely abound, I am less interested in those theological frameworks that address the issues at hand directly and more interested in the larger theological framework of our very unity in Christ. There will be time enough in the months and years ahead for continued theological examination of the issues of human sexuality and the ELCA’s decisions, but right now it may be most helpful to remind hearers that our unity is not grounded upon our decisions about, votes on, or agreement regarding any moral or social issue but rather is secured by the love of God poured out for us and all the world as made manifest throughout Scripture but preeminently in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is not to say that moral, ethical, and social issues do not matter. They do, very much. The same God of love we know most clearly in the proclamation of the gospel also demonstrates God’s love for us by giving us laws regulating and guiding our treatment of each other and this world. Ethics matters. This world matters. Our treatment of each other matters. Profoundly. And so I believe that we should never in our preaching undermine the sanctity and importance of the law through our proclamation of the gospel.

But as much as social, moral, and ethical issues — that is the law — matters, we are neither justified nor established in union with Christ and each other through our apprehension or execution of the law but only through the free gift of the gospel.

Does identifying our union in and with Christ eliminate or diminish the importance of ethical and moral deliberation? No. Does it eliminate or diminish the strong feelings or deeply help convictions that many of our congregants bring to Sunday worship, feelings and convictions that may clash with those of others in the same congregation? Again, no. What identifying our union in Christ through the gospel may do, however, is to provide perspective, often the first thing to be lost amid controversy. The decisions the ELCA has made, and the various reactions in our congregations about those decisions, are important. But they can neither secure nor destroy our relationship with God and the promise of life abundant that God has made to us in Christ. Similarly, while such decisions and our varied reactions to them may strain and even damage our relationships with each other, they can neither establish nor sever our union with each other because that union comes as a sheer gift of grace granted by God through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

To put it another way: there are many aspects of each of our lives that are descriptively true and matter a great deal to us. These include, among other things, our ethnic heritage, our nationality, our primary language, our gender, our physical appearance, our sexual orientation, our manifold and unique life experience, our marital status, and even our allegiance to particular sports teams or television programs. But as important as these various may be in their capacity to accurately describe, none of them has the power to define us. The one thing that defines us is our acceptance by God for Christ’s sake by grace through faith and our consequent status as God’s own beloved child joined in faith and love to all others of God’s children.

I believe it is important to assert this in our preaching at this moment because amid controversy and strong emotions it is easy to lose perspective, to believe that the issues that divide us have the capacity to secure or destroy our life together. These issues are important, very important; but they are not the most important element of our life together, our faith, or our witness to the world.

On this coming Sunday and in the immediate weeks to follow, I would therefore counsel that, whatever else you may say, you anchor your hearers in the sure promise of God to regard us in love — actually to regard us as Christ — for Christ’s sake. That is, I urge you to offer us a secure place to stand during all the turbulence around us based not on our apprehension or execution of God’s law, not on our agreement on church policy or action, not even on our denominational or congregational unity, but rather on our identity as those persons for whom Christ died and for whom Christ now lives.

I do not offer this counsel out of a fear for the future of the ELCA, as if denominational preservation is the primary concern and responsibility of the preacher. Rather, I believe that by anchoring our sense of identity and security in the gospel of Christ, you may grant to us the grace and confidence to keep our footing amid all the tumult and confusion that attends these days and better hear God’s call to us as a denomination, as congregations, and as individuals.

Nor do I offer this counsel as a way by which to duck the important and controversial issues before us. There will be a time to speak and to teach and to preach about some of the important theological issues attending these recent decisions, but I suspect it will be difficult to do so just now. And so while it may be helpful to signal your intention to provide a forum for ongoing study and deliberation in the near future, right now it is more important to anchor people in our central confession of God’s faithfulness to us in Christ. By doing so you are not only attending to the needs of the present but also preparing the space in which future deliberations can take place more fruitfully.

This week’s Assembly brought votes not only on human sexuality but also on our resolve to honor each other’s bound consciences and to bear each other’s burdens. This means that, whatever the strength of our convictions on these issues and whatever actions those convictions may lead us to, the one action we cannot take is to dismiss another Christian — or that Christian’s equally strong convictions — as God-forsaken. Rather, we are called to recognize Christ in our neighbor and to hear and heed God’s call, whatever our disagreements, to respect and care for our neighbor as we would desire to be respected and cared for. Such “bold humility” would be a powerful witness to the world, and I suspect we’ll only approach it to the degree that we locate our primary and identity in the grace, love, and mercy of God revealed in Jesus the Christ.

There are, without a doubt, challenging times. But preachers who respond to the call to fashion words that are both faithful and fitting in order to proclaim God’s Word will always encounter challenges. Know as you confront those immediately before us that I am grateful for both your fidelity and your labor and that I, along with all those here at, are praying for you. More importantly, though, please remember that you, too, are justified not by your decisions, actions, or even your sermons. While all of these things matter, you, also, are justified by grace. With that in mind, go forth to preach the Word with confidence. What you do matters! Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,