Lane Sebring has spent a lot of time preaching, and thinking and writing about how to do it well. He is associate pastor at Centreville Baptist Church in the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC, area and author of Preaching Killer Sermons. We asked him to share some insights on how to avoid being insensitive when preaching on a sensitive topic.
Do you remember a sermon when you were insensitive?
Early in my ministry, I was preaching on Joshua 1, where God tells Joshua to meditate on His Word day and night, and he will have good success. I oversimplified the meaning of the text, saying that if we’re really committed, our problems will go away and everything will be fine. A guy came up to me afterward and said, “Life doesn’t work this way, dude. You’ve made it sound like this promise wasn’t to Joshua, but to every one of us in any circumstance, no matter what. But sometimes God brings us through hard times, and no amount of faith or commitment will get us out of them because He wants us to walk through the storm.”
I had taken an Old Testament narrative and not explained it well. I had oversimplified the application by saying, “If this, then that.” For people who are struggling with their marriage, their finances, with an addiction, or some other trial, they’re sitting there thinking, “Yeah, I’ve tried all that. I’ve tried being committed. And you’re telling me that everything should be fine as long as I’ve meditated on the Word?” I had to do a better job of handling sensitive topics. I can’t preach as if one size fits all.
I can’t preach as if one size fits all.
What common mistakes do pastors make that are insensitive to the hurts and struggles of their listeners?
One mistake is ignoring—or not even knowing—the hurts and struggles of their people. This can come up even in sermons for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—topics that seem straightforward but aren’t. If the sermon is only an encouraging message about the mother- or father-child relationship, it ignores people who don’t have a great relationship with their parent or children. It ignores those who have lost a parent or child. It ignores those who cannot have children. Often these things are very painful. Every Mother’s or Father’s Day, they feel it acutely, especially if it’s not acknowledged.
It is similarly insensitive when preachers use statements like, “We all,” or “All of us …”: “We all trust God for our future. We all know Jesus as our Savior. All of us believe the Bible.” Well, not all of us. Some people are having doubts. They’re silently asking, “Uh, what about me?” Preachers are insensitive if they fail to acknowledge those in the other categories.
It’s a huge miss to overgeneralize any text.
The other mistake is to oversimplify how a text applies to real life, how a promise of God plays out, or how a spiritual principle comes together. For example: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6 NKJV). This is a principle from Proverbs, not a promise. It is insensitive to tell people of faith, “You failed, because your adult child is a drug addict, or living in an immoral lifestyle, or walking away from the faith. This must mean that you didn’t raise him in the way he should go.” It’s a huge miss to overgeneralize any text like that by saying, “If this, then that.” People are going to ask, “What about the nuances of life?” I’m not talking about essential doctrines like the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith alone, Jesus’ death on the cross and bodily resurrection, and so on. Those are universally true. But when a preacher routinely oversimplifies, it is very insensitive.
Since people can be in so many different places spiritually, how can you get them to give you a hearing when you’re talking about a sensitive topic?
It helps to simply acknowledge that there are differences in perspective. If you say that you know there are people who come at the issue from other angles, that can help a lot.
Years ago, Pastor Craig Groeschel taught me to disarm and confront. As a preacher, you are going to be confrontational just by virtue of preaching the gospel. There’s no way to preach the need for sinners to repent and turn to Jesus that’s not confrontational; it’s just going to be, in and of itself.
So, in order for people to listen, they have to trust you. And they only trust you if they’ve been disarmed, if they’ve taken their barriers down. As a preacher, you have to give people opportunities to know, like, and trust you. That can actually happen very quickly in a message where you are relatable and transparent, where you show that you clearly understand their situation. Then they can begin to trust you as a messenger of the Word.
For people to listen, they have to trust you.
If someone is not disarmed, he can’t hear. A lot of preachers finish a message and ask themselves, “Did I say all the words I needed to say?” The better question is, “Did they hear what they needed to hear so they can do something with it?” The only way people can hear is if they’re listening, if they don’t have a big wall up. If you’re speaking to unbelievers, it’s on you in those first few minutes of your sermon to demonstrate that you’re someone they can trust. Without that, they could sit through the entire thing and not hear a word you say.
Does it help to use humor in a sermon? Or do you risk coming across as uncaring or judgmental?
I love humor. It’s one of most effective ways to disarm. If I’ve gotten people laughing, they’ve let down their guard. They think, “I feel good and—guess what? I feel good about you. Because you made me laugh.” Still, humor can go wrong if you’re just using it for the sake of being funny and it doesn’t relate to your topic. It can be overused.
In terms of being uncaring or judgmental, I try to only use humor at my own expense—not at someone else’s. Even there you can go overboard. As a youth pastor years ago, I told stories from middle school and high school about how unpopular I was. Eventually these kids started to feel sorry for me! I was trying to be funny but I overdid it.
When talking about a sensitive issue, humor relieves tension, and that can be good. When I’m dealing with something that’s really tough, I want to challenge where I need to challenge, but I don’t want to lose people. So, I will pace things, partly with gentle humor. But if you joke about the wrong kinds of things, or joke about the issue itself in a hurtful way, it can go downhill fast. People get confused. “I thought this was a really sensitive issue, and you keep making jokes.” My tendency is to err on the side of caution, but not to rule humor out entirely.
How can preachers demonstrate that they care about their people with their mannerisms, posture, and tone of voice?
One way pastors can alienate people is to physically point a finger at them. That can come across super-judgmental. When I preach, I use a tall stool and a table, because sometimes messages are better received when you’re sitting down than they are when you’re standing up. I do a combination of both.
If you care about your people, it comes out in your tone of voice and your face. Do your best to let it show. Think about your tone of voice. Are you yelling? Galatians 6:1 says, “If someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” If you are bringing up a sinful struggle, you can quietly say, “Hey, I know in a room this size there are some of you who say, ‘Man, I struggle with this every single day. And I don’t know what to do.’” Consider your tone of voice, and perhaps slow down as you say it. It’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance.
Can a pastor go overboard in trying to show that he cares?
If someone is trying to be so sensitive that he avoids the truth—deciding not to teach on certain things, skipping controversial passages—that’s overboard. You have to be faithful to the text and sensitive. Your responsibility is to teach and admonish everyone with all wisdom (Col. 3:16). You can tell people, “This is the truth. It may be hard to hear it, but this is what the Word of God says, and I love you enough to tell you. I want the best for you, which is why God wants us to listen because He loves us, too.” Sensitive or not, you’ve got to tell the truth. I think you can do both.
For articles on speaking sensitively on specific controversial topics, yet remaining faithful to truth, consider Is Your Church a Safe Place for People Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction? by Brad Hambrick or 6 Pastoral Lessons Learned from a Sex Abuse Scandal by Dr. Jim Newheiser.