Traditionally most churches had a dedicated slot in the weekly liturgy for confession of sin. Maybe it was called “Confession & Assurance.” In many places over the last few decades this part of the service has been dropped completely. I have not attempted to keep track in any scientific way, but I can testify that if I preach in thirty different congregations in a given year, probably half of them no longer mention sin or the confession of sin in the course of a worship service.
Recognizing the need for ongoing repentance has long been a spiritual discipline for Christians not only in their private prayers, but also corporately when we gather for worship. The corporate practice reinforces the private devotional practice.
Although confession has typically had its own section in the Sunday order of worship, preaching has long been an avenue to encourage confession. This is so not just in the fiery, John-the-Baptist-like calls to “Repent and live!” but also in sermons that ponder current cultural and ecclesiastical trends that may be leading us into sinful patterns of living. This happens in preaching not primarily—one hopes—in some finger-wagging, scolding manner but rather as a means of grace. Acknowledging and getting specific about our sins and our temptations to sin are ways to lean into God’s grace in Jesus all over again. Bad news about sin has always been a path to proclaiming the Good News that is the gospel.
But precisely here is where a lot of preachers today find themselves in something of a homiletical pickle. In our highly charged and politicized society, there are few sins a preacher can mention in a sermon that will not set off all the wrong klaxons in many people’s minds. People begin to think, “The pastor is only saying this because of . . .” and then some political issue or figure will get named.
The sin of vainglory or pride? Well, we know who the pastor means and it makes us angry. The sin of neglecting the poor or the stranger within our gates? Pure politics on immigration issues. The sin of avarice or greed? Clearly the pastor is taking a shot at the world of business if not capitalism in general. The need to repent of sexual sins? Obviously an attempt to shut the church doors to gay or transgender people.
As usual, when I write these columns I want to acknowledge that there are lots of ways pastors can overtly mess up on topics like this in the pulpit. There truly are things a pastor can say that are inflammatory almost by design, and they do not require a suspicious mind to recognize that a very specific political viewpoint is getting baptized as the only way Christians should think. This happens, and when it does, it is the pastor who needs to repent.
But my primary point in this column is that perfectly innocent and legitimate sermonic utterances are being treated as though they were something calculated to offend. Maybe in the ebb and flow of church history this has happened now and again. But I believe it has gotten much worse since the mid-1990s, at least in the United States.
After the scandals surrounding Bill Clinton, after the fraught 2000 election, after 9/11 and the war with Iraq, and after the first Black man was elected President, the acoustics in the church changed. As a pastor over some of that period of time, I noticed that things I said in prayers or in sermons that in the 1990s sounded like a whisper to many sounded like a shrill scream a decade later. And please note: I prayed and preached some of the same things in the same language in 2004 as I did in 1997. But whereas in 1997 no one commented on or fretted what I said, by 2004 people would come up to me and complain about that “political” prayer or sermon.
Short of giving up pondering sin and our need to repent for specific sins, what are preachers to do? Confession is indeed a traditional and powerful spiritual discipline. But do we let our partisan culture just sap confession of its power in the church? If I had definitive answers to questions like these, I would be quite blessed. But I don’t. All I can do is offer a couple of suggestions that I hope will prove useful and successful for my fellow preachers.
First, in our current climate it’s worth remembering the general rule of thumb we teach our seminary students: talking about sin and urging repentance should always be couched in the language of “We” and “Us,” not in the language of “You, You, You.” Preachers should be careful not to divulge too much about their own struggles, but there are prudent ways to indicate that when it comes to struggling with this or that temptation or needing to repent of this or that sin, the preacher is speaking from experience and not just observation of others.
Second, examples from history can be invoked to show the perennial nature of most sins and to demonstrate that the preacher is not talking about Sin “X” because of something she saw on CNN or Fox News last Friday. If people think you are talking about lying only because you have issues with Donald Trump or Joe Biden, most of the congregation will harden in some partisan position. But if the pastor mentions how much trouble Lyndon B. Johnson had with the truth or refers to a popular sitcom or movie character who often prevaricates, then the pastor might be able to slip past certain defenses. If one talks about what Augustine said about the poor instead of quoting some op-ed in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, then people might lean in more.
Finally, another piece of typical homiletical advice might also apply here: Make it clear you are talking about any given sin because what you really want to do is present the joy, delight, and flourishing that can come when we not only repent but ask the Holy Spirit to wash over us in a renewal of our lives. If we present grace-filled living (which includes regular repentance and spiritual maintenance) as a beautiful and exciting prospect, then people will want to get in on that action. The preacher talks about sin not to point fingers at others—in politics or anywhere else—but to point to Jesus, to point to the kingdom, to point to the joy and the freedom of life in Christ.
Will any of this manage to surmount the high partisan walls that have been built—walls increasingly running down the center aisle of many churches? Probably not. But in places where the walls are not too high, where hearts are still soft enough to receive both a word of challenge and the good news of grace, the Holy Spirit can work powerfully through our preaching for the renewal of people’s lives of discipleship.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cepreaching.org.