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 the shape of leadership

Preaching to a Divided Congregation

Seven questions to ask during sermon preparation

Since the first prime-time television airing in 1965, the presidential State of the Union address has become a widely viewed spectacle of politicking, handshaking, cheering, and clapping, along with some booing and harrumphing. There are moments of unity and signs of animus.

Particularly striking is the divided congressional chamber. Traditionally, Republican attendees sit on one side and Democrats on the other.

Church increasingly feels this way. As pastors look out over their congregations, many observe a divided sanctuary — parishioners separated, metaphorically and spatially, by politics, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, among other things.

This breaks God’s heart and tarnishes the Church’s witness to the world.

How can you preach sermons that dismantle divides and foster reconciliation and unity? Start by asking yourself seven preparatory questions before you enter the pulpit.

 

1. The Theological Question

The theological question is this: What does the Bible say about reconciliation?

Reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel and indeed the entire Bible. Thus, exhorting people to reconcile with God and one another is fundamental to biblical preaching.

The 66 books of the Bible comprise one reconciling narrative. It is helpful to think of it as five movements: Creator, first creation, alienation, reconciliation, and final creation.

Genesis 1 introduces the Creator God in the opening two verses:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

 God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have eternally enjoyed perfect and harmonious communion. The triune God spoke the world into being — and it was good. In fact, Genesis 1 declares the created order “good” seven times.

The world was perfect, pure and harmonious. But it did not remain in that state. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s command, introducing dysfunction into their relationships with God and each other. And by Genesis 4, the resulting anger, conflict and violence yielded tragic results: “Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him” (verse 8).

Sin is at the root of all that plagues us today: pride, rebellion, dysfunction, division, injustice, cruelty and violence.

God’s creation and His image bearers were marred. Sin is at the root of all that plagues us today: pride, rebellion, dysfunction, division, injustice, cruelty and violence.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. God initiated a mission to reclaim, reconcile and make everything new. In Genesis 12:3, He made a promise to Abraham that ultimately found fulfillment in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

According to Colossians 1:19–20, God “was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things … by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

God also seeks to reconcile people with one another. Jesus demonstrated this by destroying “the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14). As the apostle Paul explained, God’s purpose was “to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (verses 15–16).

That brings us to the last movement: the final creation. The redemptive narrative will conclude with Eden restored and the new heaven coming down to the new earth. Reconciliation will be complete, and flourishing will endure forever.

In the meantime, the Church’s mission to lead people to a right relationship with God (vertical reconciliation) is also a mission to address human division and hostility (horizontal reconciliation).

Among the “acts of the flesh” in Galatians 5, Paul lists “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (verses 20–21). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (verses 22–23).

First John 4:20 says, “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Before you preach, ask yourself what the text has to say about both vertical and horizontal reconciliation.

 

2. The Contextual Question

Of course, bringing people together is seldom as easy as coming up with four points and a catchy title. Human conflict is thorny and complex. That brings us to the contextual question: What is behind our specific divides?

Everyone comes to church with a past. While the past may not immediately impact the present, it lingers in minds, hearts and experiences.

For this reason, we need to consider how our own stories, the backgrounds of our congregants, and the histories of our churches and communities might promote or hinder unity.

Experience shapes us — individually and collectively. It affects our self-image and our perceptions of others.

Before you preach, reflect on how the past might have contributed to current divisions in the congregation. What fractures have occurred? Which theological, ministerial, or sociocultural issues have been most polarizing for your church? Did they lead to rifts and even splits?

Remember, though, that history is perspectival. The story often changes depending on who is telling it, especially when it comes to conflict. This is why it is important to hear more than one perspective.

Before you preach to congregants, listen to them. Hear their histories, hurts and hearts. Then, when you step into the pulpit, you’ll be better equipped to contextualize the biblical story of reconciliation and build bridges of unity across points of separation.

This doesn’t mean you should entertain gossip, endure false teaching, or humor troublemakers. Many of the divides in our society, and in our churches, arise from pride. Read the comments on a controversial social media post, and you’ll likely see more arrogance and rancor than humility and goodwill. People want to be right, and they’re often willing to grab pitchforks and go to war over it.

The church world is no exception. Christians can become so entrenched in their ways that they make idols of traditions and opinions having little to do with Scripture. From arguments about music to disagreements over politics, frivolous disputes in the body of Christ detract from the mission of making disciples.

This is not a new challenge. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul felt the need to plead for an end to division:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you (1 Corinthians 1:10–11).

What was the conflict in the Corinthian church? Paul went on to explain, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’” (verse 12).

