Preaching on Social Issues
Lutherans have not always been perceived to lead the crowd in social advocacy. And yet, a quick scan of data shows that we are indeed on the leading edge in this arena: 1) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a program unit solely dedicated to Church in Society; 2) Lutheran World Relief works with partners in 35 countries; and 3) Each year Lutheran Services in America touches the lives of one in 50 people throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
As a church we have adopted this statement, "In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society."1
Clearly, addressing social issues aligns with Lutheran perspectives and commitments. And yet, many Lutheran preachers are reticent to attend to social issues from the pulpit. This is puzzling since most of the mission statements of our ELCA seminaries say something to the effect that they are preparing "public leaders" for "public ministry" to "lead" and "work" for "peace and justice" in "church and world." Why then is it that preachers shy away from deep engagement with and prophetic response to social issues? It is not that social issues are never addressed in sermons. However, I am referring to something beyond the proverbial listing of the soup kitchen, homeless shelter, and CROP walk; something beyond, as Fred Craddock has said, boiling off all the water so that the only thing that is preached is the stain in the cup.2 I am referring to preaching on social issues in ways that are theologically sound, biblically faithful, academically critical, and pastorally sensitive.
Why some preachers avoid preaching on social issues
Certainly it could not be that we Lutheran preachers think ministry in Christ's name has nothing to do with social concerns. So, why the homiletical reticence? Perhaps you will resonate with the following list of possible reasons, or, better yet, add to it.
- Some preachers sense that the best way to serve their congregations is to be objective and neutral.
- Others feel it is enough to address social issues in other parts of worship (i.e., the prayers of the church) and congregational life (i.e., via the social concerns committee).
- It is assumed that people know what they "ought" to do to care for the world and will figure it out on their own.
- We fear that preaching on social issues might undermine our theological commitment to justification by grace and not by works.
- There is also the real fear of alienating those who disagree with us. Indeed, this not only threatens job satisfaction but job security.
- Some preachers may want to address social issues from the pulpit, but just do not know how to do so.
It is this last statement that the series on Preaching Social Issues in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics seeks to amend. Before offering one final reason for why preachers avoid addressing social issues from the pulpit, I want to offer the following reasons why we should do so.
Why address social issues from the pulpit
First, we are not a church that seeks to separate ourselves from the world. We have a God who chooses to participate in the world God created. We take our lead from this incarnate one as we, the church, inevitably participate in the social structures of the world. Addressing social issues from the pulpit not only reminds us of this, but also has the potential to offer a model for doing so critically.
Second, the world anticipates that the church has something to say about it. This is not to suggest that we ought to live into what is expected of us. Rather, it is an opportunity to fill open ears with life-giving words, alternative as they may be. Everyone from television reporters to bloggers to the neighbor lady have their own take on the issues of our day. But we as preachers have a distinct role to interpret these issues theologically; that is, to proclaim how God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit is actively freeing those who are in bondage in various situations. We proclaim that this God calls us to participate in that liberation. The distinct role of interpreting contexts theologically will call attention to sin (even when doing so is not en vogue), God's will, unmerited grace, for example. Yes, those categories we learned in our systematic theology courses gain traction when, from the pulpit, we name sin, pronounce grace, and give our hearers a picture of what it means to live as people made holy by the one who created and redeemed us all. Now that is a different take on social issues that will not be heard elsewhere. In other words, if it is not heard from the pulpit, it is not heard.
Third, I am reminded of Herman Stuempfle's mantra that the pastor's work is to equip congregation members for their missionary work in the world. "The clergy do their witnessing primarily to the church in its gatherings and the laity do their witnessing primarily in the world."3 It is true that as ministers of word and sacrament we are not "out and about" in the world as much as our hearers are. As preachers, we equip our congregation members to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the world. Being mindful of both the content and the form of our preaching has the power to shape our hearers' patterns of Christian discipleship.
I encourage you to add your own convictions to this list of why. The series in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics assumes you are convinced we are to address social issues from the pulpit. Then again, for those of you who are reticent, perhaps this series, with its attention to particular issues on particular pericopes (essentially, the how), will encourage you.
One more roadblock
Perhaps social issues are avoided in the pulpit because we are taught to begin with the biblical text. Even more, when we begin with something other than the text (like a social issue) we are in danger of prooftexting. Agreed. And yet, for all of the reasons above and more, there are times when we simply must take as our starting point the social issue. That this is done is less of a concern than how it is done. Very importantly, hearers smell nominal attention to scripture from miles away. We fool no one when we claim our guide is a particular pericope only to reveal our eisegetical prowess. How do we avoid this?
Admittedly, this danger is so daunting that it is a primary reason why some shy away from preaching on social issues, as well as one of the central reasons why this series on preaching social issues will be so valuable to us all. This series will help us discern when and how to move from being a voice of "objective" analysis to a voice of prophetic proclamation. It may very well be just what we need to avoid avoiding (sic!) social issues in the pulpit. It will certainly aid us as we stake our Lutheran claim as a public church responding publicly to the world through proclamation and action. Our preaching will be served, and more importantly God and God's people will be served, when such a commitment is evident in the pulpit.
Shauna K. Hannan is Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina.
1. The social teaching statement, "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective," was the first social statement adopted at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, August 28-September 4, 1991.
2. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 123.
3. Herman G. Stuempfle, Preaching in the Witnessing Community (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), ix. Stuempfle was a preacher professor and the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.