Moments That Demand a Pulpit Response

Preaching in Times of Crisis

by Richard L. Dresselhaus

The ring of the phone broke the stillness of the night: “Pastor, there has been a terrible car accident.”

I quickly dressed and drove to the hospital, only to be greeted by the news that a girl from our youth department had already died, and a second was fighting for her life. Before an hour had passed, she too was gone.

Teens and parents who had come to share their sorrow and try to find some solace for their grief filled the lobby. The atmosphere was heavy with disbelief and consternation: “How can this be?”

I suggested we move into the adjacent chapel. What do I say? What do I do?

While the shock of the moment has erased the memory of what I said, I do know I spoke haltingly about the goodness of God and the need to put our trust in Him. Faltering as it was, it was a needed and essential word from heaven spoken in the midst of almost unbelievable brokenness, uncertainty, and fear.

Only 6 months before this accident the youth of our church had said goodbye to another of their own. A courageous young teen, after months of struggle, finally became the victim of a relentless brain tumor.

Here, too, was a moment that demanded a pastoral response — a word from God that would break through grief and help anchor scattered emotions. Hardly a time for profound theological digressions, but something from the heart of a pastor who shared vicariously the pain of those he leads and loves.

Six months following the car accident, I walked off the jet way with our tour group returning from Israel to be greeted with the news that we had lost a fourth girl from our youth group … the victim of a brutal murder. An intruder had gotten into the home while her mother was away and assaulted her in the most awful ways imaginable.

What can we say to the people of God in moments like this? How can a group of teens confront the loss of four of their own over an 18-month period? What can we say to parents who struggle for answers? What can we say at a memorial service that is filled with high schoolers, civic leaders, school administrators, and teachers?

These moments demand a pulpit response.

I was preparing for the day when our daughter called: “Dad, a plane has hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City.” That was the beginning of a story that still reverberates across the nation and around the world.

Then came the Sunday following 9/11. How could a pastor remain silent or disconnected from such an event? The people of God gather at such a time believing they will, and they must, hear a word from God. To miss this moment is to miss one of the great opportunities to demonstrate the power of the gospel in the crucible of life. People have come to hear something from another world, a declaration from eternity, an anointed word from the Throne.

These moments demand a pulpit response.

Haddon Robinson, noted educator and pulpiteer, has coined the phrase, “Preaching through the pain.” While he illustrates the principle by observing the times when he went to the pulpit in great personal pain, this also applies in a broader and more congregational sense. Pain and preaching often go together, both in the experience of the preacher and in the hearts of those who listen.

I have sometimes asked: “Where is Jesus most fully encountered?” Could it be that when you find the pain you find Jesus? Or, put differently, is it pain that often pries open the heart to hear the tender voice of the Chief Shepherd? If this is true, what an opportunity crisis provides. This is when people listen best.

What I said from the pulpit on the Sunday following 9/11 is no longer in my memory. But I do know that I used the pulpit that Sunday to speak to the hurts, fears, and uncertainties that all Americans felt — and to the body of Christ that must carry a deep sense of responsibility and concern for the events of consequence that occur in society at large.

But moments that demand a pulpit response go far beyond the crises imposed on the church by external forces; they also include the agony of disunity, the pain of doctrinal discord, the grief of leadership failure, the shattering effect of sinful conduct, and the pressure of budgetary shortfalls.

Yes, these too are moments that demand a pulpit response.

What are road signs along the way that might help the pastor use those moments wisely and effectively?

Measure Carefully the Scope of the Crisis

Pastors must not be alarmists — nor must they minimize possible ramifications.

Following 9/11 it would have been inappropriate to speak of another attack as imminent, but also unwise to suggest that the enemies of our freedom would be content to strike only once.

When unemployment figures move into double digits, it is inappropriate to suggest these figures will likely go much higher, but also unwise to suggest that in this life there is anything close to absolute job security.

