Pastors across America will face a common challenge in 2017, and it could be you.
Not that you’re a bad person or mean. But the greatest challenge for your pastor in this new year could be you — if you listen only for what you are afraid your pastor might say to offend you or your political ideology.
Here’s an example: A congregant recently stopped attending her church because, she said, all through the fall her pastor “preached against Donald Trump.” The cold, hard facts of the situation show that the pastor barely mentioned the president-elect in his sermons.
So how is it that this congregant heard one thing when the pastor said something else?
Psychology might tell us first to look at a confirmation bias. That’s the innate human tendency to see or hear only the things that support our own views. If you are convinced there were multiple shooters in Dealey Plaza the day President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, you’re likely to gravitate toward hearing or seeing information that confirms your view. This is human nature.
Or maybe it’s a case of observational selection bias, which is what happens when you buy a red car, knowing no one else with a red car, and then suddenly start noticing red cars everywhere on the road. Has the number of red cars actually increased since you bought yours? Not likely. Are you more attuned to see red cars? Definitely. The same effect works in the negative, when we become conditioned to look for statements that undermine the ideological purchases we have made.
There’s another possibility, though, and this is where your pastor likely will find herself between a rock and a hard place this year. In the example above, where the pastor barely mentioned Donald Trump throughout the fall but was perceived to have preached against the president-elect for months, consider this: It is true that in the course of preaching from biblical texts given by the weekly lectionary readings, the pastor addressed biblical issues that have been politicized in America. Because they are biblical issues, not because they are political issues.
It is the politicians today who have made biblical issues political issues — and too often erring on the side that opposes the Bible’s teaching. We don’t ask politicians to be theologians, after all.
When your pastor preaches against the prosperity gospel — one of our greatest modern heresies that defies the example of Jesus himself — that is only a statement against the president-elect because of the choices he has made — inviting a prosperity gospel evangelist to pray at the inauguration, for example, or advocating wealth over character and service. What will you hear?
When your pastor preaches the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and care for refugees, that is only a statement against the president-elect because he made a campaign issue out of building walls and sending people away. What will you hear?
When your pastor preaches the biblical admonition that the truth shall set you free, that is only a statement against the president-elect when he chooses not to traffic in truth. What will you hear?
When your pastor preaches the New Testament truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, that is only a statement against the president-elect when he plays to tribal divisions and gender biases for political gain. What will you hear?
More than any time in the history of America, Christian pastors are likely this year to be criticized for preaching against the president of the United States because the president-elect has advanced an ideology and exemplified a character that is too often anything but biblical.
Now before you accuse me of partisanship, let me be quick to add this is not because Donald Trump was elected as a Republican. It is because of the positions he has taken, the statements he has made and the behaviors he has exhibited. Many of my Republican friends do not agree with him. The criticism would be the same whether he had run as a Democrat or an Independent. Consider for just a moment what the reaction would have been from the Religious Right if the same man had been elected president as a Democrat.
Many Christian pastors are Republicans — in fact among evangelical Christianity, it’s safe to assume a majority are card-carrying Republicans. And they too face the imminent risk of being misunderstood in their preaching this year. Perhaps they face the greatest challenge.
What will you hear this year when the word of God is preached?