Special Issue Sundays at church – I’m not convinced!
Recently a friend suggested that Australian churches should consider an Anti-Gambling Sunday like in the United States (September 21). As the Americans said, “Gambling, at any level, is an investment in trouble.”
My friend may possibly have noticed I have a bee-in-my-bonnet on this issue, and so expected a warm endorsement!
In fact, I absolutely despise poker-machines and the damage they do, especially to problem gamblers and their helpless families. And the National Council of Church in Australia has suggested this coming ‘Social Justice Sunday’ (September 28), should be dedicated to raising awareness of the dreadful impact of gambling in Australia. Statistics they cite from The Economist, shows that Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers losing over $1000 per adult per annum, which is more than twice the rate in the USA. Only Singaporeans come close to us.
But for all that, I doubt it’s a good idea to populate our Sunday services and sermons with special themes.
As a pastor with a real interest in social issues, here are few reasons for resisting the push towards more and more special theme days.
1. Christians – because we care – will want to keep adding to the list of special Sundays: gambling, indigenous reconciliation, domestic abuse, abortion, racism, refugees, marriage, poverty, pornography and … each one is important and you could keep the list going. But making each one a set feature every year can inadvertently reinforce the message of moralism – that we are mainly on about a series of moral and social issues.
And that’s not the gospel of Jesus, but the gospel’s fruit. And we must never forget it.
2. If one then shapes the preaching to the theme for the special Sunday, more than very occasionally, you undermine the systematic expository preaching pattern that I think is generally preferable as the bread and butter method of a church’s public teaching life.
3. It can lead to tokenism; we all do a number of these special Sundays to ‘tick the box’ of our moral and social conscience. But we don’t really take the time to engage our people deeply on each issue. It’s generally just not possible in the space of a single Sunday to do more much more than awareness raising.
4. I suspect that real progress in terms of ‘campaigning’ on issues like these happens by individual opinion leaders – whether keen church members or pastors – keeping the pressure on, writing, blogging, lobbying, politicking, with occasional big public efforts seeking to draw the masses in.
As a pastor with responsibility for preaching programs, I know how hard it is to get a good expository series going, organising series break up, making it fit the school term pattern, and so on. If the series then gets interrupted a couple of times with special issue Sundays, so much momentum can be lost.
I think I’d prefer to schedule occasional topical or doctrinal series to deal with social and moral issues. For example, we’ve had a good return with a very occasional 4-5 week break from the sequential expository stuff for “issues facing Christians today”, or “the ethics of life, death and the bits in between”.
Or if I am to have a one-off on gambling or abortion or racism or refugees or the definition of marriage, I’d often prefer the freedom to fit it into natural breaks in the preaching program, rather than the inflexibility of being tied to fixed special purpose Sundays annually on the 3rd weekend in September or whenever! One should also be alert to seize the opportunity when the passage next in your sequence of expositions gives a natural chance to apply God’s Word to the contemporary social issue.
Of course, if for particular historical reasons, it fits your church to go with a few of these special purpose Sundays important to your culture, then by all means. But do remember, there are other ways of managing it, than just turning over the sermon. It could be by more extended attention to the subject in prayer, by a Minister’s letter in the church bulletin, or perhaps by a well-prepared interview with a member.
And definitely, in my opinion, resist the temptation for the multiplication of special issue Sundays. What do you think?