Proclaiming Truth in a Post-Truth World

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By Matt Sapp

2016 wasn’t a great year for truth, and the first days of 2017 don’t appear to have offered any improvement. When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 everyone laughed. Few are laughing now.

Colbert used the word to mean something we understand to be true because it “feels” right or because our gut tells us it ought to be true.  Truthiness means that facts are secondary to emotion and that wishful thinking somehow has the power to bend the truth.

The idea behind truthiness is closely related to confirmation bias, the idea that we are more likely to accept ideas or opinions as true if they tend to reinforce what we already believe.

During the 2016 presidential election we discovered an electorate primed for confirmation bias and truthiness. And our presidential candidates quickly proved ready to take advantage of the new reality by intentionally seeking to obscure the truth by muddying the waters about the basic standards of truth and by constantly calling into question what we previously accepted as reliable sources of truth — in the media, the scientific community, and the government.

Truthiness and confirmation bias are not, of course, only political phenomena.  Religious leaders and constituencies fall prey to the same fallacies.  In fact, there are few, if any, areas of our lives where basic standards of truth haven’t begun to erode.  That’s why we find ourselves liking and re-posting things on Facebook that turn out not to be true—whether it relates to football teams or to political candidates.

All of this leads many to conclude that we are living in a “post-truth” America.  In fact, “post-truth” was named the 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.  In a post-truth world we seek out and lend credence to only those sources of information that tend to confirm our biases, and we begin to reject the idea that there are any unbiased, objective sources of truth.

When information bubbles and echo chambers become so exclusionary and loud, when confirmation bias and wanting to “feel” right become more important than facts, and when we become so factionalized and entrenched in our ideological ghettos, that winning an argument or an election—that power and victory—become more important than truth, then we live firmly in a post-truth society.

To the extent that what I’ve just described is happening, we are in real trouble. And a post-truth society presents a distinct challenge to Christians because we believe that Christ is the truth (John 14:6).

So how exactly does a post-truth world present a challenge to the gospel?

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:44)—those are basic Christian truths. But in a post-truth world people sit in the pews and wonder if those truths “feel” right. Do they line up with what I heard on the radio or TV last week?  Do they tend to confirm my biases?  Because, if not, in a post-truth world, we are being conditioned to hold those ideas as suspect.

So we start to interpret the truth into something more akin to truthiness.  We think, “In some situations loving your enemies means killing them and praying for those who persecute you means praying for God to destroy them.”

“Doesn’t that feel more right,” we think, “Let’s make that the truth.”

The last shall be first.  You can’t serve God and money.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

“Nice try preacher,” we think, “but that doesn’t feel right.  Self-promotion feels better. My gut instinct tells me I can serve two masters. Bomb the hell out of ‘em. Sometimes peace is made at the end of a sword.”

Those ideas “feel” great, and in today’s world we’re learning that if it feels right, it’s true.  If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t.

In this way the Sermon on the Mount isn’t outright rejected.  We just question it around the edges and reinterpret it until it takes on the form of truthiness, until it becomes something that “feels” right in our gut—and until it becomes something less than true.

So how do we preach truth in a post-truth world?

First, we should preach the truth calmly and persistently, prayerfully and deliberately, and intentionally, so that we guard ourselves against a drift toward truthiness.

Second, we shouldn’t preach the truth only reactively—the truth must be more than just a response to every “post-truth” flare up.

Instead, with courage and dignity and diligence we should preach proactively that humility is a virtue and meekness a strength, that looking out for the little guy and caring for the downtrodden are their own rewards. That all of God’s children are equal in the eyes of God.

In a post-truth world we should confidently proclaim that there is such a thing as truth, that it has a unique and unrivaled power, and that it wins in the end.

No amount of post-truth yelling or anger or violence or money or intimidation or religious chest-thumping or political browbeating can keep truth down.  The truth will come out. It will come to light.

Truth is like yeast in the dough or the faith of a mustard seed—and, like Shakespeare’s Hermia, though it be but little, it is fierce!  So truth doesn’t need us to defend it, but it does need us to let it out into the world.  It does need to be insistently and persistently proclaimed.

The truth doesn’t have to “feel” right.  It is right.  It doesn’t have to shout to win an argument. And, as hard as it may be for us to understand, it doesn’t have to win every day, every battle, every election or even every decade. Our faith teaches us that it’s already won the war.

There’s another thing truth has done. It has set us free (John 8:32)—free to be right, even if it doesn’t always “feel” right.

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Ending a Sermon on Time

stop-sign-2By Joe LaGuardia

Several weeks ago, I wrote that it takes nothing short of a miracle for a pastor to write a sermon every week.

It is true that sermons are the stuff of miracles, and I stand by my premise.  Yet, for far too many sermons, it seems that the miracle runs its course before the sermon ends.

Concluding a sermon is difficult, and (as many sermons out there attest) I’m not the only one who has a hard time with this.  I pity the congregation whose pastor does not know how to finish a sermon well.

“You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first,” William Zinsser noted in On Writing Well, but far too many pastors preach for far too long, some exceeding 40 minutes of sermonizing.

For the late Fred Craddock, one of the masters at sermon conclusions, twenty minutes was good enough.  Without a manuscript to hold him down, he ended his sermons when the time seemed right, even if it meant leaving a few questions unanswered.

