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Clear preaching for confusing times

Updated: May 30


Over the last year, I have had the privilege of speaking to several audiences about the dynamics and dangers of something called progressive Christianity, the intentional or often unintentional adjusting of biblical truth and language to make it more palatable and relevant to our culture.  After speaking, I naturally have conversations with individuals that represent what many are thinking today.  One in particular stands out to me.

 

A young person approached me and asked “why do preachers these days insist on making gender and sexuality the focus of these conversations?” My brief answer to this person went like this: “No preacher I know is making it the focus – our society is!  Our North American culture is bringing the ideological fight over objective biblical truth, packaged in sexual identity, straight to churches with one goal – to systematically dismantle biblical authority.”  Honestly, I don’t really want to engage this conversation as much as I do, but it’s not my choice.  Christian author Rosaria Butterfield calls it the “idol of our day.”  Satan has convinced North American culture to frame the most important issue we face as humans – identity – completely around human sexuality. 

 

As a society, we will eventually regret this.

 

In my book Wildfire, I use the example of East Lake church, a suburban mega-church in Seattle that became gay affirming in 2015, when the pastor convinced his members that the Holy Spirit was leading them into a new era, one that included full inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community.  Every now and then I hear someone say this to me: “You know Daren, you used to minister in Seattle, and that is a really progressive place, but you have to be careful not to assume this happens everywhere.”  Fair enough.  So let’s forget the West Coast.  In fact, let’s go to the deep South in Atlanta, Georgia.  And, let’s talk about one of the most famous, well-known pastors and authors of our generation – Andy Stanley. 

 

He has been in the news lately because he hosted a conference last October called “Unconditional,” a gathering devoted to helping his church understand and minister to the LGBTQ+ community.  That’s a noble goal, except that he gave the pulpit to a few speakers that are actively living the gay lifestyle, and whether he intended to or not, signaled that his church Northpoint was moving toward gay affirming.

 

As you can imagine, this has set off a firestorm of debate, especially between Andy Stanley and a contemporary pastor/theologian named Al Mohler, who accused him of “departing from biblical Christianity,” and confusing the greater Christian world by speaking about the subject of same sex attraction with a “deliberate avoidance of clarity.”

 

Hmmm, a deliberate avoidance of clarity?  That phrase caught my attention, mainly because clearly explaining how dangerous progressive ideas are entering the church is so hard, frustrating actually.  It makes it very difficult to teach about this stuff.  However, as I’ve said many times, the ambiguity around today’s false teachings are actually intentional.  Satan is not importing false versions of what it means to be human through the front door of the church, but through the side or back door.  Seen that way, Satan’s ambiguity is intentional, even strategic.

 

Given that this incident is recent, and Andy Stanley is so popular, it is helpful for us to consider some dynamics of this current debate.

 

For instance, in responding back to Mohler, Stanley suggests that he and Mohler are simply approaching the topic differently.  Stanley says Mohler “draws lines, he draws circles.”  What does that mean?  Well, many people, understanding rightly that Jesus created an atmosphere in which the oppressed and marginalized felt comfortable approaching him with their problems, claim Jesus drew circles, spaces that are hospitable to hurting people, mainly because they lack hard edges.  In contrast, the Pharisees and teachers of the law drew lines, which fostered a rigid, black and white approach to sin and righteousness.

 

what can we learn from this?

 

First, there is a lesson here for all of us.  Jesus did attract people the Pharisees didn’t.  People did feel comfortable being flawed in the presence of Jesus.  I suppose drawing circles for us today means we need to work hard at not instantly condemning people in the LGBTQ+ community, growing as a church in the way we show love to people who are living outside of God’s plan for their lives. 

 

In her book The Secular Creed, author and repentant lesbian Rebecca McLaughlin admits the church has often treated gay people far worse than heterosexual sinners, a sad and sober reality we all need to grow in.  She adds, “If this surprises us, we might need to repent of our prejudice.  But we shouldn’t repent of our theology.”[i] 

 

In other words, we have every right and obligation to help the church develop an atmosphere of love and acceptance when gay people walk through our doors, to enlarge the circles of our hearts and fellowship.  However, the truth of Jesus’ gospel doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to Jesus, so if our efforts to become more loving toward any community cause us to water down the message of sin or salvation, we become false teachers of the gospel. 

 

Stanley has since publicly stated that he and his church do believe biblical marriage is between a man and a woman, but then subtly called for creativity and innovation around people in same sex relationships to find a place within the church, without clearly stating living the gay lifestyle is wrong.  He would say this is drawing circles, but the net effect of his fuzzy communication leaves far more questions than answers. 

 

Did Jesus actually draw the kinds of circles Stanley speaks of, the kind that show greater inclusiveness and a softer landing spot for the LGBTQ+ community within the Christian church?  I personally don’t think he did. 

 

When the Jews unfairly dragged to Jesus a woman caught in adultery while ignoring their own sin, he didn’t condemn her, but when she was leaving his presence, he did say to her “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) 

 

When the rich young man was told he needed to radically repent of his greed in order to be saved, Jesus “loved him,” but allowed him to walk away sad and unsaved (Mark 10:17-22). 

 

All through the gospels we see Jesus loving people despite their sin.  However, he never drew circles that ignored the reality of sin.  He loved and expected people to repent.  He drew sinners into his presence, but loved them enough to not let them remain where they were.  He drew circles AND lines.  He softened the edges of society’s biases toward sinners, but did not soften the hard edges of sin and redemption.  He presented salvation to people with total grace and total truth. (John 1:17)

 

Sadly, too many preachers and teachers today, in an attempt to draw loving circles are actually watering down the gospel, mainly by not preaching truth clearly and plainly.

