How and when should a pastor speak up about current events? The question is not new. What’s new is both the urgency of this obligation and also the degree to which parishioners demand that pastors speak to specific concerns. Several pastors I know have recounted stories of parishioners leaving their churches because they spoke either too much, or not enough, about specific issues in the news.
What cultural or social changes might help us understand this expectation for pastors to bear witness to myriad concerns? How might we navigate these changes as healthy pastors and churches?
Pews Full of Prophets
In former eras the role of a “witness” was limited to a specific group: victims of atrocities. In recent years, though, the term has expanded and become the obligation of us all. Bradford Vivian calls this development commonplace witnessing, in which “diverse members of the public at large—most of whom are neither victims of nor immediate bystanders to historical trauma and injustice—are now obliged and empowered, for myriad reasons, to think and speak as witnesses themselves.” We might think of the suburban mother in Ohio posting an opinion on social media about police violence in Chicago. While not a direct victim of such violence, the mother’s post is a way of personally identifying with the plight of the victims and affirming the need to prevent similar injustices in the future.
We also see a growing expectation that if one does not publicly bear witness to specific injustice, one is complicit in that injustice. Silence is assumed to mean one has no interest in helping to prevent further injustices. Publicity, measured by the number of people who can access one’s witness, indicates sincerity and commitment.
These shifts have had a profound effect on expectations placed on pastors. In essence, churches are now filled with pews of prophets who demand their pastor prophetically witness to all forms of injustice. Silence from the pulpit reveals tacit acceptance of atrocity or complicity in structures that perpetuate injustice. Dissatisfied members quietly leave in search of a pastor who more vocally cares.
For older pastors, this change often comes as a shock. They may be surprised at the anger of many of their parishioners, asking themselves questions like, Why do I have to speak about an event everyone already knows about? Why mention something we all agree is wrong? For younger pastors already steeped in this milieu, these expectations bring a crippling anxiety in the face of the multitude of injustices—coming at us from constant and global media—that demand their commentary. Pastors must witness to the headlines, and in a way that comports with the expectations of their parishioners.
Community of Communities
Our concepts of community have also changed, affecting our understandings of what events require us to bear witness.
In the past, individuals tended to be part of small groups of tight-knit, overlapping communities. One went to church with family, friends, and co-workers, and thus the conversations conducted in pews, dinner tables, and around the office were not too dissimilar from one another. The “social imaginaries” of members in church communities tended to be more coherent.
This has changed in the internet age. Now one can interact in a porous and loose-knit online community of friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers. Each day I receive communication from news sites, text messages, video clips, Facebook posts, and more—each shaping my concept of community in fluid and ever-changing ways, just as they do everyone else.
Imagine a 100-person church around the year 1950, likely filled with parishioners who were co-workers, part of the same local VFW, or part of extended families. Conversations about current events occurred throughout the week in homes, at work, on the street, and at church. These continual and interlocking conversations created a relatively stable and homogenous set of expectations for what the pastor should address in the weekly Sunday sermon. The issues pastors faced in such communities tended to be problems of insularity, as this homogeneity could enable certain sins—such as racism—to go unchallenged if they were deemed acceptable by the community at large (or the church itself).
Now picture that same church 70 years later. Those dense networks of work and family have been replaced with a thin web of digital communities. Instead of daily conversations taking place in person, many mostly converse within their own carefully curated online communities. And these interactions shape highly specific expectations for what can and should be discussed in community. A 100-person church is now filled with 100 different expectations for what should be discussed at church.
A 100-person church is now filled with 100 different expectations for what should be discussed at church.
How might pastors better navigate this new and difficult terrain? I’d like to make a couple suggestions.
Church as Place of Discourse
Pastors and their parishioners need to recover an understanding of the church as the primary community for discussions of important social and cultural matters. This may seem counterintuitive at first—in a world where everything seems political, should pastors really foster more political conversations? In churches, though, political discussions shouldn’t be primarily about the happenings of Washington, D.C. They rather concern how we order the goods of the local community in light of the gospel. Churches should be where these discussions occur, yet this does not mean it needs to happen from the pulpit.
Years ago I attended a weekly Bible study that concluded with a breakfast at which we discussed the issues of the day. This wasn’t a formal discussion of national politics, but a series of informal conversations about issues within the church, within our community, and within the culture at large. There were sometimes vigorous disagreements, but as a result of those times I was able to grasp a fuller picture of the world around me, and how God was calling me to respond to the events of the day. These kinds of discussions can create stronger shared expectations for how churches can effectively engage current issues from biblical frameworks.
Purpose of Pastoral Speech
Because we can no longer rely on unspoken expectations about what belongs in the pastor’s weekly sermon, pastors need to help their church understand the primary purpose of pastoral speech, which is to be a witness first to the Word of God. Pastors should clarify this purpose of preaching to their congregations, helping to set the expectations of their members.
Whatever is happening in the world around us cannot detract from this central task of preaching. If we cannot bring Scripture to bear on current events, we should consider being silent. This does not mean pastors should never speak to current events (this article can be a helpful starting point for discerning how and when to speak on current events). Rather it means that, if they do, they must work to understand the issues at hand and how Scripture speaks to them, as well as the various perspectives within their own congregations.
If pastors cannot bring Scripture to bear on current events, we should consider being silent.
Pastors should also ask themselves: How can a member best gain a biblical perspective about this particular issue? Would a sermon be enough, or would a personal conversation or small-group discussion be necessary? Pastors should also be careful with speaking up about current events in online spaces, where it is often difficult for others to separate personal opinion from church teaching.
While the challenges of “pews full of prophets” are real, pastors should also see the opportunity. When more churchgoers care about how faith speaks to current events and injustices, it’s a good thing—a chance to think through the gospel’s implications for all of life. Pastors must work to ground these conversations in the church and the local community (rather than in the ethereal “communities” of online discourse), and to ensure that the shape of these conversations conforms to the contours of Scripture and not the algorithms of social media.