Teaching ‘Hot Topics’ in our Churches

Healthy churches will make time to preach and teach on controversial issues like race, or gender identity, or pornography, or abortion. It is important for discipleship and evangelism. It is vital if we are to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ. But who should do this teaching?

One option is to bring in a ‘specialist’. They will often bring wisdom and a depth and breadth of knowledge that would be hard for any pastor to match. Frequently they can speak from hard won personal experience. Given the highly sensitive nature of these issues, this can seem like the wisest and most helpful option.

I think ministries like Brephos and Living Out, to name just two, are extremely valuable. We have much to learn from Christians who have thought and taught deeply on race. But although these ministries and teachers have their place, I would suggest that it is much better for the pastor (in larger teams, the senior pastor) to lead in teaching on these subjects. Here are three reasons.

First, when the pastor addresses these topics it strengthens the bonds of love between pastor and people. The pastor almost always prays harder for his message and his people when dealing with something so sensitive. And a healthy congregation loves it when their pastor cares for them by preaching hard things with kindness, and will pray harder for him in his preparation. Tough sermons are often greeted with a collective sigh of relief and great gratitude.

Secondly, pastors can be nervous about ‘going there’ in their preaching because they are aware that these things will touch raw nerves in particular people’s lives. But precisely because these things are so sensitive, much of the value of preaching and teaching on them will come not in the message itself, but in the one-to-one pastoring afterwards. These pastoral conversations will be more natural and deeper if they happen in response to the pastor’s own teaching, rather than that of a stranger.

In my experience, teaching and preaching on these kinds of things has always led to significant and ongoing pastoral and discipleship opportunities, and has always led to growth in maturity and often to conversions.

Thirdly, if we as pastors are nervous about addressing these topics, our people are almost certainly more nervous. And yet they are longing for us to break the silence. They want to know what God has to say.

But the way we do this has consequences. If we bring in an ‘expert’ to address the issue, we implicitly model that these are things we can leave to the experts. Without meaning to, we convey that as long as we believe the right things we can remain silent ourselves. But if a congregation sees their pastor taking the step of addressing these issues—perhaps nervously—they will see that it is possible and desirable for all of us to speak up. We pastors must also remember that when we teach and preach on these issues, we mostly do so in the relative safety of a Christian congregation.1 Our people will often be living and speaking in much less friendly environments.

With all that said, is there a place for involving ‘experts’ in helping our churches get to grips with Scripture’s teaching on these topics. How might we do this? Here are three further thoughts:.

First, I think there is a valuable place for an evening or a day of teaching for churches from ‘experts’ from parachurch ministries. This is where their expertise and experience can deepen and strengthen an entire congregation’s understanding. But in my view, sessions like this are best placed after the (senior) pastor has begun to teach on the issue. If I were the pastor, I might also want to negotiate a place for me to speak on a training evening or day— nothing major, but a short piece of pastoral framing at the beginning or the end. In this way, I would hope to model that I was taking seriously my responsibility for the spiritual care of the congregation entrusted to me.

A second particularly helpful way that parachurch ministries can help is through study days for groups of pastors and for church leadership teams. As a senior pastor, I would want to be there myself and to take a leadership team with me (whether elders, staff team, or other lay leaders.) And I would want to schedule time for substantial discussion together sometime after the event, including plans of how to best serve the whole church family with what we had learned.

At Pastors’ Academy, we offer a number of such teaching opportunities, including study days on particular biblical, doctrinal and ethical topics, tailor-made study projects, and reading groups.

Thirdly, specialist ministries often produce written resources, videos, podcasts, etc. These can be valuable supplements to—but not substitutes for— pastoral ministry from a church’s leaders. Speaking personally, I love having resources to recommend when I am preaching on something, whether it is a ‘hot topic’, or a doctrine, or a book of the Bible. And I would always want to encourage a church culture of ongoing learning.

Another reason outside resources are helpful is because I am mindful of the problem of a pastor becoming the ‘pope in his own parish’. Deep down, this is what our flesh wants. And it is sometimes what our people would like us to be. I therefore always want to discourage the idea that the pastor teaches because he is expert in the church on all matters.

The pastor teaches because, under the Lord Jesus the Great Pastor of the Sheep, he has the primary responsibility in a church for care of souls. This care will be shown through prayerful ministry of the Word. But it will sometimes also be demonstrated by acknowledging that believers and unbelievers will benefit from the teaching of those who know more about a subject or say it better.

Sometimes in church life things get done badly and harm is caused because we pastors try to do everything and just blunder in when others would be better placed. Sometimes harm is caused because we fearfully stand back or pass the buck. Whether or not you agree with the details of what I have said, the principle is this: pastors lead in caring for the flock, but we never lead in isolation, always as part of a team. We serve alongside leaders in the congregation, and sometimes also with the help of other Christians from outside our local church.

[1] Though I recognise that in some contexts biblical teaching on these matters can, sadly, arouse significant hostility even within the visible church.