When does a current cultural event necessitate a change of plans in your Sunday morning church service?
That’s a question that I’ve been pondering in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests a few weeks ago. The event took place on a Friday night, escalated on a Saturday, and culminated with a terrorist attack.
On social media, multiple people counseled churches on how to respond the next morning. Some called for condemning white supremacy and Neo-Nazis by name. Others offered prayer for pastors who were revising their sermons or penning statements to read before the church. This sentiment popped up a few times: If your church doesn’t address this tomorrow, find another congregation. The social media fever implied that failing to speak on the issue indicated you were taking the side of white supremacists.
I am the primary teaching pastor in my congregation. On that Saturday night, I spoke with two other pastors on staff. We decided that one of the pastors would speak from Ephesians 3 before the Lord’s Supper, emphasizing reconciliation at the table of the Lord, who has broken down the wall between Jew and Gentile. Since I was already in the middle of a sermon series on Exodus, I found a few places in my sermon where a condemnation of racist ideology fit well.
In other churches, pastors took different approaches. Some posted thoughts on Facebook. Others made a statement during the service. Others incorporated the events into a time of prayer.
But the bigger question remains: when should a church change its program in order to address a current event?
Here are some principles I’ve considered for future occasions. These are my initial thoughts, and I welcome counsel from others in the comments.
1. Is this a history-making event that demands the church’s immediate response?
When I say “history-making,” I refer to events that instantly change the conversation and atmosphere for everyone in society. September 11 fits this category. So did the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They are generation-shaping moments that call for the church’s voice.
To not respond to these events would fail to speak to the fears, worries, and concerns currently overwhelming the congregation. If North Korea or ISIS were to set off a nuclear bomb in the United States, for example, it would be foolish to continue on with the next sermon as if everything was just like the week before.
2. How “top of mind” or “close at hand” is the recent cultural event?
Timing matters. When a terrorist attack occurs just before a Sunday service, or when an Orlando nightclub is attacked on a Saturday night, or when a hurricane is wreaking havoc in Houston, you should realize that most of the congregation will be reeling from the news as they arrive at worship that morning.
When we decide not to address something (either through prayer or preaching) that is on nearly everyone’s minds, we lose an opportunity to show how the gospel applies to all of life. We miss the opportunity to provide hope in a dark moment. Consider the emotional and psychological state of congregants gathering for worship, and then bring the light of the gospel to bear on the situation.
3. Are you in danger of leading your church to be driven by current events?
We should take care not to change a program or revise a sermon too often. It is not the purpose of the gathered church to address every world tragedy or big political event. Where would one stop? In a given week, there is news from all over the world that could, in theory, swamp the service.
We should be careful not to let the world set the agenda for a worship service. Yes, we need to be aware of suffering and pain in the world. (And this is one reason why corporate prayer in a service is ideal: you can incorporate burdens and requests into a time of prayer on any Sunday. This is what we did at our church the previous two Sundays as we lifted up the victims of Hurricane Harvey.) But worship should lift our eyes from the swirl of worldly worries to the King and kingdom that transcends the momentary cloud.
Worship that lifts our eyes to Jesus is not escapist; it is a spiritual discipline that reorients us to God and his purposes. Choosing to not address a cultural concern should never be motivated by fear or cowardice (as was often the case in white churches in the civil-rights era). Neither should it be an excuse for inaction. Instead, keeping a transcendent view in worship should help empower long-term sustainable action in the world, because believers have had their hearts re-focused on what does not change.
4. Are we in a cultural moment where the church’s guidance may be necessary?
Answering this question is a judgment call. Pastors may consider addressing a cultural issue because, as shepherds, they want to lead the flock well. I put Charlottesville in this category. At our church, our pastors wanted our congregation to have no doubt where we stood when it comes to anti-Semitic and racist ideology. By bringing it up, we were also saying, You may not think this is worthy of mention, but we do, and here’s why.
Pastors must judge wisely and carefully on matters related to their own congregation and when they sense their guidance and voice is required. Different churches may come to different conclusions on a particular event.
I’m curious about how other pastors handle situations like this. Are there other questions you would add? Are there other principles you would appeal to?