Think back to the days before you were a pastor or leading a church. Can you remember the pastor’s response to a significant cultural event? What do you remember about that experience? The pastor’s words, how you felt, or how the others around you responded?
In the past, preaching through a cultural event was a sporadic experience. A pastor may have felt compelled to address an event once or twice a year. But today, in the world of 24/7 news with increased political temperatures, pastors find themselves preaching through cultural events on a much more regular basis.
Significant cultural events are typically controversial at best, tragic at worst, and there is increased pressure on pastors to say or not say the right thing.
As a pastor, there is an expectation that you will have a thought, opinion, or something profound to say about each one.
Taking time to look at how past events were handled, either well or not so well, can help us prepare for future events, allowing us to respond instead of reacting.
Unlike our episode on Preaching Through an Election Season which was about proactively addressing a coming event, this discussion is about addressing the stuff you didn’t see coming. Are you going to respond or, worse, react to it?
Looking to the Bible for Wisdom in Preaching Through a Cultural Event
The volume and temperature of cultural events are extremely high in our country today. We need a lot of wisdom.
The Bible doesn’t specifically address global pandemics or school shootings, but it does talk about pain, tragedy, calamity, and unjust situations.
As mentioned in the episode, Preaching Through the Gospels, we don’t want to put words in the mouth of Jesus, an emotion on Jesus, or have Jesus take a tone He didn’t have.
Take in the entire scene and preach the word because of that.
Be careful about drawing straight lines. God is probably doing ten thousand things in any situation He allows to happen, and we don’t have the decoder ring to tell us His every intent. But we can draw parallels and teach from the examples God provided for us.
Responding to the Emotions
People will rarely remember what you said, but they will remember how the moment felt. The atmosphere will lead them more than the specific words you say. If you are flippant or cruel, they will remember that, but finding the perfect words doesn’t matter as much as your presence and acknowledgment of their emotions.
When preaching through a cultural event, not only is there the actual event, the facts, or feelings to consider but the people who make up the church and the experiences and personality traits they bring into the situation.
People process in unique ways, and no one way is valid or invalid. It highlights that there is a very delicate balance in navigating these situations.
Making decisions on how to approach your response in isolation always ends up with things you wish you had done differently, so seek input from trusted counsel, a spouse, your board or elders, or other pastors in your community or denomination.
The Changing Pace of Cultural Events
In years past, we all received news from the same few sources, typically the morning newspaper and the evening news. We all heard the same stories with the same details and from a similar perspective.
With the rise of the internet and social media today, there are stories based on so many different news sources that not everyone will hear the same news stories and definitely not from the same perspective.
Think about significant cultural events from the past 30 – 40 years:
- Challenger Explosion
- OJ Simpson Arrest and Trial
- Oklahoma Bombing
- Sandy Hook
- Hurricane Katrina
Now think about cultural events you have had to preach through in this decade:
- COVID-19 Pandemic
- George Floyd
- 2020 Election
- January 6, 2021
- Uvalde, Texas
- Inflation and Gas Prices
- Overturning Roe v Wade
Do you see the change in pace? Today there is a non-stop flood of news. And because we live in a fallen and broken world, it’s not likely to slow down anytime soon.
As pastors and ministers, we have the unique responsibility to say true things, have the wisdom to speak the truth of Jesus, and address the uniqueness of all the individuals involved anytime we address a cultural event.
Four Postures When Preaching Through a Cultural Event
Responding with an emotional posture isn’t typically a bad response. Acknowledging the real emotion that exists, affirming it by showing that you are affected as well, and then setting an example by leading well through the emotion. Responding authentically but with compassion and grace is a helpful emotional posture.
Indifferent or Analytical
Responding with indifference or a strictly analytical posture may convey to your church that you are not always in touch with the moment. People don’t need a pundit; they need a pastor. It is essential to say that directly to your church. Your role is not to be the authority or to have an opinion on everything that happens in the world but to pastor the church through these events.
Political or Partisan
In today’s culture, anything that happens quickly has a political or partisan flavor. Everything that happens today seems to find people immediately taking sides and placing blame based on political affiliation. This response leads to continued animosity and division not only in the secular world but also within the church.
As pastors, we are called to be shepherds, to feed the flock, and to care for the people. When preaching through a cultural event, a shepherd posture allows you to be more than a pundit and a therapist. It allows you to care for your congregation with a Christ-like mindset.
Cultural Event Response Options
Not every cultural event will merit the same response, and not every church will need to respond the same to every event. Knowing your flock is critical in knowing what they will need and expect from you as their pastor and shepherd. Here are some ways you may choose to respond to a cultural event:
- Do nothing. Your job is not to relay the breaking news every week. Decide if this event merits the time, energy, and focus on a Sunday morning. If you always do nothing, it will appear that you are burying your head in the sand, but always doing something takes the focus off Jesus and places it on the world.
- Prayer. A focused prayer during service or an additional prayer gathering on another evening may be appropriate, depending on the situation and how affected your congregation is. Prayer is a way for people who don’t know what else to do to feel like they are doing something while also coming together as a community to support one another.
