Synod of the Covenant webinar shares wisdom on the challenges of preaching about race
November 13, 2021
A mostly white group of more than 40 preachers tuned in recently to hear the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick — who in turn did his share of listening during an informative 90-minute online session he hosted — lead a webinar with this provocative title: “Preaching about Racial Justice without Losing your Conviction or your Job.” View the webinar here.
Hardwick, interim executive with the Synod of the Covenant, first prayed and then opened the workshop by offering preachers this assurance: We can never preach a sermon bad enough to prevent God from speaking. Then he laid out some of his assumptions:
That PC(USA) preachers are more eager to speak about issues of racial justice than their listeners are to hear about issues of racial justice. That’s not true, he said, in predominantly Black PC(USA) churches, where listeners are generally receptive to sermons about racial justice. That the workshop is geared mainly toward white preachers in predominantly white churches. That preaching can be a persuasive act. “We want to persuade our listeners to think differently about racial justice,” Hardwick said. “We want to shape our rhetoric so people can actually hear what we’re talking about.”
Preachers ought to aim higher than righteous proclamation, Hardwick advised.
“When I read about racial justice and I hear people speak, it seems like the most important thing is to let people know they are on the right side of the issue,” Hardwick said. Preachers often “think less about how to phrase it in order to persuade people.”
Here’s a modest proposal preachers ought to consider, he said: If people feel they are being berated, they are not going to change their mind.
“Instead, think about racial justice as proclaiming the good news of the gospel for our listeners and for the world — not a bunch of ‘shoulds,’ but anchored in God’s generous acts toward us.”
One workshop participant said he’s “past the point of trying to persuade racists, people whose views are toxic.” Their view on race “is not just wrong — it goes against the gospel,” this pastor said. “I want to berate them. I know that’s the wrong way to feel, but that’s where I’m at.”
“I have a feeling you’re not alone,” Hardwick responded. He asked the gathered preachers to consider “what’s your pastoral role helping them change their mind and help them in discipleship?”
Another participant said speaking honestly about racial justice might well depend on the state of the pastor’s relationship with members of the congregation. “I feel like having a relationship with your congregation is a key,” she said.
“The most important thing is listeners feel like you love them,” Hardwick replied. “If not, they won’t listen to you talk about where you want them to change.”
Another key question: When listeners hear “we” during a sermon, what does that term mean?
“There are overlapping ‘we’s’ in a church. Sometimes the pastor’s ‘we’ does not include everyone in the congregation,” Hardwick said. “It’s off-putting when you don’t feel included.”
Knowing your listeners includes “articulating their perspectives charitably in a way that honors their thinking so they don’t feel berated,” Hardwick said. “It helps gain trust and helps them realize this new idea is being made with them being considered. They feel listened to and heard.”
It’s also important to know where listeners get their news, Hardwick said, identifying news sources ranging from The New York Times to Fox News. “People spend more time with these media sources than they do thinking about church,” he said. “All our thought processes are shaped by our news sources.”
Ask congregants what comes to mind when they think of white supremacists and it’s likely to be a scene from a Nazi rally. “For many listeners, they think, ‘I am not like this.’ They think of bigoted people, not structures in our society,” Hardwick said. That’s why it’s important that preachers use language that doesn’t “turn off our listeners. If you can avoid saying it, their minds don’t shut down, or they don’t walk out or quit. I know that’s counter to what a lot of people think, but if I use those words, it will be more difficult to persuade them.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Synod of the Covenant webinar
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
DeAmber Clopton, Associate Director, Finance Administration, Office of the General Assembly
Octavia Coleman, Mission Specialist, Mission Personnel Team, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Lord our God, may our faith be strengthened. May we be watchful and found faithful at your return. We pray in Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.