the shape of leadership

Preaching on Hot Topics

Are there topics that pastors should stay away from or at least handle with care?

Chris Colvin on August 2, 2018

As you look over your preaching calendar, filling in dates and thinking of creative ways to bring a word to your church, do you ever get the itch to add a couple of Sundays on a “hot topic”? Maybe you like to preach verse by verse through a book of the Bible, or you would rather preach topically from specific texts. Either way, there is a temptation to speak about a topic that everyone is talking about.


Let me clarify something before we go on. What do I mean by “hot topic”? Well, it definitely includes controversial subjects. It can be a sermon on a taboo or a message that’s ripped from the headlines. So there are really two ways to look at it. A hot topic is one that has gained a lot of attention in today’s culture, and it’s also one that the Church doesn’t regularly talk about.


What are some hot topics? For starters, sex. That’s probably the hottest of all hot topics. But it’s not just the marital act or about abstaining from sexual sin. It can also mean talking about sexual orientation, same-sex marriage or gender identity. Those are all very topical and controversial.

The bottom line on preaching a hot topic is that doing so helps your audience respond to culture. It teaches them ... current events in the light of the truth of the Word.

But a hot topic can also be ideas that you wouldn’t normally hear about on a Sunday morning. How about immigration and the refugee crisis? What about politics in general? Or how about sermons on finances, taxes and prosperity? In recent years, a lot of churches have shied away from these themes.


In one sense, there should be no topic that is off limits to the pulpit. However, pastors should be honest about their motivations for preaching these sermons. Is it just to get attention? Is it only a publicity stunt or a marketing ploy? Or do they really want to teach an important lesson?


The bottom line on preaching a hot topic is that doing so helps your audience respond to culture. It teaches them the Gospel truth in light of current events. Or rather, current events in the light of the truth of the Word. As bearers of that light, how do we engage a dying world for Christ? That’s really at the heart of a well-thought-out sermon in this arena.


Starting Point and Ending Point

If that’s the heart, where do we start? And where do we end? Like any sermon, it’s important to have a clear path laid out. But I think it’s more important when preaching on a hot topic. That’s because it’s very easy to get sidetracked by debate and opinion. So mark the way clearly so you can always return to the main focus.


Start with Scripture. That’s simple enough. What does the Bible say about this? For that reason, many hot topic sermons will be topical in nature. By looking at the entire body of Scripture and how it responds to this specific subject, we can get a better handle on how we respond to it today.


The Bible should always be the starting point for truth. By preaching that point as you talk about a hot topic, you not only enlighten your audience to the truth, but you equip them to find the truth on their own. So, Scripture is not just the starting point but the roadmap.


What about the ending point? That’s easy, it’s Jesus. Always end pointing people to Christ. As you prepare your message, ask the question, “How does this help people be more like Christ?” It’s not enough to give a list of dos and don’ts. A sermon that simply explains a position without giving emphasis to the person of Jesus Christ will always come up short. Instead, show your audience how Jesus speaks through every word of Scripture and even to us today.


It’s almost a tired thought today, “What would Jesus do?” But in this case, it’s very helpful. Think through prayerfully how Jesus would respond to today’s culture. That is the best way to ground your hot topic sermon.


Is Your Audience Ready?

The other factor to consider, besides the form and content of your message, is the audience who will receive it. Are they ready? Maybe some members have been asking you to address this topic. But if they haven’t, think through their willingness to listen to thirty or forty-five minutes of information about it.


Know their current opinions. It’s likely that your audience is diverse when it comes to these matters. It’s not about shaping your content to fit their ideas. It’s about being aware of what they already think to help them make more informed decisions going forward.


Also, keep in mind the traditions of your church. For instance, many of the churches in the Assemblies of God began as pacifist congregations. That may no longer be the case, but a sermon on war may need to touch on denominational history.


Finally, understand your audience’s tolerance level. If they are hearing about a hot topic on the news every night and on social media every day, do they really want to hear about it one more time? If it’s important enough, make sure you have something worth adding to the fray.


What Do You Want Them To Do?

Be clear about the application. Don’t just teach to inform, but preach to inspire action. What’s the practical outcome of your sermon? What do you want them to do with the information you just shared? 


In response to a sermon on abortion, sign them up to volunteer at a local adoption agency. In response to a sermon on gambling, offer them help handling their a gambling addiction. Always give them a next step.


And finally, always aim to unite people around the Word of God. Jesus’ final prayer before the cross focused on our unity (John 17:21). If a topic is so hot that you may split opinions in your church, consider avoiding it for just that reason, unless you’re talking about a clear sin or Gospel truth. And for topics that are not clearly related to sin or Gospel truth, such as health and diet or technology habits, try not to fall too far on one side or the other. Be clear about respecting each other’s opinions. And remember to constantly be making disciples. That is our highest call, regardless of the latest headline.


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