When to Speak Out? A Pastor's Engagement with Current Issues
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)
A pastoral colleague recently bemoaned, “It feels like I get hammered if I do, and hammered if I don’t.” He was referring to the constant pull of our culture these days to “make a statement” about the current “hot topic” trending on the 24-hour news cycle or on social media. The pull to “use your platform” from the pulpit to the blogosphere is an interesting dance for the contemporary pastor because there exists some inherent tensions in pastoral ministry in shepherding the flock, teaching the gospel of grace and truth, and modeling winsome cultural engagement in an increasingly fragmented world.
On the Value of Statements
I was initially ordained in a mainline church which, for several decades, felt comfortable occupying space near the center of American culture. For most of my lifetime, the chaplain of the U.S. Senate has been a Presbyterian (from 1969 to 2003). The ethos of Presbyterian cultural engagement for several decades seemed to carry an attitude best portrayed by the famous TV commercials in the 1970s and 1980s with the line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” In the commercials, the entire room would stop – in silence – and lean in closely to hear whatever E.F. Hutton had to say. The luxury of Christian cultural engagement 40-50 years ago was that people listened to the church.
That time has passed. Case in point:
Only a few years ago, my former denomination, the PC(USA), spent time and energy outlining a peace resolution for Israel—Palestine. Oh the hubris of it all! Was the world (or even the Middle East) really listening and paying attention to a bunch of (predominately white) American Presbyterians thousands of miles away? What was the value of all that time and energy spent on statements about Israel-Palestine by a bunch of American Presbyterians?
A short time ago, a prominent blogger was calling for Christians to “walk out of their churches” en masse if the priest or pastor didn’t speak out against the separation of children from their families at the US-Mexico border. I personally wonder whether such vitriol reflects an ache and a longing to restore the primacy of Christendom’s authority. Surely the culture is listening to the church….right?
Yet, as the church has been pushed from the center to the periphery of American culture, its cultural engagement radically (and necessarily) changes in tenor and tone. Recognizing the massive shift from a Christendom mentality to a post-Christian era mindset is indispensable for guiding pastoral discernment for wading into cultural engagement in the contemporary world.
Ever since Theodore Roosevelt coined the term, US Presidents have been known to use their “bully pulpit” to trump up favorable public opinion for high-profile initiatives. A hot-button topic will arise in the country, and the president will inevitably begin communicating far-and-wide about the issue in hopes of swaying public opinion.
Yet George C. Edwards III, the presidential historian at Texas A & M, after conducting a massive study on the “bully pulpit” over the last six decades of American history suggests that the steady stream of statements from US Presidents have almost always failed to move the needle of public opinion or translate into significant legislative victories for presidential policies in Congress.
"It is true for all presidents. They virtually never move public opinion in their direction," Edwards tells National Journal. "It happened for Ronald Reagan. It happened for FDR. It happens all the time. You should anticipate failure if you're trying to change people's minds. The data is overwhelming.”
A Biblical Tension Built into Pastoral Ministry
It was the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper who famously declared, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” The Kingdom has already come in Christ. As a Reformed pastor, this knowledge leads me to believe that Jesus cares deeply about the racism of our society, the treatment of immigrant families, the character of our political discourse, and the integrity of those who govern. This is not how it’s supposed to be. Christ wants to cry “mine” over the injustices of our day, just as he prophetically decried the injustice of his day.
Yet Herman Ridderbos (another Dutch Reformed theologian) reminded us of “the coming of the kingdom”. The kingdom is not yet. There is an eschatological tension inherent in the proclamation of Christ’s kingdom. One day there will be a reckoning. Martin Luther once said there are only two days: “today” and “that day”. The Kingdom of Christ also cries “wait” – because on that day “there will be no more mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
So how does a contemporary pastor shepherd the flock within this tension?
A Few Guiding Thoughts
1. Nobody is listening in today’s world. So maybe the most radical prophetic posture for a pastor to take is to…listen. Listen to the congregation: for their hurts, for their scars, for their aspirations. Is there a kind of prophetic listening that contemporary pastors can develop which actually precedes speaking? Might prophetic listening actually be more effective than prophetic speaking in many cases in our divided and broken world? I believe that deep listening begets strong wisdom. We need contemporary pastors to listen to the myriad of ways congregations have been spiritually de-formed over the years in order to shepherd effectively in today’s divided world.
2. I’m convinced that people who chide pastoral leadership for “not weighing in” are typically asking for a “bully pulpit” rather than a “prophetic witness”. A bully pulpit is typically aimed “at the other guy” who sits “across the aisle”. Most of what passes for prophetic statements today are really just regurgitated “hot takes” from political pundits. A true prophetic witness is likely to have all of us on our knees asking for repentance.
3. Prophetic statements without prophetic action can be meaningless. Not always. And not in every case. But our human condition is all-too-easily deceived into smug self-righteousness just because we share a carefully worded statement decrying the latest injustice in our world. Be careful: one’s righteousness does not depend on what you are against (or whether you use your “platform” – which everyone erroneously thinks they have in today’s social medial world – to weigh in on current events).
4. The way of wisdom may be silence. I know very few people whose expertise or vocation qualifies them to speak with proper nuance on every contemporary issue of the day. Pastors, like most people, only have a limited amount of time to get properly informed; by the time one has researched the issue carefully, the current “crisis” has probably moved onto something else. Humility and wisdom are often displayed in not weighing in on every controversial issue.
5. Dialogue or Statements? Furthermore, nagging contemporary issues are often addressed in the church most effectively through conversational dialogue rather than pulpit pronouncements. Again, not always. And not in every case. Yet, often these issues are best tackled through the slow discipleship of individuals within the flock.
6. Pastoral ministry is guided by the Word of God. There is a temptation to let the 24-hour news cycle set the agenda for pastoral ministry. Yes, there is a place for winsome cultural engagement. Yes, the church should not be afraid to address “what people are talking about” in our culture. Yet the culture doesn’t set the agenda for pastoral ministry. In fact, I firmly believe that many souls are being distracted spiritually (or even lost entirely) by an inordinate amount of attention paid to the 24-hour news cycle. We’ve reached a tipping point in American evangelicalism wherein even we in the church are more fascinated with the Mueller Report than we are with the reports of Matthew and Mark.
Pastoral ministry, in this sense, is counter-cultural and prophetic in its insistence that people encounter the Word of God. As people are “rooted and built up” in Christ and “strengthened in the faith” (Col. 2:7), pastoral ministry unleashes an equipped body of believers to be salt and light and carry a biblical worldview out into the world to make more of a difference than any “bully pulpit” could ever hope to achieve.
 Perhaps it was the case that the mainline church was always just a mirror that reflected the moral “center” of the nation.
 See George E. Condon Jr. and National Journal, “The Myth of the Bully Pulpit: Presidents can talk all they want (and they do), but it won’t get results”, The Atlantic, April 4, 2013: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/04/the-myth-of-the-bully-pulpit/443067/.