Preachers must not avoid preaching about the pain of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a prominent Baptist pastor who serves in New York City, one of the hardest-hit areas of the nation.
“This is not the time to preach sermons that ignore what’s going on in the world,” said Brett Younger, senior minister of the historic Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spoke by video June 25 to participants in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly, that itself was forced to an online-only presence due to the pandemic.
“Our situation is becoming more like those in Scripture,” he said. “We want to go back to the way things were, but we need to live deeply now. This crisis is a painful opportunity to grow.”
Although his assigned topic was preaching during a pandemic, there are parallels preachers may find between COVID-19 and systemic racism, Younger explained, noting that he grew up in churches in Mississippi in the 1960s that “skipped the Civil Rights Movement.”
Pastors must preach about COVID-19 because it is a justice issue, he said. “The victims are disproportionately African American, poor and elderly.” Further, those protesting the stay-at-home orders often are appealing to racist ideologies and miss the ethical demands of the Bible, Younger added. “How can you go to church and value money more than lives? How can you call yourself a Christian and not care about the elderly? … All of us forget to live with Christian concern.”
But this will be hard for preachers, he added, because “not everyone will applaud when we address justice issues.”
Further, this pandemic creates pastoral care issues pastors must address in person and in their sermons, Younger said. “This is a time for preachers to listen. … We can admit that sometimes we want to close our eyes, roll into a ball and wake up on the other side of this. … The pandemic is creating new issues, … and we have to respond.”
Preachers also may find that the pandemic is shaping their congregants’ views of God. “The temptation is to latch on to any easy answer,” he said, citing examples of those who assert they will not take precautions because they believe God will protect them or that if someone dies, God chose to call them home.
“This is not a good time for bad theology,” Younger said. “During a pandemic, to look on the bright side isn’t enough for us.”
While even pastors may be reticent to talk about death, they should understand that their congregants have been focused on thinking about death for the past four months, he continued. Therefore, in preaching, “we can’t just jump straight to hope,” he said. “We have to admit death.
“In the United states more than 1,000 people a day are dying of COVID-19. We need to sit for a while in sackcloth and ashes. We need to sit with despair.”
Sadly, he added, that despair is not evenly distributed in real life. “It is clear that while we are all in the same storm, we are in different boats.” Those perspectives may vary based on wealth, work situation and health situation, he said.
To be honest about despair but also offer hope, Younger suggested a simple preaching outline he drew from Paul Scott Wilson’s book The Four Pages of the Sermon: Pastors will find help by organizing their sermon content around trouble in the world, trouble in the text, good news in the world and good news in the text.
Making a commitment to address both despair and hope and to cover the biblical text as well as current events will lead to better sermons, he concluded.