- Heartfelt announcement. You might take just a few minutes on a Sunday morning and address the event that will surely be on people’s minds. Let your congregation know that you are aware of what has happened and validate any emotions they may be experiencing. Then point them to Jesus through your planned message.
- Add a sermon point. If it makes sense to incorporate a recent cultural event into your message, not only will you be able to help point people to Jesus through the situation, it will make for a powerful sermon illustration that people won’t quickly forget.
- Special message. On a rare occasion, it may be worth canceling or postponing a planned message and focusing your entire message on a significant or life-changing cultural event.
- Record a podcast or video. This is especially helpful if an event happens on a Monday or Tuesday, and you have almost a week before a Sunday message. It also allows you to provide a more in-depth conversation and intentional thought on how your church can process this happening. Podcasts or videos are also helpful in responding to smaller-scale or localized events, such as a suicide at the local high school, where you can provide your congregation and the entire community with real and practical coping tips.
Whichever response you decide on, ask yourself whether it matches the weight and significance of the cultural event and whether it feels right.
You don’t want to be reactionary, nor do you want to be aloof.
Outside Input Considerations
You never want to respond to a cultural event without the support of other key leaders in your church, the board, elders, etc. You all have to own it. Saying something on behalf of church leadership when you don’t know what they think about it will only intensify an already emotionally charged situation.
How a church responds and what they do may vary from church to church. Your church might not have to do something beyond calling people to prayer, while another may need to focus a significant part of their sermon on the event.
Every church consists of a diversity of ages, backgrounds, and perspectives, all of which must be considered when deciding how to preach through any cultural event. How big a story is it really, and how much does it affect our people? Ensure you know the answer to the question, “Who is “our people”?”
The best thing to say might be, “We’re not taking a position on this other than we know we are called to love people. This is what we do as a church.”
The kingdom of God is too diverse, and the condition of people’s hearts is too wide-ranging to handle the response in just one way.
Incorporating Lament into Your Services
The sad reality is that if you preach to people in pain you will always have an audience. Because we aren’t yet in heaven, we live in a fallen and broken world, meaning pain has been, and always will be prevalent.
The Bible is filled with lament. About a third of the Psalms are about lament. A third of our church services typically are not lament-focused services. However, you may consider having more regular times of lament that are not tied to a cultural event. Then when it is connected to a cultural event, it doesn’t seem like an extreme reaction from the front.
Times of lament in your service could look like prayers, call and response, or special music with the band singing a song of lament over the church.
Proactive Versus Reactive Responses
Proactive responses are preaching and leadership that prepares people to cope with pain in the world. If our preaching and leadership are only about the heavenly by and by, it’s not connecting with real life.
Proactively preaching through cultural events means using a current event illustration here and there without it feeling like you only preach the headlines. Create a culture in the church that addresses how the church body should respond to difficult things. Discuss “What is our posture toward contentious issues?”
People pick up on the posture of the pastor. Whether you are intentional or unintentional, the pastor sets the temperature.
When the unexpected happens, we have no choice but to react and respond. Hopefully, with wisdom and discernment.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before reacting and responding:
- How big of a story is this?
- What else is happening in the planned service?
- What is the cost of addressing the event in terms of people’s trust?
- What is the cost of not addressing it?
- How related is this event to things we deal with as a church?
- Can we handle this in a way that is sensitive to the congregation’s diversity?
- Is the potential response appropriate and not over or under-reactive?
When Does an Event Warrant Public Leadership?
Lead out of conviction, love, and leadership, not out of fear. It is getting harder and requires prudence in thinking through how people will respond, but if you avoid speaking out of fear, that lacks conviction.
Ultimately, we want to be disciples of Jesus, live like Him, feel emotions like Him, and respond like Him. But the tendency with the news cycle today is to be discipled by everything other than Jesus.
Having close relationships with whom you can process out loud is helpful.
Feel the feelings and let wisdom soak in.
Know that you are not responsible for coming up with a perfect reaction and response. Instead of reacting out of your personal reaction, look at Jesus and similar examples in scripture. How did He respond?
Considering Other Perspectives
Fellowship, conversation, and communion with a diverse group of pastors with various perspectives is an extreme asset. Talking with others before responding to cultural events will provide insight you may not have considered.
There is a sociological bias known as the False Consensus Effect, where we tend to see our thoughts and viewpoints as more typical, normal, and correct. Being in community with others with different perspectives on political viewpoints or from different racial or economic backgrounds allows us to process events through different lenses, allowing us to best meet the needs of our entire church community, not just those that align with our personal biases.
As pastors, we must give ourselves and our people permission not to have an opinion on everything. God knows everything, you don’t have to. This is not meant to come across as being aloof, but as understanding that we aren’t an expert on everything.
Finally, as James 1 tells us, we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. When we take time to listen to others before reacting and responding, it allows us to see beyond our vantage point. When we take time to pray and listen to God before responding, it allows Him to lead through us.