How pastors are soothing congregants in recessionary times
They search for the right words to express from the pulpit – a balance between compassion and urging worshipers to find deeper meanings.
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Guidance means a lot now because these are tricky waters for preachers. If they hurl too much fire, they risk being seen as uncompassionate. If they go too soft, they may miss what Larson regards as a precious, crisis-induced window – maybe three or four months – when attentive people are ready to experience a life change, much as they were right after 9/11. Moreover, to call for unwavering generosity and more giving in a time of need could seem self-serving, since a slice of the offering usually goes toward the preacher’s salary.Skip to next paragraph
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To make matters even tougher, pastors may already be out of touch with the economic lives of their congregants. A study released in January by LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, concluded a “serious disconnect” exists among preachers over the realities of American life. The survey of 3,500 Southern Baptist pastors found that only 25 percent thought their congregants carried a “significant amount of personal debt.”
Still, preachers want to be sure their ministries don’t go the way of Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers. That sometimes means keeping the pressure on the congregation at pledge time.
“I’m counting on you to resist the temptation to put your faith and your church down at the bottom of the list of things you do not have to do or pay for,” said the Rev. Jody Seymour, senior pastor at Davidson (N.C.) United Methodist Church, in a recent sermon on stewardship. “That is not faith. That is the empty religion of a fair-weather Christian who offers occasional lip service to a God who is brought in at convenient times.”
To help get the message right, preachers are listening to the Bible. Church consultants say Old Testament prophets are favorites once again. That means many a sermon these days is quoting such venerable figures as Isaiah, who warned of the costs of greed: “Many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”
Some caution that pastors who aspire to be prophetic need to approach the mission charitably. “In any time of calamity, the preacher is called to offer a word of comfort and assurance,” says CBP Director David Lose. “There’s no ‘I told you so’ or ‘You’re getting what you deserve’ [from Old Testament prophets during tragedies]. God is with these people, God is aware of their plight, and God will see them through.”
But many who invoke the prophets these days feel a responsibility to do more than soothe the hurt. Tom Bandy, a Toronto-based consultant to churches, says pastors “are getting more mileage by talking about mission focus and the true spiritual life as a life of humility or poverty – there’s more listening to that.”
“But they also have a lot of frustration,” he adds. “A lot of pastors are saying that when they speak about greed or consumers, everyone in the congregation points to the other guy. It’s really tough to bring it home.”
In a winter of snowdrifts and discontent, McBride, back in Raymond, has been discussing economic pain in sermons since November, when he laid out “God’s Recovery Plan.” Today this engineer-turned-preacher begins his sermon with a video clip of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The bridge had a fatal foundational flaw, he says, just as people do when they put their trust in portfolios, governments, and things other than Jesus Christ.
“In times like these, the foundations of what you believe are truly put to the test,” McBride says. He goes on to unpack the implications of Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth....”
As pastors find their way in this environment, they seem to agree on at least one point: Now is a moment of extraordinary preaching opportunity. The hard part may be figuring out what to do with it.