 

clear preaching for confusing times

 

We so badly want to draw loving circles that we avoid preaching clearly.  In attempting to be kind and sensitive, we are preaching in ways that many are calling the “mushy middle,” saying some meaningful things without saying the hard things.

 

Yes, kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, but biblical truth is God’s truth.  We have no right to be kinder toward sin than Jesus is. 

 

Today, orthodox Christians face an uphill challenge.  We are being told in order to convert young people today, the missional message needs to be “winsome,” full of language that draws people closer to God, not further away.  Great, but as a result we are witnessing a tragic dumbing down of the pulpit.  Attempts to offer a winsome gospel message are softening the biblical rough edges of the gospel story.  I don’t blame evangelists today – some progressive theologians are training them to communicate in a way that is meant to be misunderstood, hoping that a vague and winsome presentation appeals to more seekers.  Are we training evangelists to be preachers of biblical truth or adept communicators?  The difference is everything.

 

A winsome message may be the part of the iceberg that we can see above the water, but the bigger part underneath represents the content of the gospel – the truth about sin, righteousness and redemption.  That part is not easy to talk about these days – preachers run the risk of being criticized or cancelled,  which is no fun.  However, if a preacher can’t communicate biblical truth in a way that allows it to stand on it’s own, they should really seek outside help and counsel.

 

Also, our church members want us to preach more clearly on hot topics – it is the world they and their children live in! 

 

christians today live in a complex age

 

All week long Christians hear messages from employers, teachers, podcasters, YouTubers and TikToker’s that are bathed in ambiguity and the mushy middle.  The pulpit of their church is literally the one place they expect to hear the message of God’s truth articulated plainly.  Church members are asking questions like:

 

“what do I do when pressured to use pronouns?”

 

“How do Christians today respond to transgenderism or blended bathrooms?”

 

“How can I navigate the minefield of divisive politics?”

 

If leaders will not directly address these and other questions in an effort to equip them, who will?

 

This is no time for fear, because as Christians we understand and trust that God is above the cultural fray, he is sovereign and in his idea of life and truth will never be conquered, no matter how “wise” any generation thinks they are.  On the other hand, we need to be like the men of Issachar:

 

"From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders of the tribe with their relatives. All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take."

1 Chronicles 12:32 (NLT)

 

We need to understand the times we are living in, and our church members need to be equipped for a life of faith.  Too many church leaders and elders do not understand the missional waters we are all swimming in.

 

For example, the Obergfell decision (Obergfell v. Hodges) of 2015 has an enormous impact on how we speak about LGBTQ+ issues.  It was a supreme court decision that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, but also included a “dignitary harm clause,” something that changed the legal definition of harm.  Harm now includes the idea of failing to affirm someone’s LGBTQ+ dignity.  It is a broad idea that will have ramifications moving forward, and also explains why there is so much pressure to affirm sexual identity and use pronouns.  What does that mean for Christians?  How can we affirm people’s God-given dignity, while at the same time upholding the biblical truth that homosexuality is a sin?  Are you prepared to preach and teach on this?  Avoiding it is not a viable strategy.

 

Or consider the Bostock ruling (Bostock v. Clayton).  This 2020 decision inserted LGBTQ+ rights into basic civil rights.  It also gave way to anti-bullying legislation that is now the rule in every government-funded school.  Anti-bullying legislation is good, right?  Yes, except there is now a federal mandate in every school to teach LGBTQ+ advocacy as anti-bullying.  That essentially means you can’t exempt your child from LGBTQ+ training/education, or it could be seen as bullying.  You must advocate for that lifestyle.

 

Christians simply need to understand the times they are living in, and leaders need to have a strategy for equipping them.  It starts with loving and firm preaching during a time in which one author says “preachers are dying a death of a thousand qualifications.”  We live in a time where it isn’t appropriate or allowed to offend anyone, and biblical truth often offends our secular sensibilities.

 

preach from a faithful, not fearful posture

 

Non-offensiveness is the new goal in preaching today, but since society is training people to be offended by just about everything, succumbing to it will lead nowhere but frustration and exhaustion.  Radical postmodern thought has an insatiable appetite.  It will never be satisfied, which is precisely why lovingly but plainly preaching biblical truth, no matter the cost, is the only way to responsibly shepherd our people through the crazy and complex world we live in.

 

I’m not talking about leaning to one side or the other politically; I’m not talking about using no nuance when speaking of tough topics; I’m not talking about ideologically poking people in the eye or intentionally being provocative.  I’m talking about letting the infallible truth of God’s word stand on it’s own, not apologizing for it, and not interrupting it with today’s latest progressive language. 

 

There are other thing to consider as we preach the word in today’s complex world (stay tuned for a series on preaching, coming soon).  For now, take heart, God’s word is true and powerful.  Let’s be loving and compassionate as we share the gospel, but let’s be bold and speak plainly.  Let’s draw loving circles of fellowship, but allow the scriptures to define the lines.

 

Lives are at stake.

 

Daren Overstreet is a Senior Leader at

Anchor Point Church in Tampa, Florida.  He has

Been in ministry for nearly 30 years, and holds a Master’s Degree in Missional Theology

You can contact him at

 

 

 


[i] Rebecca McLaughlin, “The Secular Creed: Engaging Five Contemporary Claims,” The Gospel Coalition, p. 21 Kindle Edition.

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