Pulpits in Peril

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.
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Posted: Jun 09, 2008 12:00 AM
Pulpits in Peril

Whether you are religious or not the fiery words of several pastors have impacted our world politically this year. I personally think that the heightened discussion of faith and values is a good thing. Interestingly, American culture seems to be growing more secular and more religiously inspired at the same time. Like many other aspects of our culture, there seems to be a polarization of religious beliefs. There are best selling books espousing atheism, every stripe of Christianity, and alternative religions. Many Americans are currently describing themselves as spiritual while rejecting organized religion.

Despite the changing religious belief systems, America’s pulpit has never been so prominent. Four years ago, only the religious right seemed to have a voice. Today, however, persons of faith from both the feft and the right of the political spectrum are lifting their voices more than ever before.

This trend has been chronicled by our cable news networks. Fox News broke the tabooed barrier of playing church messages on secular television. Critics complained that only sound bites of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons were presented. Conservatives gleefully repeated the extreme remarks of Presidential candidate Barak Obama’s pastor. Recently the tables have shifted, CNN and other media outlets have vilified the character and messages of Pastor Rod Parsley and Pastor John Hagee. Ironically John McCain’s rejection of the endorsement he sought from these two preachers, undeservingly labeled these evangelical ministers as right wing extremists.

People on different sides of the cultural divide read different things into the politics of these ministers. The sermons we have heard were a new kind of Rorschach “inkblot test.” They tell us more about the viewer than the artist. The question that Americans are asking is, “What shall we do with faith? Should we ignore it or embrace it?”

I am thankful for the freedom of speech and freedom of religion we enjoy in this land. Earlier this year, Chuck Colson and I debated Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State along with Dr. Berlinerbau of Georgetown University about the role of the Church in politics. This took place in the UVA Miller Center and the debate aired nationally on PBS. Our opponents’ position was that the Church was an unwelcome interloper in the public square.

Interestingly, the 2008 election is proving that Americans are deeply interested in and affected by faith. We are living in a time in which faith is growing in both impact and diversity in our nation. The 2004 elections showed us that a “values voter block,” especially in Ohio and Florida, shaped the course of an entire election. This kind of strategic use of influence by evangelicals concerned non-Christians and liberal Christians.

The 2004 election swung toward President Bush because of massive grass roots sentiments about faith, family, and national security. Keeping religion out of the political arena would be un-American. It would be tantamount to saying that we no longer believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Last week I was interviewed by Michele Martin of the “Tell More” show on NPR. Toward the end of the program she asked me how this election cycle would affect the way I approached preaching and my work in the local church. I believe that my answer and conclusions after the program are worth repeating here to you.

The 2008 election season will affect many preachers three ways:

1. We will consider multiple audiences

2. We will think about long term implications of our messages

3. We will stick closer to biblical texts and watch how “creative” we get with biblical application

Although Jeremiah Wright, Rod Parsley, and John Hagee have television and/or radio ministries that extend beyond their local churches, much of their respective ministries appealed to people of like minds that were a part of their denominational or regional sub-cultures. In a sense their sermons are a part of a personal dialogue with their congregations or audiences that are in some way mentored or taught by them.

For the first time in American history, superstar pastors are communicating by CDs, MP3s, books, Internet, U-Tube, and live services. These additional outlets create audiences that do not have an intimate connection with these leaders. Therefore, some leaders need to analyze the cultural impact of their messages. This does not mean compromising on doctrine or spiritual non-negotiables. Greater exposure for preachers will lead to greater opportunities for positive cultural impact. Gone are the days of anonymity for national leaders. Anyone’s reputation could be compromised by an unrehearsed comment. As a result of the current pulpit controversies, most preachers are just waking up to the idea that they have to be aware of the presence of multiple audiences.

Secondly, many preachers will begin to think about the long-term implications of their messages and spiritual assertions. Even theological notions of how God judges or blesses a nation must be vetted more clearly from both the scriptures and history.

Third, many preachers have emphasized novel approaches to presenting the timeless truths of the scriptures. Many of us “activist” types will begin to make a clearer distinction between the preaching of the scriptures and transitory concepts of cultural engagement.

In addition to these three changes to the pulpit, we all could use a little media training! After all, the best of what we have to say can be fuel for our opponents’ fodder if we blunder the language or speak out of season. In the midst of the battle ahead, let’s not lose the fire of our principles. Our spark can light the way for a better nation.