Should a political message ever displace Gospel proclamation during worship?
This question arose yesterday when I visited a nearby church, having slept too late to attend my own. I was looking forward to a sermon from a pastor there who is an Asbury Seminary graduate and highly regarded as a preacher. Unfortunately she did not preach, as the sermon time was replaced by a question and answer session with a full-time Global Warming activist. He was likeable and sincere, but the Gospel did not surface during the exchange except for brief reference to his faith having shaped his concern for the environment.
Setting aside the details and merits of climate activism, does any political message ever merit becoming the focus of worship? I left the service spiritually deflated and, although the climate conversation received applause, the two worshippers with whom I spoke afterwards were similarly put off. Had the worship presented a political cause that I support (more bike trails!), or offered a lecture about a fascinating topic not related directly to the Gospel (WWII history!) I expect I still would have been spiritually unquenched.
Isn’t the sermon time always supposed to directly present the Gospel, evangelizing, discipling and glorifying the Triune God, offering His redemptive hope for the world? Can there ever be a more important cause for the church during its worship? Isn’t the imperative, during a brief church service, always bringing persons closer to Christ? For most in the sanctuary during that hour, it’ll be their only direct Gospel exposure during their week. Why lose that opportunity?
Global Warming activists believe their cause is very urgent. For some secular climate activists it has become the defining human narrative. Christian climate activists relate their concerns about climate to God’s care for creation. Their arguments should be heard, but not as a replacement for a sermon or worship. There are many urgent political and social causes, but none are more pressing for the church than the Gospel itself.
Should worship ever include direct calls for specific political action? Churches should be wary. Universal Christian teaching about God’s purposes for society should be explained but as broad principles, not typically as political specifics. The Body of Christ for 2000 years has affirmed the sacredness of all human life, which should be boldly proclaimed. Should a sermon focus on specific details about legislation or other political remedies regarding legal protections for the unborn or persons targetted for euthanasia? Clergy should be reluctant to cede direct Gospel proclamation, especially in their sermon time, to the details or advocacy of even compelling political causes to which historic Christian teaching speaks consistently.
Climate politics are not an issue to which Christian tradition or Scripture speak directly. Some scholarship claims that iron smelting and deforestation by the Roman Empire may have affected the climate in antiquity. If so, Jesus did not address that issue during His earthly ministry. There are teachings in the Scriptures that Christian environmentalists cite for their advocacy. Broad teachings about God’s purposes for creation would be suitable for a sermon. But debates about U.S. environmental policies are better suited for discussion in an after church forum or discussion, which ideally seeks diverse perspectives and doesn’t just assume that one political priority is self-evidently Christian. Most public policy issues don’t have a dogmatic Christian position.
In contrast, a sermon in most circumstances should present timeless Gospel truths that would be understood and relevant to any person of any culture or time who needs God’s grace.
Do you agree?
(Photo at top shows Orson Welles as Father Mapple marvelously preaching about Jonah at the Whalers chapel in the 1956 film “Moby Dick,” an example to all preachers everywhere!)