Bringing people together is seldom as easy as coming up with four points and a catchy title. Human conflict is thorny and complex.

Divisions. Factions. Cliques. Arguments. A need to be right, even at the expense of advancing the gospel. The Corinthians were debating which minister to follow, rather than making followers of Christ. Instead of pursuing the “complete unity” for which Jesus had prayed (John 17:23), church members indulged selfish interests. As a result, they were losing focus on their reason for being.

Perhaps you can relate to Paul’s frustration as he challenged the Corinthians:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Corinthians 1:13–17).

Paul called out these quarrels for what they were. “You are still worldly,” he wrote. “For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings?” (1 Corinthians 3:3–4).

In other words, Christians at Corinth were struggling with some of the same relational dysfunction as nonbelievers. Sound familiar?

Yet Paul reminded the Corinthians of their sober responsibility as members of Christ’s church: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).

What quarrels, idols, and pride issues are hindering your church from fulfilling its Kingdom purpose? What is the history and context of those problems?

Where there are disagreements, acknowledge them, talk about them, and pray about them. Then release them to the Lord as a church family so you can focus on what matters most: knowing and sharing “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

 

3. The Personal Question

Ministers are not immune from sinful attitudes, words and actions that contribute to division. Because we live in a fallen world, the gospel itself sometimes causes offense (Matthew 13:57; 15:12; Mark 6:3; Galatians 5:11). But that doesn’t give us permission to be needlessly offensive. Scripture reminds us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

This is why preachers need to give careful consideration to the personal question: What is the condition of my heart?

We all have personal blind spots (Psalm 19:12). However, God wants to mature and transform us into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Psalm 51, one of the greatest penitential prayers in all of Scripture, provides a helpful model for renewal.

The psalmist began by acknowledging God’s majestic character — His mercy, love and compassion (verses 1–6).

At the same time, the psalmist recognized his own sinfulness and need for God’s help and forgiveness (verses 7–15). He prayed, “Blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (verses 9–10).

As you seek unity in your church, ask God to reveal sin in your life that may be causing relational fractures. The Holy Spirit may highlight areas that need attention in a number of ways, including through devotional time or through the guidance of a mentor or Christian counselor.

Correction might even come from an offended person who shines a spotlight on discordant behavior. A thoughtless joke during a sermon or a hostile comment on social media can get in the way of building community and communicating the gospel.

Stay humble, examine your heart, welcome feedback, and seek forgiveness from God and others when you err.

If we hope to cultivate an atmosphere of peace and unity, we must remain worshipful, repentant, and loving.

Paul encouraged self-scrutiny and invited others to consider his life and example: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you — unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5–6).

A few verses later, Paul wrote, “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11).

If we hope to cultivate an atmosphere of peace and unity, we must remain worshipful, repentant, and loving.

In the closing lines of Psalm 51, the psalmist seems to look out across the nation as a whole, asking God to “prosper Zion” and “delight in the sacrifices of the righteous” (verses 18–19).

The final petition of the psalmist is about life-giving communities and accountable relationships. It comes from a leader who has taken the time to make sure his heart is right before God and others.

 

4. The Positional Question

We are heralds, not heart-changers. God is the One who restores relationships and heals brokenness.

Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:4–5).

The preacher’s job is delivering God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than obsessing over or contriving the congregation’s response. We need to keep this in view as we ask the positional question: For what outcome am I responsible?

Today’s American Church is often preoccupied with measurable outcomes, such as attendance, baptisms, altar responses, and giving. There is nothing wrong with a desire for church growth.

But instead of focusing on attracting more people, generating more excitement, raising more money, or even fixing more relational problems, perhaps it’s time for preachers to seek more of the Holy Spirit and trust God with the outcomes.

When it comes to preaching, we must rely on the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who inspired all Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) and anointed Christ to preach good news (Luke 4:18) empowers us to testify of His truth (Acts 1:8).

The Spirit is the one who brings conviction of sin (John 16:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Nevertheless, people have free will and may respond positively (Acts 2:37–41) or negatively (Acts 7:54–58) to the Holy Spirit.

So, what is your responsibility? As Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). This is your calling and the outcome for which you will be accountable.

You cannot dictate how someone will respond to your preaching. You can, however, submit to the Holy Spirit in all things, including in your interactions with others. After all, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Timothy 2:24).

A servant’s posture and a shepherd’s heart will go a long way toward demonstrating the truth of what you preach.

 

5. The Methodological Question

When dealing with division, leaders often focus on differences. There is a better way.

