Monday, September 15, 2008

Preaching Particulars

During a worship service about a month ago, my pastor encouraged the congregation to join coalitions of disabilities groups around the country in boycotting the film "Tropic Thunder" for its treatment of people with mental disabilities. Several parishioners expressed discomfort with the church prescribing such specific action to its members.

Yesterday, as part the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice my congregation hosted an immigrant worker who spoke about her experience trying to survive in this country. Afterwards, the intern pastor preached a very prophetic sermon in which he called for employers to provide their workers with living wages and benefits that would ensure workers' health and security, he also called for governors to promote laws that would ensure the same thing. Specifically he mentioned supporting the workers of the Port of Oakland. Some of the same parishioners who had been concerned about the church calling for support of the boycott were very pleased and excited by the exhortation to employers and governors.

This may simply be a case of the parishioners not being employers and governors and hence not feeling the thrust of the sermon directed at them, while they were all movie-goers, and thereby actually challenged by the call to boycott. However, it does beg the question, when a sermon calls the congregation to action, what is appropriate?

Let me suggest a few categories to consider:
animate political specifics (specific political parties and candidates, i.e. support Ralph Nader and the Green Party)
inanimate political specifics (specific laws, resolutions, and bills, i.e. support resolution 38, which raises the minimum wage by $0.50/hour)
political generalities (goals to be achieved through government but without specific means, i.e. the government should raise the minimum wage)
social generalities (goals without specific means to achieve them, i.e. work to eliminate poverty)
social specifics (specific non-political means to achieving goals, i.e. volunteer at the local food shelter)
moral generalities (personal virtues that are encouraged, i.e. respect the dignity of the poor)
moral specifics (means to foster moral virtues, i.e. each morning pray for the homeless people that you've seen in the streets)


Ben Colahan said...

Is the division between political and social a false distinction? For instance, the workers of the Port of Oakland are not fighting for a government solution, but are still trying to impose a collective desire upon an unwilling group.

Elana said...

You stole the idea for this blog post from me! Thief! Thief!!!! Idea plagiarizer!

Ben Colahan said...

Hmmm...what are the implications for the level of specifics that should be proclaimed from the pulpit?

Elana said...

Also, I wrote a much more eloquent comment but it was eaten by my computer! Or your computer...hmmm...suspicious..:0

Ben Colahan said...

To be fair, you are included in the "parishioners" mentioned in the post. :D

Daniel said...

I recently attended a service at The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago that provoked similar questions in my mind. I found the sermon to be strongly political, but in a very general sort of way. I was concerned that, by attending a service at which certain principles were espoused, the parishoners felt that awareness could be enough and that they need do little else. I felt that it was the responsibility of the church to provide concrete suggestions to the congregation that would help encourage everyday action that is in line with the ideology espoused. Perhaps it should be left to each individual to approach the pastor for advice given personal interest; I'm not really sure what is apropriate, but I feel like this is something very important.

Ben Colahan said...

I'm amused that I wrote the post from a concern about pastors getting too specific in sermons, while you seem to be concerned about them not getting specific enough.

Your point about action is well taken, however. I tend to hesitate about prescribing specific action in a sermon, largely because preaching speaks to an incredibly large and diverse group. Each person in the congregation has different needs and different ways to meet those needs. I believe that the Gospel can speak meaningfully to each person, but the precise manifestation of how, will vary. To that end, I wouldn't say that parishioners need to seek out the pastor, I'd say that the pastor and lay leaders need to seek out the parishioners and have one-on-one discussions or smaller interest groups to meet more specific needs and calls to action.
Admittedly, I can imagine some situations in which the congregation as a whole could be called upon to rally around a common cause.

Elana said...

Elana said...

I think there is a VERY fine line between providing practical guidance as to how to put certain ideals to work in the world and making people feel that voting one way is "holier" than voting another way. Part of me thinks the church could and should be an integral medium through which citizens can learn to put their ideals into practice in the world...the other part worries that--if not done with EXTREME care and continued dialogue, debate, refinement of these ideals, study of the social issues in question, encouraging rigorous intellectual inquiry etc. (is this even possible in a forum where one person is standing up, speaking, while everyone else is sitting down, remaining silent?)--this could amount to little more than brainwashing. This seems like it would be of particular concern to you, Ben, as you have stated that your particular ministry may be to work with intellectuals who have either been hurt by the church or turned away from it.

So I guess maybe it comes down to what your goals are with the church? Is it your primary goal to create a sort of utopia of unconditional love in your little community, where every member is constantly reminded of their value and worth?* Or is it your primary goal to educate your parishioners on how to be responsible citizens in the world, socially and--inevitably--politically?

I'm not saying these two things are mutually exclusive, but I can definitely see how there might be some tension between them, unless you end up with a parish that is of one mind on political and social issues.

I don't think the answer to this is to simply be "vaguely political"...but I don't really have any alternatives to offer you, either.

*To complicate matters even more fully, perhaps I am taking too simplistic a view of "love." Perhaps love is not a form of comfort but a continual challenge to respect the inherent value of all things (as I think you mentioned in a previous post?). If you and your parsonage agree on this as a common ground from which to work, then it seems like you could actually make definitive statements on social issues by emphasizing the intellectual study of social policy, and maybe even bringing in experts to discuss various issues with your church. I'm not convinced that your parishioners would even be interested in engaging in such a critical dialogue, but at least it gives them an opportunity to do so.

On another note, this is why I never post on your blog, because I talk myself into circles so effectively!