As a pastor, what do you see as the biggest challenge in applying biblical teaching to potentially contentious cultural issues?
The most difficult thing is to be true to the Word, and to be true to the culture into which you are preaching it. That is, not just preach it as if it were in a theological vacuum … but as the preacher who knows the world in which his people have to go live. The thing I want to do is encourage my people to go do that boldly – to live for the truth, not to be removed from the world and out of the scene, and just in our little subculture, but to impact the world by engaging the culture.
The temptation is always to be pleasing to the people, and to be loved by the people. So, the challenge to me is to be bold and courageous, because I know [the Word is] going to be offensive. Not that I want to be belligerent or obnoxious, but just to take that Word – the Truth – and apply it truthfully to the world in which we live, the world in which our people are engaged.
You have said that the greatest barrier to the effective proclamation of the Gospel today is courage. Why do you say that?
You can’t preach the Word of God truthfully without preaching with courage. It’s so discouraging to me to hear preachers expound the truth, but do it in a way to avoid any edge of offense, anything that’s going to rub people the wrong way. They find a way to say hard truth in such a soft way that it disembowels the truth from its real cogency and potency. It’s just “words” that make sense in a “theological box.” People who are into the Word will say, “Yes, he’s expounding the Word, he’s being true to the Word,” but the preacher in his heart he knows he’s not.
I have experienced what I am describing. Every time I prepare to go to the pulpit, I know the temptation to avoid the edge of truth that is going to be offensive.
Did you come to any particular “turning point” in your ministry experience that convinced you this kind of courage is so crucial?
A number of years ago, someone said to me that I needed to look at the issue of abortion. I’d never, ever considered it. I was born and raised in England, trained in England to be a pastor, and learned to preach in England, and we were not political at all. None of the pastors that I knew were ever engaged in addressing [what we considered] political issues.
But somebody in my church said, “You should look at the issue of abortion.” And I did. And when I looked at it, I was horrified that abortion could have become legal! I was in the U.S. at the time of Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973) and had been the senior pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sewickley, Pennsylvania for only two years, and I was amazed that we had somehow acquiesced to the slaughter of innocent babies in the womb. So I literally backed into preaching to the issues by addressing that one issue.
I remember preaching a very bold sermon – my very first one on abortion – and there was a lady in my congregation who was related to Margaret Sanger who started Planned Parenthood. During the middle of my sermon she got up and walked out. But another young lady who’d had an abortion sat there, stunned. She’d never dealt with her abortion – any more than I’d ever dealt with it, until I preached that sermon. She sat there, weeping. Her response was to repent … begin the healing process … and right now that young lady leads our women’s ministry.
As a person born and raised in England and now living and preaching in the U.S., how does what’s happening spiritually in Europe right now compare to what you’re seeing in America?
One thing is clear: you have two growing polarities: 1) men and women who will live their lives potently for Christ; and 2) another whole world of anti-Christian [people who] vigorously reject our history and our heritage as a Christian nation. That’s true for England, and I see it growing in the U.S. Those who are anti-Christ/anti-Christian are more belligerent and outspoken, and it’s more culturally acceptable to be so.
In the United Kingdom, in every major metropolitan area, wherever you’ve got both strong, biblical leadership and preaching, you’ve got huge ministries. Those churches are bursting at the seams, and they’re having an impact in their cities as well as the nation … they are known.
Wherever people are just traditionally playing it safe, reiterating the old rote of worship and preaching, the churches are emptying. Because life is tough, the demands are amazing, just to live – and if the Word of God isn’t being preached with any kind of authority or power, it’s near meaningless in the face of the onslaught of what the culture is doing to our people.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?