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lightstock_333672_jpg_tgcWhen does a current cultural event necessitate a change of plans in your Sunday morning church service?

That's a question that I've been pondering in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests a few weeks ago. The event took place on a Friday night, escalated on a Saturday, and culminated with a terrorist attack.

On social media, multiple people counseled churches on how to respond the next morning. Some called for condemning white supremacy and Neo-Nazis by name. Others offered prayer for pastors who were revising their sermons or penning statements to read before the church. This sentiment popped up a few times: If your church doesn't address this tomorrow, find another congregation. The social media fever implied that failing to speak on the issue indicated you were taking the side of white supremacists.

I am the primary teaching pastor in my congregation. On that Saturday night, I spoke with two other pastors on staff. We decided that one of the pastors would speak from Ephesians 3 before the Lord's Supper, emphasizing reconciliation at the table of the Lord, who has broken down the wall between Jew and Gentile. Since I was already in the middle of a sermon series on Exodus, I found a few places in my sermon where a condemnation of racist ideology fit well.

In other churches, pastors took different approaches. Some posted thoughts on Facebook. Others made a statement during the service. Others incorporated the events into a time of prayer.

But the bigger question remains: when should a church change its program in order to address a current event?

Here are some principles I've considered for future occasions. These are my initial thoughts, and I welcome counsel from others in the comments.

1. Is this a history-making event that demands the church's immediate response?

When I say "history-making," I refer to events that instantly change the conversation and atmosphere for everyone in society. September 11 fits this category. So did the assassination of John F. Kennedy. They are generation-shaping moments that call for the church's voice.

To not respond to these events would fail to speak to the fears, worries, and concerns currently overwhelming the congregation. If North Korea or ISIS were to set off a nuclear bomb in the United States, for example, it would be foolish to continue on with the next sermon as if everything was just like the week before.

2. How "top of mind" or "close at hand" is the recent cultural event? 

Timing matters. When a terrorist attack occurs just before a Sunday service, or when an Orlando nightclub is attacked on a Saturday night, or when a hurricane is wreaking havoc in Houston, you should realize that most of the congregation will be reeling from the news as they arrive at worship that morning.

When we decide not to address something (either through prayer or preaching) that is on nearly everyone's minds, we lose an opportunity to show how the gospel applies to all of life. We miss the opportunity to provide hope in a dark moment. Consider the emotional and psychological state of congregants gathering for worship, and then bring the light of the gospel to bear on the situation.

3. Are you in danger of leading your church to be driven by current events?

We should take care not to change a program or revise a sermon too often. It is not the purpose of the gathered church to address every world tragedy or big political event. Where would one stop? In a given week, there is news from all over the world that could, in theory, swamp the service.

We should be careful not to let the world set the agenda for a worship service. Yes, we need to be aware of suffering and pain in the world. (And this is one reason why corporate prayer in a service is ideal: you can incorporate burdens and requests into a time of prayer on any Sunday. This is what we did at our church the previous two Sundays as we lifted up the victims of Hurricane Harvey.) But worship should lift our eyes from the swirl of worldly worries to the King and kingdom that transcends the momentary cloud.

Worship that lifts our eyes to Jesus is not escapist; it is a spiritual discipline that reorients us to God and his purposes. Choosing to not address a cultural concern should never be motivated by fear or cowardice (as was often the case in white churches in the civil-rights era). Neither should it be an excuse for inaction. Instead, keeping a transcendent view in worship should help empower long-term sustainable action in the world, because believers have had their hearts re-focused on what does not change.

4. Are we in a cultural moment where the church's guidance may be necessary?

Answering this question is a judgment call. Pastors may consider addressing a cultural issue because, as shepherds, they want to lead the flock well. I put Charlottesville in this category. At our church, our pastors wanted our congregation to have no doubt where we stood when it comes to anti-Semitic and racist ideology. By bringing it up, we were also saying, You may not think this is worthy of mention, but we do, and here's why.

Pastors must judge wisely and carefully on matters related to their own congregation and when they sense their guidance and voice is required. Different churches may come to different conclusions on a particular event.

More Principles?

I'm curious about how other pastors handle situations like this. Are there other questions you would add? Are there other principles you would appeal to?

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12 thoughts on “When Should a Church Address a Current Event?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    The principle that comes to my mind is whether the event included the committing of corporate sin. Another principle that comes to mind is whether there are groups that are victims in the event which are either represented by members in the church or can be ministered to by members of the church.

    I don’t look at preaching on current evens as a disruption in preaching on Sundays. Rather, the principles I use in activism are the principles I would use in determining sermon content if I was a preacher: the principles learned from the parable of the two men praying and what Jesus taught in the parable of the 4 soils. On a good day, I use those two parables to guide my involvement with activism.

  2. Ted says:

    Another factor in whether to talk about a current event is proximity. Sometimes, an incident does not make national headlines, yet that event leaves a small town or community reeling.

