“If your preacher doesn’t preach about ____________ at your church this Sunday, then you should leave that congregation and never go back.”
What fills the blank is whatever has aroused the speaker’s passion in that particular moment. And apparently it doesn’t matter what things might be consuming other hearts with just as much passion, this one thing is deemed more focus-worthy than all else. It alone is turned into “say something about this, or I’m out the door.” (And, of course, the clear implication is that the something you say better be something they like.)
I hate the whole idea of it.
And what troubles me isn’t that someone dares to hold the church (and preachers) accountable for our silence in the face of evil. No, it’s the never-ending chase after whatever the next “issue” might be, rather than the steady proclamation of a gospel large enough to speak to all of those issues and so many more.
By assuming that there is only one thing to name on a given Sunday reflects a narrowness spoken from privilege. Surprisingly, the voices speaking most often believe they do so to stand in solidarity with some hurting person or group, which, I suppose, may be true. But in choosing that place alone to stand, they are also ignoring the places that trouble the hearts of others.
And when preachers listen to those voices, we flatten congregations into one-dimensional characters and ignore the specific context into which we are called to speak. The damage is real. Left behind in that rhetoric’s wake are pastors who hold congregations hostage to the whims of twitterific passions and who turn themselves into martyrs with their words.
And this is not a new thing.
Writing in his journal in 1922, Reinhold Niebuhr, then the new pastor in a congregation, observed that he had received “a pitiful letter from a young pastor who is losing his church because he has been ‘too liberal.'” Niebuhr is suspect, suggesting that at least part of what causes pastors to get in trouble is that they “beat their drums too loudly.”
And that’s the dilemma for pastors like me. I am caught between the desire to speak words that are trustworthy and true, to proclaim them with passion and conviction because there are some wounds that can only be lanced by unflinching truth. And yet, like Niebuhr decades ago, my tendency toward tameness stems from “the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.”
Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky described leadership as “disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb,” and I think Niebuhr would nod his head in agreement. As he reflected on that “pitiful letter” from his younger friend, he dared to offer a better strategy.
“The correct strategy is to advance at the center with beating drums and let your retreats at the wings follow as a matter of course and in the interest of the central strategy. You must be honest, of course, but you might just as well straighten and shorten your lines without mock heroics and a fanfare of trumpets.”
And while Niebuhr’s strategy may be too tame for those who want “to hear a specific word about a specific thing” each Sunday the church gathers, it still produces a conflict that can become as dangerous as any other.
Only in this way, the danger is real, not contrived or forced. As Niebuhr wrote,
“If you set the message of the gospel of love against a society enmeshed in hatreds and bigotries and engulfed in greed, you have a real but not necessarily a futile conflict on your hands. There is enough natural grace in the human heart to respond to the challenge of the real message in the gospel–and enough original sin in human nature to create opposition to it….(Humans) will not make great intellectual readjustments for a gospel which does not greatly matter. If there is a real adventure at the center of the line the reserves are drawn from the wings almost unconsciously.”
I guess I’m thinking about these things now because each beat of my heart works like the button on those old viewfinders I looked through as a child, each beat revealing something else going on in this world that needs to be called out and ended. And I begin to recognize the foolishness of thinking that I must take all of these things that my one human heart holds, not to mention the things held in the billions of other hearts which beat with as much passion as mine, and select from them the one thing that must absolutely be named. It seems an act of hubris beyond my ken.
So I will stick with saying this: “Love God with all that you are. And love your neighbor as yourself.”