If you are wondering what the best sitcom on television is, it is Parks and Recreation. It’s one of the few shows that my wife and I watch every week—it’s hilarious and surprisingly warm. Consequently, when I saw Russell Moore’s article for Christianity Today titled “What Can We Learn About Preaching From Parks and Recreation,” as a pastor and a fan of the show, I was doubly curious.
The episode in question caricatures a common Christian conservative position on sex education. The episode basically assumes that the abstinence-only sex education does not work without providing any rational arguments to bolster that claim. In other words, the episode isn’t seeking to challenge anyone’s thinking—it’s merely pandering to people who already think abstinence-only sex education is ridiculous. Now, Moore’s article is not about sex education; it’s about preaching. The way the episode handled the topic caused Moore to reflect on how Christians so often make the exact same weightless arguments. There is, I believe, a lot of patting ourselves on the back with regard to our approach, and I think it’s a huge problem. No matter what you think about sex education, Moore makes an excellent point about the kind of argument the show is making:
I’m not worried about sitcoms. I’m worried about how often we, as the Body of Christ, do the same thing. There is a difference, after all, between preaching and preachiness.
It is easy to preach in a way that, like Parks and Rec, simply seeks to reinforce the assumptions of those who already agree with us. We can rail against people who aren’t in the room, or at least that we don’t think are in the room, simply to get the “Amen” from our people. We can caricature our detractors’ positions in the grossest terms, in order to help reassure ourselves that those who oppose us out there are stupid or peculiarly wicked. But that’s not preaching.
So, what needs to change? Moore suggests that the arguments we are making need to change because in general, we are not preaching to challenge hearts and minds when our aim is to say what our allies want and expect us to say:
When unbelievers hear a canned, caricatured argument, they recognize exactly what I recognized when I listened to the moralizing of the Parks and Rec script: They’re not trying to convince me, or even to talk to me. They just want to soothe the psychologies of their partisans.
A sitcom is a sitcom. It’s meant to deal superficially with issues. Preachiness rarely works in that format, unless it’s so subtle it’s not detected. Christian preaching, though, doesn’t have the luxury of the superficial. (And, yes, I’m avoiding a “Treat Yo Self” reference here.)
We, as ambassadors of Christ, are dealing with the aroma of life and the stench of death. We must appeal to the depths of accused consciences that already know God, but shrink back from him in fear.
We love people enough to tell them the truth, and to tell ourselves the truth about them. Those who oppose us aren’t stupid. They’re not any more hell-deserving than we are, apart from our rescue by the grace of Christ. So we don’t just talk about them. We talk to them. We plead. We persuade. Preachiness never changed anybody’s mind. Preaching, on the other hand, can change everything.
I commend the entire article to you, whether you are “preacher” or not. I hope that it will challenge the way we look at those outside our camp and encourage us toward a more productive sort of dialogue. This isn’t to say that speaking truth to the consciences of men is safe—it is not and Moore recognizes that. But it is to say that a lot of us are guilty of making canned arguments designed only to further entrench those who already agree with us against those don’t. That isn’t preaching, that is pandering and it’s getting us no where.
Let’s get to know those with whom we disagree, let’s seek to understand their arguments against our positions so that we might speak to them honestly and in love so that we might avoid the ever present temptation to speak merely to our constituents.