Often we teachers only learn about our mistakes in the process of inflicting them on unsuspecting students. I just finished teaching a course for the first time on “Preaching Ethically.”
We had a lot of fun. We looked at ethical sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr., Tony Campolo and William Sloane Coffin. We talked about how to approach some of the bellwether issues of the day.
Somewhere in the process, though, I realized I was putting the emphasis in the wrong place. Yes, the big controversial issues are important. And, yes, we preachers have an obligation to help our people learn to deal with them.
At the very least, we should teach them a simple method for making a Christian decision on an issue: Get the facts, consult the Scripture, consider your context, talk with people you trust, pray and make the best decision you can.
But in point of fact for most of our people most of the time it is not the big controversial issues upon which they live and die.
What preachers really need to learn is how to teach our people everyday ethics. When’s the last time you heard or preached a really good series on the Ten Commandments? Never mind putting them on the courthouse wall. When’s the last time you taught them in the church to your people?
What about basic Christian sexual ethics? Practice abstinence till you marry. Build the most practical, functional marriage you can. Stay faithful to your husband or wife. Start talking early and often with your children about their nature as sexual beings.
What about coping with our corrupted culture? Monitor what your kids are watching on TV, even and especially the children’s channels. Go with them to the (age appropriate!!) movies. Talk about the difference between fantasy and reality–how real life decisions have real life consequences. Teach them how to make decisions for themselves.
What about business ethics? Very often a church’s witness lives or dies in its community based on the business dealings of its leaders. But “the end justifies the means” philosophy is just as rampant in American business these days as it is in American politics.
What about consistent, systematic compassion? People, you may have noticed, have a marked tendency to mess up their lives. They divorce. They gamble. They drink. They get into debt. They get sick. They don’t have decent food or housing.
But for many of our churches compassion for those who are hurting is more an occasional project than a way of life. Shouldn’t the center of our ethical preaching be learning how to cope in Jesus’ name with these issues with which our people live? The current truism is we live in a biblically ignorant generation. Teaching our people biblical values might just do something about that.
Next time I’ll teach that course better.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.