As a preacher you should never shy away from tough topics. If the Bible addresses an issue, you should too. You want to help your people have a holistic view of how biblical truth intersects with every aspect of their lives. But the more controversial the topic the more important it is to handle it with care.
In the last couple years I have preached on topics ranging from what the Bible teaches about alcohol consumption, to sex and sexual issues, to marriage, and financial giving. Along the way, I have learned a few things about how to approach these types of sermons, and I would like to share with you. Here are 9 tips for preaching on controversial topics:
1. Avoid shock-jocking. Some preachers use sensitive topics as an opportunity to use crass language and coarse humor. Their intent is to capture attention and foster interest in the topic, but this is unnecessary. If you are covering a sensitive topic it probably engenders enough interest in itself.
Depending on your listeners, you risk alienating people who may be offended and decide not to listen to you. My suggestion is to avoid being offensive for the purpose of shocking people. If you take a biblical approach to a sensitive cultural issue it will be offensive on its own. Tell the truth, use humor to relieve the tension, but don’t seek to capitalize on the opportunity for a moment of attention-getting.
Your objective is to inform, inspire, motivate, and change the way people think about an important life issue. You don’t want anything to compromise your effectiveness.
2. Demonstrate that you are being thoroughly biblical. If you are giving your opinion because the Bible doesn’t explicitly address something, then say that’s what you’re doing. Otherwise, point to Scripture and not your own ideas about the topic. This helps remove you from the equation and puts the focus on the text itself. When people take exception with your arguments you should always be able to point to Scripture as your source. If they disagree with you, then you need to be able to show them that their disagreement is with the text.
3. Understand the religious objections from within your church. Some topics have the potential of offending church people more than non-church people. I gave a sermon on what the Bible teaches about alcohol. I knew there were a lot of people in my church who held views about alcohol that were based in tradition and preference, but not actually in what the Scriptures teach about the subject. I addressed these biases upfront and challenged them to be biblical even if it confronts their traditions and preferences.
4. Share your material with others while you prepare. Before you preach on a controversial issue, make sure you seek counsel from others. I am a firm believer in preparing sermons in teams, and I believe it is even more important when the subject matter is controversial. I wrote about the importance of gathering input before you preach in this series of posts on preaching teams.
5. Be well-informed from a cultural perspective. The more hot the topic, the more you listeners will have a vast understanding of it. You need to be on top of where the issue stands at that moment. If your data and conclusions are five years behind (or even two years behind) it will make you look uninformed and harm your credibility as a speaker. If your goal is to get your listeners to view the issue from a biblical perspective you need to demonstrate that you understand it from a cultural perspective. Speak into the culture with an understanding of the world in which your listeners live.
6. Be Confident. In these situations you never want to be rattled or overly nervous. If you hesitate and tip-toe around an issue it will put your people on edge and cause them to question how confidently you hold your position. It will also make them think twice about adopting the views themselves. This should matter to you if you want to change minds and influence hearts. I wrote about how to be confident when you preach while avoiding a prideful attitude in this article.
7. Be Humble. In your confidence you never want to appear arrogant. Few people truly connect with a know-it-all preacher. Approach the topic with humility and respect for those who disagree. Preaching is supernatural work. God has to move in the hearts of your people for life-change to occur.
8. Consider providing a forum for questions and answers. These issues always bring more questions. You want to show your listeners that you are not afraid of questions. You may not know the answer to every question people ask, but it’s important to demonstrate that you care what’s on their minds as they wrestle with these issues.
9. Pray. This is the most important step. Pray while you prepare, pray before you preach, pray during if you can. Pray afterwards. Get others to pray for you. Be well-bathed in prayer. None of the above practices will do you much good without an active dependence upon God through prayer.
What do you think is important to do while addressing tough topics? What have you experienced?