You don’t have to work out every area of disagreement. Instead, ask this question: How can we move forward based on shared commitments?

Instead of focusing on attracting more people, generating more excitement, raising more money, or even fixing more relational problems, perhaps it’s time for preachers to seek more of the Holy Spirit and trust God with the outcomes.

Rather than hammering parishioners over their differences, remind them often they are united in Christ. Talk in your sermons about shared doctrines and commitments.

Start with the basics. Jesus imparted two great commandments in Matthew 22:36–40 and Mark 12:30–31, telling His followers to love God completely and love their neighbors as themselves. These are not independent principles. They are simultaneous, overlapping mandates of Christ followers. As 1 John 4:21 points out, “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

God did not call us to love division. He called us to love one another. When we agree on that truth, our differences should not keep us from coming together to advance the Kingdom.

Similarly, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 articulates Jesus’ commands for His disciples to go, teach and baptize. This entails leaving our places of comfort, declaring the gospel of reconciliation, and bringing former outsiders into the family of God.

In today’s fractured and contentious culture, it is easy for people to obsess over points of disagreement. But biblical preaching reorients Christ followers toward their shared mission.

 

6. The Practical Question

With everyone on the same page about the fundamentals, the sixth question remains: What practical steps can I take to lead the church toward reconciliation?

It begins with understanding biases and letting people speak their minds.

In The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias, the authors observe, “To be human is to have bias.” We all struggle with conscious and unconscious bias. Both contribute to unhealthy interpersonal interactions with our congregants and leaders.

We naturally gravitate toward people who are like us — in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, beliefs, interests, political persuasion, and more. Social scientists call this tendency affinity bias.

Such behavior can be problematic, especially for church leaders. If everyone in your orbit is just like you, it will limit your ministry effectiveness.

Is your friends group racially and ethnically diverse or homogeneous? Do you interact with Christian leaders from other denominations, or do you view them suspiciously? Do you respond graciously to those who disagree with you, or do you vilify them? Do you listen as much as you speak, or do you talk over people to get your point across?

Ask the Holy Spirit to help you root out biases and see people as He sees them: individuals God loves and Jesus came to save (John 3:16).

Further, be willing to facilitate hard conversations. Many church leaders are hesitant to allow public disagreement among congregants. Understandably, we like the predictability of controlled environments. Open forums are risky.

However, there are appropriate settings for Christians to talk through their differences. Examples include small groups, leadership meetings, or church town halls.

Making space for church members to discuss areas of disagreement requires prayer and careful planning. Establish ground rules for such sessions at the beginning. Speaking the truth in love is not a license to slander another person. Humility, kindness, gentleness and charity are essential.

Emphasize there is no place for hateful rhetoric or defamation of character. Call out sinful speech and behavior — including racism, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and pride — and encourage repentance.

As you stand up for righteousness and justice, church members will learn to do the same.

 

7. The Categorical Question

Finally, we arrive at the categorical question: What Bible themes and texts address our division?

A servant’s posture and a shepherd’s heart will go a long way toward demonstrating the truth of what you preach.

The Bible has a lot to say about the sins that divide us and God’s desire for unity in the Church. Weave these texts into your sermons. Highlight biblical themes of alienation, sin, atonement and reconciliation, and talk about how they apply to divisions in your congregation, community and culture.

Don’t be afraid to preach on sensitive topics. However, you might first want to seek input from pastoral colleagues or trusted ministry partners who have navigated these issues.

While all Scripture is God-breathed and useful, some passages are more applicable to a given topic than others. Using the example of classism, you might exegete 1 Samuel 16:7, Nehemiah 5, Matthew 6:1–4, or James 2:1–17. Prayerfully consider which text aligns most closely with your situation, and then dig in.

 

Ministry of Reconciliation

Some Christians might wonder whether reconciliation is even necessary. Why can’t we just choose to go our separate ways without conversing?

The gospel provides the answer, reminding us reconciliation lies at the center of God’s mission.

Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17–19:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

As we preach the message of reconciliation, pointing sinners toward reconciliation with God, we must also help people reconcile with one another.

Consider what Colossians 3:13–15 says about unity:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.

Reconciliation with one another is not optional. It requires love, grace and humility that come from hearing and responding to the message of reconciliation.

Only God can transform hearts. But the sermons you preach can point people to the need to repent of sins, extend forgiveness, and let go of the desire to win arguments that are of no eternal significance.

Preaching to a divided congregation and calling people to unity is part of the ministry of reconciliation.

To witness to an unbelieving world, Christians need to reconcile with one another. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

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