  3. Joe Reed says:

    I’ve watched John MacArthur handle current events for some time now, and his pattern seems to be that he is typically the last one to speak out, often waiting several weeks, but when he does address a subject it’s almost always the best treatment of it. I don’t know his mind, but waiting for some of the emotions to die down and the story to finish telling itself doubtless provides clarity as to what events are truly of lasting significance, and a little extra time to observe an event and its aftermath and ponder over it longer allows more clarity and a more well-formulated response, and also helps see what events are of lasting importance and which ones only seem like it.

    His response to Charlottesville, for example, was great. No, he didn’t toe the social gospel line and only condemn white supremacy with Tim Keller’s “full stop,” rather he framed the entire ordeal with theological lenses that transcended that single event, giving his people a mental and biblical grid for not only understanding that one time and place, but offered a way of thinking about other similar situations which will we will almost certainly see in the near future.

  4. Doug says:

    To often with contemporary issues, much of what the church does is address the symptom not root cause. For example, Romans depicts homosexuality as a symptom, the root cause “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” The church commonly fails to link the symptom to the cause, therefore leaving out the active involvement of an offended God. We see the same with natural disasters. The church focuses on aid. There is no association made to an offended God. Like the world, we attribute these things soley to natural causes. In Jonah’s day, even the pagans on board responded correctly to the storm God sent. They would be told “stop the nonsense” in our day…by church leaders. The church in America has lost its prophetic element.

  5. It’s often been said, in different ways, that culturally Canada is to America like a mouse trying to sleep next to an elephant.

    As a Canadian, when it comes to issues – mentioning, speaking out on, or including in intercessory prayer – during worship I have to consider how uniquely American a situation or issue is. We have a constant flow of American media and our cultures also run parallel. So I have to always ask the “American” question. Does this issue matter to us locally? Does it represent a serious threat/opportunity/concern/need for us here? Or does it just seem that way this week because of the news feed?

    I now pastor a congregation in the Far North. We’re very far away. But we’re also close because the world is so inter-connected.

    I’d be curious as to whether other non-Americans feel the same way. Is it the same for Europeans? Or Latin Americans?

    (please don’t read any of this as a critique against America or Americans. It is not)

  6. Steven Kopp says:

    That’s good guidance. I generally look at this through a pastoral lens. Where are the people at in the congregation? Do they need clarification? Do they need comfort? Do they need a call to action?

    The number of times we’ve addressed specific instances is pretty low: Some major natural disasters, after the week with Philando Castille and the subsequent killing of the police officers in Dallas, when the Supreme Court made the decision on same-sex marriage – those all come to mind.

  7. Greg says:

    What’s been critical for my Christian friends and community is that the Church is unified and bases its approach on a body of historical precedent, even if and when emotions run high, and opinions fall along a range. I’ve relied on our local (ie, U.S.) bishops and the magisterium for three decades, and that has been a constant source of measured equilibrium amid what is often a chaotic contrariness within and among society and the media, not to mention the plethora of denominations.

    Today were multiple examples I have relied on: An extension of a previous statement and formation of a commission of leadership on racism, here (for the laity):

    and the US Catholic Bishops on DACA, here:

  8. Kevin says:

    You described Charlottesville as ‘culminating in a terrorist attack.’ This is evidence of why churches should be slow to respond to incidents of this nature. I assume you are referring to the young man who drove his car into a group of counterprotestors. We don’t yet know whether this was an intentional act. The young man has been described as mentally disturbed. For all we know he simply may have panicked at the sight of the counterprotestors and jammed his foot on the wrong pedal.

  9. PJ Tibayan says:

    Great post, brother.

    Two other principles come to mind. (1) Does your church’s statement of faith address it? Our church has adopted the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as our statement of faith and there is an explicit statement against racism. I realize that many confessional churches don’t have a statement of faith as “up to date.” (2) Is your church divided on this issue where there seems to be clear biblical direction? We have some in our church and our local Baptist association who tend to assume that once you say racism is a sin you need not talk about the issue any more. In my view, part of discipling our members is to help them see how our theology addresses the current event and how to engage fellow Christians who may not see how our theology addresses such an event.

  10. Tobby Smith says:

    As a rule, expository preaching is normative. However, I think in the event of a national or local tragedy we should address it. For example, on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 I preached on God’s Sovereignty; when the Sandyhook tragedy occurred I addressed that as well. Additionally, at my sons school a few years ago there was a terrible murder suicide that included two students. In each of those cases I took the time to specifically address. But I think that we can usually draw a point of application to most events through faithful exposition.

  11. Raudel says:

    Love this doc! Now we need one like this from a minority pastor, as there will always be things a Caucasian pastor will miss

  12. Bryan says:

    I often wonder how Jesus defines “who is my neighbor” in a hyper-connected world. There is so much going on locally that I purposely limit the amount of time I give to news, especially when it takes a few weeks for the truth of a lot of it to become clear. There is so much pain and suffering in so many circumstances that I can’t believe I am responsible to pray for all of them. I try to focus our leaders’ energy on the flock among us in terms of prayer and care. But want to be mindful of cultural winds of doctrine
    blowing our people off course. There is plenty of that. I tend to not change much if I don’t sense the congregation as a whole is struggling with the events. And I don’t want to bend with the algorithms of social media either.

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​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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