I serve a really liberal church. It’s in Berkeley (aka Berzerkely) California, which earned its street cred in the summer of ’69 as the hippie hotbed of social justice activism, and has been enjoying its reputation ever since.
I used to serve a really, really liberal church. They have their own drag-queen in residence. As far as I know, they have no registered Republicans. The occasional libertarian wanders in, but often wanders out again, or listens anxiously from the margins.
I’m not saying this is a good thing. I actually believe that diverse communities are the healthiest communities, as long as people know how to communicate in fundamentally kind, self-differentiated ways. People who can disagree with each other and remain in calm contact are much more likely to shed their bigotries and learn from God through each other than a safely homogeneous group where everyone affirms each others biases.
Don’t get me wrong. I love preaching to the choir. When it’s presidential election season I can let ‘er rip about the jackass behaviors and dangerous policy positions of candidates without fear of reprisal. When I preach the peril of climate change on Earth Day, I don’t worry about the looks I’ll get in the receiving line. And when our annual Drag Gospel Sunday rolled around, I could paint on my moustache and bring the zaniest, queerest worship imaginable, and (almost) everybody would get up behind me in the conga line (just because they’re liberal, doesn’t mean they share my values on disco music…but they’re open).
However, there is a peril to preaching social justice in a liberal congregation: they’ve heard it all before. They get it, and yet it still needs to be said, because we’re not THERE yet, wherever there is. We (myself included) can always go deeper, give better, sacrifice more, for the changes we long to see in our world.
Time and time again, I encounter the urgent need to preach about police brutality, institutional racism, trans rights, refugee suffering, Islamophobia, human trafficking, trenchant poverty (including in our own backyard), climate chaos, and far more to my own people, but have tremendous difficulty delivering the message in a new, believable, wake-you-up way.
My favorite preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once taught: “the difficulty is not in what to say. It’s in how to say it so it gets heard.”
The reason for this, with social justice messages, is twofold. First, justice fatigue is real. How many times can we acknowledge the pain and suffering and brutality of the world, the exploitation and manipulation, and the sense that things aren’t changing fast enough, without shutting down?
Second, at least in my primarily Anglo, primarily privileged circles, we know we’re not doing enough. We’ve let our voices get weak, and our focus move too often to our own petty concerns, and this is hard to face. Our Facebook slacktivism is not enough. That chagrins us, but we can’t face our guilt and complicity head on: many of us are tired working parents just trying to hold our own lives together.
It’s OK. The point of a sermon is not to deliver ideas and values. Many of our people have the “right” ideas and values already, and those who aren’t on board with, say, the scientific evidence for climate change, are not going to be convinced by your very cogent and compelling argument. It’s just not how human beings change their minds.
Human beings don’t act based on persuasive arguments, logic or data. They act, and react, based on feelings. The social justice sermon has to light up the limbic system in the brain, which governs both emotion and motivation.
So if your people are not feeling it, how do you get them to feel?
Feel it yourself. Put your shoulder into that sermon. Make it damn good. Make it real. Here’s what I mean:
Make it unexpected. Argue against your most deeply held convictions, then reverse yourself. I have scared a lot of people in my pews this way! But it guarantees that they will keep listening, just to make sure I “get it right” by the end.
Complain about how high Jesus’ expectations are, how hard it is to fulfill our Christian obligations. Tell stories on yourself, how you have failed to do it in the past—and how, when you did give God an inch of self-sacrifice for someone else’s suffering, God gave you a mile of grace.
Reveal your own fears and anxieties strategically. Name and describe the thing everybody is worried about in your particular community, but no one knows how to talk about: mass shooting at the middle school, dirty bomb, rising sea levels. Then give your people the greater context of God’s perspective: the bigger, longer, broader, less-anxious worldview. Remind us that God is good/all the time, and that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” We need to hear the truth about the world in church—even if it scares us. We also need to hear the truth of God’s love: a perfect love that casts out fear.
Use humor. Nothing lets the air back in the room like humor. Especially when you’re talking about environmental apocalypse or domestic terrorism. Read The Onion regularly for material if you can’t come up with your own.
Use stories, not statistics. Savants and people on the autism spectrum might remember statistics. The rest of us learn, and become convinced by, stories well told, with lots of detail and a compelling arc. The ending doesn’t need to be happy. It doesn’t even need an end—yet. Ask your people to supply the ending by moving their butts from the pews and answering a call to action. Watch Peter Singer’s TED talk on effective altruism to understand the power of story to motivate giving.
Follow it up with prayer. So often we talk talk talk about “the problem,” and then forget that we have something we can do immediately about it, before we’ve even gone back out into the world. We can pray about it. Really pray. We can warm up our blessing hands by rubbing them together, then lift them in the direction of St. Louis, Syria, Washington D.C. We can sing a refrain over and over of “Standing in the Need of Prayer” or “Be Still and Know that I am God” and let our pianist noodle quietly while we take turns praying OUT LOUD into the abyss of our fear and anxiety and the need of the world. Prayer changes things. Especially us.
Give out homework assignments that people might actually do, because they are easy enough to seem possible, but challenging enough to move them to break a habit or live into a new value: eat a meal that does not pass suffering to a single other creature (animal, fast-food worker, migrant worker, garbage collector). Buy nutrition bars to hand out to panhandlers at traffic lights: give them a starter bar. Ask them to look for signs of white privilege or institutional racism at work in their weekly walk and report back by email before the following Sunday. Make up your own assignment: there is so much juicy, meaningful and do-able work to be done!
Offer easy in-house service opportunities as a follow-up to your firey sermon: a letter-writing campaign to legislators, a collection for Syrian refugees, a sandwich-making project for the homeless drop-in center. These serve as a gateway drug for deeper reflection and engagement, tying body to brain so there is muscle memory for more and greater service.
Preaching is such an amazing privilege: where else in modern life do people sit and listen to one person speak for 10-20 minutes in a row on any topic of their choosing, week after week. We owe it to our congregations, to ourselves, and to the great wide wonderful and hurting world, to do it as well as we can.
The Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette is the Senior Minister at First Congregational Church of Berkeley and a Senior Consultant for The Center for Progressive Renewal.