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Public Theology: Preaching about War: A Quandary for Pastors
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Preaching about War: A Quandary for Pastors
Pastors often find it hard to speak about war. Maybe the idea of public church can help. Some specific ways to address the issue are offered here.

By Ed Knudson

Congregation members come to worship often with their minds made up about public issues. A survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press indicates that only 10% of respondents say that their religious beliefs have been the most important influence on their attitudes about war with Iraq. So, it would seem, church members are not looking to their pastor or their church for help in making up their minds about the war.

But the reason for that may be that the church in general, which is what is being researched in such polls, is not presenting a clear, well thought out perspective on the war. And there may be lots of reasons why the church fails to do so. We will discuss here why it's hard for pastors to speak clearly on the war. And we will suggest that this time of debate over the war with Iraq is a time of real potential outreach for congregations.

There is a group, however, that has a clear perspective. This is the religious right which strongly supports the war in Iraq. Pastors in congregations oriented to conservative political philosophy probably do speak out more than pastors in less conservative churches. In fact, a more liberal person would probably not feel comfortable in such a congregation. The test of faith has been narrowed to a particular political view.

More liberal congregations may not want a pastor to take a strong view on an issue which would divide the congregation. And this may especially be true within smaller congregations, congregations which understand themselves as a "family". It is hard for families to discuss this war if different members of the family take different positions. So rather than threaten the important emotional bonds of the family controversial issues are not discussed. But this means that congregation members do not have the benefit of reasoned discussion on important public matters from the perspective of their faith. Faith then becomes primarily a personal, private matter.

That is one reason I think the conservative churches are growing; they provide a clear perspective on public matters. The so-called liberal churches too often are limited to the private realm. Pastors use sermon illustrations from inter-personal relations within the family, and maybe the school, but not from economics or politics. A big chunk of people's lives is left out.

Pastors in larger churches have an easier time, I suspect. A large congregation will have many different views represented. It will therefore be possible to speak in such a way as to take into account these various views, and to hold adult forums or classes in which the atmosphere is to discuss various options for public policy. And it is possible that a pastor in a larger congregation can even take a particular position on an issue such as the war, but do so in such a way as not to make that position a test of faithfulness on the part of members. The emotional distance between pastor and people is greater in a larger congregation than a smaller one.

The problem for a pastor in a larger congregation is not the general members, but the key leaders through whom the pastor relates to and communicates with the various groups of the congregation. How these leaders line up for or against an issue makes the difference here. A pastor of a larger congregation must know who these leaders are and their views on various issues. If all or most of these leaders would oppose a perspective stated by the pastor then there could be trouble ahead. For this reason even in larger congregations controversial issues are avoided.

I suggest that one way for both smaller and larger congregations to address public issues is to develop and foster a concept of the congregation as a "public church". This cannot be done overnight. But there are very strong biblical, historical, and theological resources for an understanding of the church as "public", with a public mission engaged in public worship in a public building. We confess a public faith as a corporate body; we have a public witness in the world. At this website we want to try to present resources for a public church.

If the concept of public church becomes part of the life of the congreation, used in new member classes, in bulletins or worship folders, in the newsletter, adult forums, and if the pastor speaks in various ways in sermons about public faith, over time the members of the congregation will not feel it strange for the congregation to address specific public issues.

It is possible to build a whole outreach program with the concept of public church. I was once called to a congregation in an urban neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, which had been declining for years. Members of the congregation drove in from the suburbs; few members lived around the church. One means we used to make contact with people living near the church was to sponsor public forums on a regular basis. We mailed out flyers to people around the church for each of these public forums.

One of these forums was on the first Gulf War. We were able to have Mark Hatfield, a senator from Oregon at the time, as a speaker for this forum on a Sunday evening. It even snowed that evening, unusual for Portland. A couple of hundred people showed up including some members of the congregation who were determined to be part of the audience in order to personally welcome folks from the community.

We held another forum on homosexuality since a right wing group in the state was making it a political issue and here the church council even took a position against this group so it was not just a forum open to all views, but a forum to encourage a view against this group. During this period my denomination happened to publish a discussion paper on homosexuality which had the word "masturbation" in it and so it got press attention. The end result of these activities, including the flyer sent to the community, the forum, and the press coverage, was several new members for the congregation who were impressed with the public witness of the church.

In fact, the public forums were a key part of the redevelopment of that congregation. There were a couple members, who were leaders, troubled by the content of the forums. It was necessary in that congregation to let them go. This is always difficult for a pastor, to let people leave, but in this case once these leaders left it was possible for the congregation to redevelop itself. I suggest this current moment of war with Iraq is an excellent time for the congregation to reach out and make contact with people around it. Sponsor a public forum on the war. Have speakers on various sides of the issue. Include religious perspectives from both Christianity and Islam, since these are especially important in this war.

People are always confused in times of war. They may well want some help from their church in understanding what is happening. And especially in our time, when the dominant voice calling itself "Christian" is an irresponsible conservative voice of the religious right, it seems necessary for other congregations to offer alternative views.

Once this is done it creates an atmosphere within the congregation for the pastor to speak about the war in public sermons. Without first creating this atmosphere, without a clear climate within the congregation, such preaching can seem inappropriate.

But there can be no doubt that the church is called to speak into the public context of our nation, as hopefully, other articles and materials on this website makes clear.

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Date Added: 3/27/2003 Date Revised: 3/31/2003 2:07:14 PM

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