Race relations in the United States have grabbed the headlines in the last few months, culminating in the shooting of five Dallas police officers in early July. In the weeks that followed I know many churches publicly addressed the issue of race relations. Some did so through special prayers, others did so through sermons. For many churches this was the first time they’d directly addressed the issue for years.
As this topic becomes more acceptable to discuss there are dangers preachers face as they dive into sensitive waters. To help navigate this challenge over the next couple of weeks I will share two lists, of Do’s and Do Not’s about preaching on issues of race. I hope you’ll add to the conversation in the comments section and expand our knowledge through your experiences.
We begin with the positive suggestions:
- Do speak on issues of race and culture: We all face a temptation to skirt difficult and divisive issues. It’s easy to rationalise sweeping stuff under the rug by asking, “Is it really beneficial for the church if it results in conflict and division?” But the answer is “Yes!” if approached humbly and carefully. Many of us encourage our churches to move towards relevance when discussing music choices, but true relevance means addressing topics that dwell close to people’s hearts.
- Ground your sermon in Scripture: The church never speaks for itself. When the church addresses social issues it must speak for God. The preacher’s role is to persuade people that the path of peacemaking and reconciliation is God’s path for His people. We can easily find civil rights activists willing to speak out against the evils of racism. Only God’s people have the authority to speak for God. When preachers attempt to motivate behavioural changes without establishing God’s will, we’ve become manipulative rather than prophetic. Stories and statistics will play an important role in whole conversation, but in the church, it should always be a supporting role.
- Have a clear goal in your preaching: Is your goal simply to say racism is bad, or to prompt the church to take substantive steps toward reconciliation? Who do you want the church to reconcile with? Is the first need in this conversation to convince people that racism still exists in our community or church? Sometimes we will address this topic from a more educational perspective than a motivational one. Our preaching needs more purpose than simply reminding the church to love our neighbours.
- Be specific and define your terms: I’ve written previously about the need to define terms. Don’t assume that everyone uses technical words the same way that you do. The bigger issue at this point involves defining racism, prejudice and discrimination. Very few people will admit that they’re racist. Regardless of a person’s real views we all understand the negative implications of being known as a racist. Instead, focus on giving examples of specific behaviours or statements that your congregation may recognise.
- Research the topic. Because race relations continues to raise emotions, we need to found the sermon application on verifiable research rather than impressions and personal experience. A few years ago I read a nationally-known church member describe working in the fields alongside African-Americans and observing, “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” No preacher will get far doing nothing but comparing anecdotes. However, pointing out rates of poverty, lending practices, and education levels at that same period will paint a picture that’s much more credible. If you haven’t done much reading on the topic, you really shouldn’t say much on the topic!
- Provide “next steps” for hearers to take afterwards: The goal of a sermon on race should always exceed merely producing guilt. If the goal is education, suggest books, articles or movies for people to look up on their own time. If the goal is action, point people to organizations or events in which they can participate. When promoting reconciliation encourage people to share a meal or coffee with someone from a different ethnic or cultural background and listen to their stories. Even if the goal is introspection or self-awareness provide resources such as this inventory for people to evaluate themselves. And if we need to convince people of the ungodliness of racism then provide a handout of Scriptures and questions for personal study. These are simple suggestions.Whatever you do, don’t give the impression that a hearty handshake and “Well, done preacher.” sufficiently resolves the issues.
- Prepare church leadership to receive and respond to likely criticisms. No matter your oratory skills, one sermon will never complete a congregation’s transformation of racial attitudes. Preachers must prepare themselves to work long-term. Ambushing elders and other ministers without warning of the sermon topic may well make the sermon your last! Even if you survive, the church will make a much greater impact when the leadership shares the vision for racial reconciliation and possesses the training and knowledge to engage members’ questions and concerns.
- Pray. If it’s dangerous to address this topic without the support of congregational leaders, how much greater is the risk of excluding God from the sermon? Pray that the congregation will hear with open minds. Pray that supportive voices will drown out any opposition. Pray that real change may occur. Pray that our mission will be God’s mission. And pray for peace, courage and reconciliation that leads to lasting change.
The companion post to this article is 7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race.