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Even in our polarized times, it’s possible to preach faithfully on third-rail topics

But it takes caution and care. Some familiarity with Karl Barth is a plus

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Each week, preachers make their way to the pulpit — whether wooden or virtual — to deliver a sermon to congregants living in a nation that’s increasingly polarized.

To say that preachers must thread a needle each Sunday morning in front of God and everybody doesn’t do justice to the preacher’s plight. On Wednesday exploring that challenge fell to the Rev. Dr. Angela Dienhart Hancock, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who spoke to more than 30 people during the monthly installment of Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series. Her “Preaching in Polarized Times” conversation built on last month’s talk by the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, the synod’s transitional executive, who spoke on “Stretching Into Prophetic Preaching.” Watch Hardwick’s talk here.

A recent visit by a contractor drove home for Hancock just how polarized things have become. A question about whether or not to mask up soon turned into a pointed discussion on vaccines and climate change. “It was unpleasant,” Hancock said. “What we wanted more than anything else was to get the contractor out of the house, even though I knew we should stay in relationship with this contractor.”

For the church, one result of polarization is that we now have fewer opportunities for cross-cutting conversations — a time to talk to and maybe learn from people with differing views. “Americans increasingly agree,” Hancock said, “that talking with those with whom they disagree is stressful and frustrating,” adding that most Americans now say that debate has become less respectful, fact-based and substantive.

Still, on any given Sunday up to one-third of the people in worship are paying little or no attention to politics. “People are saturated and exhausted by this, across the political spectrum,” Hancock said.

Churches that embrace an activist stance on either side of the political divide tend to attract worshipers who lean in the same direction. “For some preachers, then, the question about how to address people across political lines does not show up as a concern, necessarily,” Hancock said. “For conservatives, it becomes a matter of preaching to the choir. For liberals, the dynamics are similar.”

Many congregations report a diversity of political orientations. In others, there’s a mismatch between the pastor’s political views and those of the majority of members and friends. In addition, the denomination to which the church belongs may have mixed political orientations. “It can be difficult to know what members think about social and political issues,” Hancock said, “because everyone is so careful in these settings to preserve peace and unity. They don’t want church to become the place where we have experiences like we did with that contractor.”

On top of that, a few boisterous partisans may discourage others in the congregation to share their views. “Many political scientists say churches have great potential for these cross-cutting conversations,” Hancock said. “The reason they don’t happen in diverse settings is this avoidance issue,” where people say what they value the most is unity and harmony. “Tacitly,” Hancock said, “that means how we think about our political lives has nothing to do with faith.”

Most Americans say they want their local church to stay out of politics. A 2019 survey showed 63% of congregants in mainline churches expressed that preference. In effect, we now have two kinds of faith communities, Hancock said: enclave congregations, where “everyone leans in the same political direction,” and avoidant congregations, which contain a diversity of views but where politics is not discussed.

What, then, are the consequences for preaching?

One webinar participant said that sermons might well be met with resistance, “that you will unsettle their expectation. They don’t want that cage rattled at all.”

Another noted that when people leave the church, “it is attributed to being unhappy with something that was said or a certain political stance. I hear people saying, ‘If so-and-so gets elected, I’m going to have to move.’ The church is mirroring what is going on in the local community.”

“There is emotional and physical energy required to learn something new, and most people right now are flat-out exhausted,” a third participant said. “The most we can do is sidle up to them and say something they can receive right now and hope God is planting the seeds for later.”

The Rev. Dr. Angela Dienhart Hancock

Hancock reminded listeners that Scripture “is full of texts of people in conflict in terms of identity. Biblical texts suggest what a faithful posture might be,” such as the fruit of the Spirit. Or preachers can consider “calls to participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation,” such as 2 Cor. 5:16-20a.

Hancock is working on a book about preaching in polarized times. Her earlier research focused on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who wrote about Hitler’s rise in Germany while teaching in that country. “Barth wrestled with the question of how human beings can know God considering our limitations,” Hancock said. “It starts with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The knowability of God arises in the space God already creates in and through Jesus Christ.”

For Barth, “humans cannot be primarily defined as sinners, a shocking idea for Calvinists,” Hancock said. “We are objects of the goodwill of God. We are reconciled sinners, and nothing can separate us from the love of God. This leans into grace as primary.”

“We don’t preach to saints or sinners,” Hancock said, citing Barth. “We preach to reconciled sinners — people becoming who they are in Christ.”

The question thus becomes, according to Hancock, “What difference might it make if we relocate this polarization — not between individuals, but within each individual?”

“The appeal God makes through human preachers is to the deepest, most hidden human,” Hancock said. “How can I support my hearers? Invite them to think about their own identities in this way.”

From theory to practice

Here’s how to make these abstract ideas concrete, Hancock said: During sermons, preachers are wise not to activate partisan identities by priming, a technique in psychology where a stimulus is introduced, thus changing the response to a different stimulus. If I talk to you about candy and get you to thinking sweet thoughts and then ask you to name a holiday, you’re more likely to mention Halloween or Easter than, say, the Fourth of July. Priming “is used all the time in media and political contexts,” Hancock said.

During their sermons, preachers “do things that evoke political identity, even though we don’t need to,” Hancock said. Do the people in our stories visit Chick-fil-A or Starbucks? Do they live in an urban center or a rural area? “They may not sound political,” Hancock said, “but they are often interpreted as political signals.”

That doesn’t mean “we should avoid all this and focus on personal piety,” Hancock said. “But we should avoid priming whenever we can. Find fresh ways and avoid insider language we learned in our own political tribe.”

“This is always the preacher’s challenge,” Hancock said. “What language shall I borrow to bear faithful witness in a way people can understand what I’m saying?”

Next month’s speaker for the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series is the Rev. Dr. Jake Myers, the Wade P. Huie, Jr. Associate Professor of Homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary. Beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on May 4, Myers will speak on “Preaching Jokes to Power.” Learn more here.

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