“I am not sure even Craddock knows when he is going to end his sermon,” Barbara Brown Taylor once noted, “but nine times out of ten it takes my breath away.”

Now, don’t let me fool you. Just because I’m writing this article doesn’t mean I know something about it myself.

One time when I was preaching, someone’s cellphone alarm went off.  I asked if there was a ringing in the room.  Someone affirmed that there was indeed a ring.

Another parishioner chimed in and said, “It means your time is up.”  We shared a laugh that day, but that parishioner was right.  It was time to get to the point.

Frankly, there is no right way to end a sermon, although theories exist.  Homiletician Eugene Lowery believes that a conclusion to every sermon should raise the heart heavenward and inspire the church to see Christ anew.

His sermons usually consist of three movements: The beginning plunges his audience into a conflict.  The middle digs deep into the biblical text and discovers how God uses reversal and redemption (what he calls the “narrative loop”) to save us from said conflict.  The conclusion lifts us up out of our human condition and sets us on the path of the Risen Christ.

Other preachers reserve life applications for the end.  Andy Stanley feels, for instance, that sermons should help people see why change is needed in the world.

“You close,” he wrote of preaching, “with several statements about what could happen in your community, you church, or the world if everybody embraced that particular truth.”

Other preachers feel that a proper conclusion consists of a summary of things already stated.  Unfortunately, many pastors take so much time on the summary that a great 25-minute sermon turns into a dismal 45-minute sermon.

Another observation from Zinsser rings true:  “A series of conclusions which never conclude . . . is ultimately a failure.”

Lastly, there are preachers who believe that the conclusion should have the congregation wanting more, like a thriller with a cliffhanger.

“The conclusion of a sermon should move like a river, growing in volume and power,” John Broadus noted in On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, “It should not be like a stream that loses itself in a marsh.”

Preachers who exert power in their conclusions rely on emotion and inspiration, usually bringing their audience to its feet and raising both voice and hands to inspire people to take action.  Repetition, rhythm, singing, chanting, and (in some traditions) hooping are tools in this preacher’s tool box.

As for me, I am honest with parishioners.  I let them know I can’t hit a home run every Sunday, but at least I will get them out of church on time.  I may not always inspire, but I will respect them.

A sermon that ends well communicates as much.

Every Sermon a Miracle

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By Joe LaGuardia

How is it that a preacher can come up with a sermon each week?

I can’t speak for other pastors, but I’m quite certain that each sermon idea that hits me–especially on a weekly basis–is a miracle in and of itself.

There is something to be said about miracles, and a few weeks ago I wrote how miracles happen when we are willing to take a closer look at things.

But have you considered that your pastor’s sermons are the stuff of miracles too?

Pastors go about preaching in different ways, be it expository, narrative, or yelling words of doom.  No matter the style, however, something has to fill the 20 minutes it takes to persuade a congregation to connect with God, live into a new truth, and see life differently.

How easy would it be to stand at the pulpit and say, “This scripture lesson teaches us about this, and this is how it applies to our life”?

Sounds simple, but I imagine that a pastor would get fired if she did that every Sunday.  There is an expectation that a preacher will deliver a message that changes us from the inside out, and we want an award-winning one every week.

I liken this to love.  I can tell my wife, “I love you.”  It’s true and it may be convincing, but I have to express my love in concrete ways: doing kind gestures, taking time to listen, showing compassion.

Its the difference between telling my wife I love her and showing her that I love her.

A sermon is supposed to show us God’s truth and how that truth might impose upon or break into our life experiences.  This is why Jesus used parables to describe heavenly principles, such as the Kingdom of God.

If Jesus told me that the Kingdom of God is everywhere, I’d politely agree and move on.  But when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was like a seed that grew exponentially without any help from the farmer (Mark 4:26-29), than the metaphor opens up all kinds of meaning for my life.

Its the art of “showing” that takes all of the work, and the illustrations that come about are a result of the miracles of God evoking effective sermon preparation.

There have been a few occasions when I arrived to church on a Friday, my sermon-writing day, with nothing in mind.  I may have the scripture lesson for Sunday.  I may even have the point I want to make or the sermon title.

But the beginning and the ending?  That’s a different story.

Once, I read Facebook post and had that “Ah-ha!” moment of clarity.  Another time, my wife said something about her day that inspired what I call a “point of contact,” that moment in the faith when we can connect something universal and conceivable and relevant to the biblical text.

Other times, I’ve put my anxiety aside and went for a walk.  Its a mind-clearing experience.  Birds, flowers, traffic, and even the litter I pick up around the church can be unlikely sources of inspiration.

Sermon ideas can come from reading.  I make it a habit to read the newspaper when it comes in the mail, at least one Christian magazine a month, and several books from different genres.  The material not only provides content for sermons, it also teaches the sermon writer how to organize or write sermons differently.

Nor is it unusual for pastors to gather together with other pastors in monthly groups to discuss sermon ideas and themes.  Several of us pastors in town do so and find the experience quite enriching.

When I was called into full-time pastoral ministry years ago, I had to face a certain truth that scared me: I need to write and preach a sermon every week.  Without God’s intercession and those miracles that continue to surprise me in new ways, I wouldn’t have much to say come Sunday morning.