If we discover a church leader is living in sin, it is inappropriate to suggest that such conduct is rampant, but also unwise to suggest that leadership imperfections are consistently rare.

Hopefully, the point is made — wise and effective pastors will avoid the pitfall of overreacting and understating. Both extremes create distrust and result in a lack of credibility.

The necessity of accurate assessment is imperative. A church facing a crisis of any proportion must be allowed to face it realistically, objectively, fairly, and purposefully. This calls for language that is noninflammatory, emotions that are in check, and facts that are accurate and reliable.

Financial crises are common in the average church. This is the time for factual information, not unfounded rhetoric. It is the time for biblical teaching on giving, not motivation based on guilt. Here is the time for encouragement and hope, not shame and guilt.

Moments that demand a pulpit response call for balance, accuracy, and careful measuring of the circumstances that may gather around a time of crisis.

Monitor Deliberately Your Emotional Involvement

The so-called bully pulpit is off-limits to the pastor. It is inappropriate for a minister to use oratorical skills and positional authority to persuade listeners to embrace a perspective that is solely confined to personal opinion and preference.

Let me illustrate. There are social issues that the church is called on to face —legalizing gambling, abortion, crime, drug traffic, domestic violence, and poverty. While a pastor must have personal opinions about such matters, it is essential that in the pulpit he deal with this matter from a biblical perspective. People must hear the Word of the Lord, not merely the opinion of a pastor.

Billy Graham speaks of the separation between the preacher and the message. He states that at times he feels as if he is standing by and observing from the side what is happening in preaching the message. This is a healthy and right understanding. The message has a life of its own. It is the Word of the Lord. It stands on its own. Granted, there is a sense in which message and messenger merge, but never to the diminishing of the solidarity and independence of the message. This is the Word of the Lord.

The point: When a pastor yields to the impulse of personal emotions to the neglect of objectivity, balance, and fairness, the crisis that should become an occasion for effective challenge and ministry becomes instead an occasion for further hurt and pain. Although our Lord wraps His message in human flesh, it remains the pastor’s responsibility to deliver the Word as it is — clear, anointed, authentic.

Guard Against Personalized Inferences

The tragic story goes like this: The church was in crisis. And the pastor used the pulpit to vent his anger, disgust, and aggression. While not naming names, it was clear to whom the reference belonged. The result was catastrophic.

Yes, there are moments that demand a pulpit response, but how that is done is of utmost importance.

Years ago the church I pastored faced a potentially devastating crisis. A small group of members had become dissatisfied with the leadership of the church, including both the board and the pastor. They expressed and circulated their discontent through a barrage of anonymous letters — sent indiscriminately to members and nonmembers alike. The result was most disconcerting.

As pastor I felt personally attacked. The contents of the anonymous letters were insulting and hurtful. How should I respond? When is church discipline required? And what form might it take?

In the midst of the crisis, the Lord dropped into my heart this thought: If you want to fight this battle, go ahead; if you want Me to fight it, I’ll do it. The choice was easy — and I let the Lord bring a solution that I could never have imagined. It took about a year and a half, but finally the crisis passed and the church entered into a period of unity and peace.

How does this story address the subject before us? Simply this. Sometimes the pulpit response to crisis is simply to preach the Word week by week and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work — without using the pulpit as a specific and recognizable agency of correction.

During those many months, I was often tempted to speak to the issue directly; sometimes that is the right course of action. In this case, however, the Lord led me to focus on preaching the Word and allowing the Spirit to act as the corrective agency.

Had I personalized this crisis and gone public with my hurts and insecurities, I doubt the outcome would have been positive. What if I had singled people out by inference? What if I had allowed my anger to find expression? What if I had yielded to the counsel of some to deal with it from the pulpit?

Yes, there are moments that demand a pulpit response, but sometimes that response is the simple, clear, and balanced exposition of God’s Word.

