7 Pitfalls when Preaching on Race

7 Pitfalls when Preaching on RaceSadly, not everyone in our churches will jump for joy when we introduce a sermon addressing issues of race.

Some people have heard speeches on the topic for years and are simply worn out.

Other people get defensive and insist that there’s no problem to discuss. At least not with them.

I’ve attended churches where people fear confrontation. Since this topic smacks of controversy, they’d rather not talk about it.

There are always some people who enjoy the status quo and believe it’s okay and reasonable to discriminate against minorities. Alternatively, they see accommodations granted to minorities and believe the discrimination is against them!

Any of these people can get hurt or angry when discussions around the issues of racial equality arise.

Then there are always inherent risks for the preacher when presenting these ideas. Numerous ways exist to speak insensitively, use the wrong words, or misrepresent an issue. Fear of these mistakes has often prompted churches to avoid the topic. In today’s society churches cannot afford to skirt issues of race. So here are some mistakes preachers should work hard to avoid:

1. Do not stereotype! Not all Indians are good spellers. Not all Chinese are mathematical geniuses. Not all African-Americans grew up around gangs in urban environments. Even large churches have experienced trouble using stereotypes as the story of this Asian-based VBS curriculum reveals. Stereotypes place a large group of people in a single box, and that box is often demeaning.
When strangers quote Crocodile Dundee to me they imply that all Australians carry knives, live in the desert and wrestle crocodiles. In fact, Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse and urbanized countries in the world. Stereotypes most often make the person using them look ignorant.

2. Do not mimic or imitate cultural differences. By all means, please do talk about racial/cultural differences. Your congregation needs to have this open conversation. But how you conduct the conversation is crucial. RESPECT is vital. Talk about cultural differences. Describe awkward situations and misunderstandings. However, if we start adopting accents, or walking in different/funny ways to illustrate a cultural stereotype, we instantly move much closer to mockery, than respect. Focus upon speaking clearly, not theatrics.

3. Do not think that there won’t be any misunderstandings. No matter how gifted your speaking abilities, people will still hear what they want to hear. If you say nothing about affirmative action, some people will think your whole talk was about affirmative action. Some people will criticise you for bringing politics into the church even if you spend the whole time exegeting one verse. No single sermon can address all objections. Expect misunderstandings.

4. Do not feel pressure to tell people “I’m sorry”, unless you are. This is a complex topic, but here are a couple of simple thoughts:

  • Don’t apologise for things you haven’t done… unless you represent institutions that have committed wrongdoing. You can can express sympathy for suffering, outrage at injustice, regret for the actions of others, but you can’t apologise on behalf of those other people. The exception is demonstrated in 1999 by Dr Royce Money the Chancellor of Abilene Christian University when he apologised for policies and practices of the university in years previous.
  • When we simply say “I’m sorry” we place a burden on the other person to forgive. It’s as though “I’m sorry” says, “I’ve done what I need to do for reconciliation, now it’s up to you.” We make it easier for minorities to forgive when we demonstrate contrition by taking tangible steps toward reconciliation.

5. Do not merely mention racism as a footnote in a sermon on another topic.  This might not apply if you’ve already raised the issue in a serious way, but simply including racism in a list of vices does not count as “speaking on race”. When you decide that you need to address racial issues with your church, preach from the best biblical texts. Because of #3 above we should address these issues with clarity. Assuming that people will catch tangential references and understand our goals reflects a misplaced confidence.

6. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. No one person has all the answers. Reading a book, talking to a minority friend, or having a dramatic story to tell, doesn’t make anyone an expert. After working in multi-ethnic churches for almost 20 years and researching as much as I can on the topic, I still find I have more questions than answers. As a leader in the church you might have clear insight into the next step the church needs to take. You might have a clear view of the goal of racial reconciliation and unity in the church. Those things are not the same as “all the answers”. ALWAYS preach and speak with humility on this topic.

7. Don’t minimise challenges. Related to the previous point, we face the danger of communicating a message that says something like, “If we all just did what the Bible tells us and loved our neighbours, racial prejudice wouldn’t be a problem in this country.” Other observations like, “If they just did what the police told them they wouldn’t get shot” fall into the same category. These types of statements minimise centuries of mistrust and abuse. It can be akin to telling a minority person to “suck it up and get on with life“. But life is not simple. For example, many of the factors that contribute to disparate educational outcomes for students of different races involve complex sociological issues. Loving more, or allocating more money to a school, won’t alter rates of childhood poverty. Honestly acknowledge the size and scope of the challenges ahead, then break it down into smaller steps for your congregation. Remember that what seems like a small step for you, may be huge for other members.

For some positive suggestions when preaching on racial issues check out this previous article: 8 Tips for Preaching on Race.

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