By Bob Hiller –
The news came out this week that one of my favorite radio hosts, Colin Cowherd, is going to be leaving ESPN Radio for a job with Fox Sports. For a long time I despised Cowherd’s show, thinking him too obnoxious and self-aggrandizing. Then I remembered I was listening to sports talk radio and that “obnoxious” and “self-aggrandizing” was the name of the game. I started to pay attention to the way he argued and made his points. I actually found him to be thoughtful in his takes, or at least, very good at making arguments. Sometimes his show got a little political or even religious, but he does force his listeners to actually make good arguments when they call and think through their positions. Listening to Colin devour poor arguments of nervous sports-show callers was perversely entertaining for me…even when I agreed with the caller!
But, now Cowherd is leaving. Interestingly, so are the outspoken Bill Simmons and Keith Olbermann. The Evil Four Letter brought these guys in because their sometimes controversial perspectives on sports and culture would generate ratings. These men swim towards controversy like sharks to blood. Though ESPN knew what they were getting into hiring guys like this, it didn’t stop them from invoking suspensions when they felt the line had been pushed too far (in EPSN’s opinion). So, they hire big names to generate interest with controversy, and then suspend them for generating interest with controversy. This creates a culture of fear in which ESPN is thus able to control and drive what can and cannot be said on their air-time. Though I cannot say for certain, I would venture to guess this culture of fear played some role in Cowherd seeking other job opportunities. Fear should never drive a conversation, especially in talk radio.
Nor in the church. Yet, I am becoming more and more convinced that the preaching of the church is driven by fear. This past week some of my friends and brothers in the ministry gathered together for a discussion over the Supreme Court’s decisions concerning gay marriage. A lawyer was invited to speak about the legal ramifications for the church. Though, at this point, there really are no legal ramifications (it turns out we still do have the First Amendment), but he still felt it necessary to exhort us pastors to preach politics from the pulpit. It is because the church has neglected to preach on social issues, we were told, that we are now losing the cultural battle. If we want Christians and conservatives are to regain control (!) in this country it is up to us pastors to use our pulpits for political influence. He then had a large number of cherry-picked proof-texts he’d never heard preached on (all damning someone to hell) that he strongly suggested we remind our people of.
To combat this loss of “cultural control” some suggested that the church start having “Marriage Sundays” like we have “Life Sunday” in January. Some Evangelical churches are going so far as to have “Freedom of Religion Sundays” in which they openly and brazenly preach politics from the pulpit, tempting the IRS to remove their tax exemptions so they might take the IRS to court an reassert the church’s freedom of speech…or something like that. But, the churches must do something! Something must be said! Otherwise, the culture will fall apart and we will lose all control!
Look, I am a sarcastic guy, and you should congratulate me on how few snide comments I made during this well-intentioned, but ultimately (in my humble opinion) misguided presentation (I may not have been as reserved at lunch with the brothers). Thinking about the whole ESPN situation, it struck me that there are those in certain political parties (on both ends of the spectrum) who see themselves as ESPN and the church as their broadcasters. That is, they create a culture of fear in an effort to drive the conversation. The church has been very useful in the past for the GOP, and now that the culture is less conservative, it must be the fault of the preachers for not preaching on social issues forcefully enough. God has a lot of influence over folks in the pews, you know? So, why not enlist His Word to work for our views against our enemies. You know, the enemies who want to get married in your church, remove your tax-exempt status, and burn you at the stake. (If I hear one more person imply that we are on the verge of persecution in America I am going to go crazy! Have some respect for real martyrs, for Pete’s sake…)
By preaching politics out of fear, we as the church are already losing. I agree with many who say that the church is not to capitulate to the culture. But, by interrupting the liturgical calendar and having “Social Issue Sunday,” you are doing just that. Even if what you are standing for is Biblical and right, you must ask yourself: is it fear of losing the cultural “war” that is driving your preaching or is it the freedom Christ gives to sinners of all stripes? The Church doesn’t work for the state nor is her message shaped by social issues. Rather, the way we speak to social issues is shaped by the Word. When we preach against abortion, it isn’t as some sort of national campaign to take our political stand, it is to exalt God’s gift of life and give forgiveness to those guilty of abortion (even on “Life Sunday” people should leave thinking more of Christ than abortion). We don’t need a “Marriage Sunday” because gay marriage is now a right. We preach on marriage when the scriptures direct us to do it because it is a gift from God and because it is a picture of Christ and His Church. And, for the sake of all things holy, we never preach in an effort to prove our rights!
What drives the proclamation of the church is the cross and the empty tomb, not shifts in the cultural winds. I am not convinced that it is our job as preachers to “influence culture.” I am not saying at all that we are to remain silent on social issues, but the way we speak of them should not reflect the culture’s way of speaking. If we are to preach on homosexuality or abortion or any hot-button issue, it should not be in a way that necessarily pleases any political party. Rather, it should be in a way that kills and makes alive. As an American, I am horrified by abortion and take a stand against it. As a pastor, I am concerned for the woman in the pews who is convinced her baby is in hell and it’s her fault. She doesn’t need “Life Sunday” to show her the error of her ways, she needs the blood of Jesus to fill her guilt-saturated ears and heart. She needs a new life: freedom from guilt, death, and the devil. That’s what Jesus gives. As a preacher and as a church, that is what we have to contribute to the conversation.
It is Jesus, not fear, who drives the church’s proclamation. In season and out of season we are to attack all sins (that includes the cultural idols of conservatives and liberals) and release sinners from their bondage by delivering Christ. Because the Crucified One is Lord, we need not fear losing control of the culture. Instead, we are let lose to proclaim freedom from Christ himself! In the church, He drives the conversation!