Some of you know that I’m big on slaying elephants. Elephants in the room, that is. You can read my “old” post on the subject here.
“Elephants in the room” are subjects that many people are thinking about, distracted by or troubled by, but nobody’s talking about. They disturb and derail our thoughts, making it impossible for listeners to learn and teachers to teach.
More than once I sucked all the air out of the auditorium of a troubled congregation by sharing the brutal facts: “This congregation has a serious problem with gossip; if it doesn’t stop it’s going to kill the church.” After causing some heart palpitations, I always found that remarkable progress could follow in short order.
In a recent podcast hosted by Matt Steen of Chemistry Staffing.com, guest David Fletcher of xppastor.org asserted that troubled and anxious churches are making some foolish decisions of late. In particular, Fletcher mentioned church decisions to fire senior pastors, because of the unaddressed problem – I’d call it an elephant – of the angst, or anxiety arising from the difficulties and controversies we’ve been going through in the past two years.
This was, in a sense, predicted by the late, great, pastor and author, Peter Steinke, whose incredible article, Twenty Observations About Troubled Congregations can be read elsewhere on this site. If you can’t go there right now, consider a few of Steinke’s comments on the subject of anxiety – something we are experiencing in abundance in America in 2021:
- “Most people are interested in relieving their own anxiety rather than managing the crisis or planning for a clear direction. Their primary goal is anxiety reduction, not congregational renewal.” [Brian’s note: Is this what happened to our volunteers?]
- “If anxiety is high, people lose their capacity to be self-reflective. They look outward, not at themselves. Self-awareness is dim, and the ability to identify with the life processes of others is impaired.” [In other words: anxious people are self-focused.]
- “The healing process for midrange to severely anxious congregations takes two to five years.” [‘Sounds like we all need church revitalization.]
- “Issues must be clearly identified and individuals must be challenged to act.” [‘Sounds like he’s saying that we must slay the elephants in the room.]
And that brings us to my point: Our congregations are anxious about many things. Pastors who are ignoring the anxiety because they don’t want to deal with politics and social issues might be making a mistake.
You don’t have to weigh in on Republicans Vs. Democrats, vaccination vs. inoculation, right-wing conspiracies vs. left-wing conspiracies, etc., but if you don’t address the anxiety which your people are feeling, you will never woo them away from their troubled, worldly thoughts to your triumphant, otherworldly thoughts, and you will certainly never inspire them to rise above their self-interest and once again embrace the sacrifice-demanding mission of your church.
For many years I had the preaching philosophy of teaching through the Bible and refusing to be lured off course by the siren song of current events. September 11, 2001 changed that. During that awful week I realized that if I didn’t address the big elephant that was on my hearer’s mind’s I wasn’t going to have any actual hearers.
Since that day – while I certainly haven’t gone “all in” for topical preaching – I’ve been more sensitive to the reality that my listener’s hearts and minds are flooded with input from many sources, all week long. The preacher can’t ignore the context of that input any more than he can ignore the context of the cultural and religious backgrounds of his congregation.
If I want my hearers to follow me to my Biblical Good News, I have to start with the good and bad news that they’re already thinking about.
So here’s what I’m suggesting:
(1) Be aware of the elephants in the room. Rub shoulders with your people enough to know what they’re listening to, talking about, thinking about, worrying about and praying about.
(2) Name the elephants in the room and, without scolding, explore the particular forms of anxiety they are causing your hearers.
“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief.” John 16:5,6
(3) Address the elephant Biblically. It doesn’t always have to be the whole sermon or the whole sermon series (though that wouldn’t hurt either); sometimes even a brief mention of a particularly troubling elephant is comforting to the hearts of hearers.
(4) Give Biblical solutions for the anxiety itself. God wins. God’s people, by God’s grace, will win as well. We’re not less than losers, we’re more than conquerors. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Jesus doesn’t want frightened, anxious, self-obsessed followers; he wants persevering, self-sacrificing, overcomers.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” John 14:1