Avoid Politicizing Societal Challenges

A recognizable sense of relevance characterizes the life and message of a vibrant church. This church dares to address the issues that confront the culture of which it is a part. The list of issues it will face is almost limitless: abortion, crime, same-sex marriage, divorce, drug traffic, and corruption in civic leadership.

But how? There is a principle that must guide the church. The church must contextualize societal challenges within the Word of God. That is, let the appeal be based upon the teaching of God’s Word alone. Political parties, special-interest groups, candidate endorsements — these are matters to be dealt with personally, but do not belong to the pulpit. The pulpit must be reserved for “thus saith the Lord.”

Church history is replete with stories of ministers who have become political activists more than preachers of God’s Word. Typically, what follows is a loss of biblical focus and compromise of mission. We have heard it over and over: “The pastor has become too political.” Again, the work of the church is to challenge society, but it must do so through the faithful proclamation of God’s Word. It speaks powerfully to the social issues confronting the church.

These still are moments that demand a pulpit response.

Learn To Listen From the Pew

It would be helpful if every minister could become a part of the congregation long enough to discover how things sound in the pew. More than once someone corrected me for something I said from the pulpit that had not come across properly. While such a misstep is typically inadvertent, pastors need to take care to ensure that what they say from the pulpit is appropriate for the people in the pew.

I remember listening to a speaker of national renown who used stories that were inappropriate. He failed to keep in mind whom he was addressing. Preachers can be tempted to use their position of authority coupled with oratorical ability to cross the line and bring insult to the persons in the pew. Few practices have greater capacity for creating disunity in the church than this. “How could he say such a thing?” “Pastor’s off-the-cuff comment was sadly inappropriate.”

Karl Barth speaks of the sermon as an event. God comes to His people through His Word. Something great is happening. God is transforming lives. The eternal has visited the temporal. Heaven is touching earth. How tragic if a preacher’s careless mannerisms and glib speech taint the majesty of such a moment.

My personal prayer is: “Lord, the enemy will seek to rob the listener of hearing the Word of God; but, please, Lord, help me not hinder their hearing because of my own peculiar mannerisms, carelessness of speech, or other insensitivities.” The trumpet of truth must sound with clarity, accuracy, and truth.

Anything less spoils the moment when the pulpit must speak with power.

Refrain From Using Guilt as Motivation

Just a word about the theological cradle that can hold a church steady in times of crisis … the kind of awareness that will empower the pastor to speak with effectiveness to a congregation during times of great pain and hurt.

McDonald’s food chain has created a myth by which they market their products. That is, a perception, something that comes immediately to mind when the name McDonald’s is spoken. The same is true of any company that holds its share of the market.

The same is true of a church. It has a myth — a perception — that it has developed over time. Ask a nonattendee about the church on the corner, and you will likely have a description of the myth or perception of that church: “Oh, they help our community.” Or, “I never hear anything about that church.” Responses like these expose the way a community feels about a given church.

One of the key elements in developing a biblical and positive myth for a church is to be sure the atmosphere of the church is charged with a profound sense of the grace of God. Grace is inviting. Grace is life giving. Grace is liberating. Grace is the favor of God expressed to His people. A church that is saturated with this understanding will be healthy in its inner life and effective in its outreach.

A strong focus on grace stands in opposition to an unbalanced emphasis on law. While God’s laws are immutable and certain, it is grace that gives them an application of tenderness and mercy. A church balanced heavily on law will tend to be judgmental and demanding. A church balanced heavily on grace will be accepting, inviting, and engaging with a hurting world.

Motivation based on law uses guilt. It is threatening and harsh. People become unsettled and often hostile. People accentuate differences and draw lines of division. The result is often catastrophic. This church will live in crisis.

Yes, there are moments that demand a response from the pulpit — a word that resonates with a deep sense of God’s love and grace.

And these moments of crisis become invitations to proclaim the Word in such a way that it will bring peace where there has been strife, understanding where there has been confusion, hope where there has been despair, comfort where there has been sorrow, and life where there has been death.

These are the moments that demand a pulpit response.