Preaching on or preaching to?

There has often been a discussion about whether Christian ministers should preach on current events in their sermons. A recent Gospel Coalition article deals with the question here. The thrust of that article is more about navigating when to or not to address current events in your sermon.

Personally, I don’t think pastors should ever preach on current events. Yes, you heard me right. And, in case you didn’t, I’ll say it again. Pastors should never preach on current events. I say that in all seriousness and with no caveats whatsoever. Never, ever preach on current events. I don’t think I can be any clearer than that.

But that doesn’t mean we never mentioned current events in our sermons. I mention them all the time. If stuff is going on locally, nationally or internationally it often has some impact in our local community. Our area is full of South Asian Muslims, so certain news events – both national and international – can mean that they warrant some comment. Our church has a lot of Iranians and a bunch of Afghans and Iraqis in membership, so certain goings on in their home countries matter to them. Many of our guys are asylum seekers, which means any comment by the government regarding asylum here and any moves that affect those claims by the government in their country of origin does have a local impact. We speak into that stuff in our sermons all the time.

Then, of course, there are the local and national things that affect all our members, whether asylum seekers, immigrants or British nationals. You have to put in a lot of hard work to avoid mentioning Brexit in one of your sermons, somewhere, even as a passing remark. I suspect it took less work to avoid talking about Black Lives Matter at all, but when the tearing down of statues and demonstrations were going on, it was harder to not mention them than it was to ignore them altogether. This is all the more true in an area like ours, with its history of racial tension and race-related rioting.

So, how do I square never, ever preaching on current events whilst also frequently mentioning current events in sermons? How can we preach about current events if we’re never supposed to preach current events? By recognising the difference between ‘preaching on’ something and ‘preaching to’ something.

I do not think we should ever preach on current events. We should only ever preach on the Bible. We are not in church to make our sermons fundamentally about what is going on in the world. We are there to preach Christ, proclaim his gospel and show how that gospel impact every aspect of our lives. We open up the pages of scripture and we preach it. We explain what it is saying and we make clear what this passage has to say to the lives of those listening. We preach the Word.

But if the Word is living and active, if it does actually speak to the realities of life, then our sermons preached on the Bible will always preach to what is going on in the world. If we are to move beyond merely restating what everybody has read already, and apply it meaningfully to the lives of the people listening, that will necessarily include applying the Word to the current events affecting the congregation. We don’t preach on the current event itself – our sermon is not there specifically to address Brexit or the inauguration of the US President or whatever. But how the gospel (and specifically our passage) impacts our view of those current events, how the Word calls us to unity regardless of which way we voted on those things, how it speaks into the daily impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, or whatever are all important ways in which the Word speaks to our situation. The work of application will include speaking to current events.

My heart sinks when people decide to ditch their sermon series in Judges or 1 Timothy (or whatever) because they decide that some current event is more worthy of a sermon of its own than the Word of God. But I equally don’t see how the pastor who is concerned about applying the Word well to his flock can plough on in his series in Judges or 1 Timothy (or wherever) and not ask, what does this passage say to us about the major events that are currently affecting our lives? Most people are asking that question: what does this passage say to me, on Monday or Tuesday morning, about the situation I now find myself in? I want to know what it means for me at work or in my unemployment, what it means for me as I lead my family or as I live as a single person. But I also want to know what it means in light of what has just happened in the world and how I am to view it, react to it and live godly in Christ Jesus as a result of whatever it is.

So, again, no I don’t think you should ever preach on current events. Even events as major and life-affecting as the COVID-19 pandemic should not be the basis of our Sunday sermon. But should we preach to current events? Of course we should. If we want to understand how to live faithfully for Christ in our particularly context and cultural moment, it means that we need to hear how to live for him in light of whatever current events are affecting us. Never preach on current events, but it is usually worth speaking to them.