Clergy Trend-Watch: Top 7 Justice Issues Preachers will be Addressing in the Next 6 Months

Economic issues top list, with racial and ethnic tensions coming in second

March 11, 2017

If you are a Mainline Protestant preacher in the United States, chances are you will be addressing economic issues such as poverty, consumerism, debt or homelessness within the next 6 months.  This is according to a survey of over 1200 clergy conducted by The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky.  Over half (56.92%) of clergy reported that economic issues would be among the top five topics they intend to address from the pulpit over the next 6 months.  Racial and/or ethnic issues came in second, with 49.28% of pastors saying they plan to speak about this topic in their preaching.

The survey “Preaching about Controversial Issues” is one of the largest surveys on preaching and sermon content ever conducted in the United States.  As part of Schade’s research into how preachers are approaching their sermons during this divisive time in our nation’s history, she designed and conducted a 60-question online survey directed to Mainline Protestant clergy serving congregations in the United States.  The survey ran for six weeks, from mid-January to the end of February.  One of the questions listed 19 choices of topics and asked respondents to pick the top five they intend to preach about in the next 6 months (see charts below for full list).

Here are the Top 7 topics Mainline Protestant preachers intend to address in their sermons in the next 6 months:

Economic issues (poverty, consumerism, debt, homelessness) 56.9%
Racial and/or ethnic issues 49.3%
Immigration/Refugees/Migrant workers 43.7%
Food insecurity/hunger 34.2%
Ethnic and/or religious discrimination issues (anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Native American issues, etc.) 33.9%
Equal rights (for women, LGBTQI, racial, religious, etc.) 32.8%
Interfaith relations 26.7%

How does this ranking compare to what preachers chose to address before the 2016 presidential election?

Schade also asked preachers to indicate topics they had mentioned in sermon in the previous 12 months, drawing from a list of 38 issues.  When grouped according to categories, “Economic Issues” and “Racial and/or Ethnic Issues” were also ranked #1 and #2 respectively.  But the issue of “Immigration/refugees/migrant workers” rose to #3 compared to its previous position, while “Food insecurity and hunger” moved down to #4.   “Ethnic and/or religious discrimination issues” rose in importance for pastors to address in the coming six months, while “Equal rights” and “Interfaith relations” remained about the same.

“In many ways it’s not surprising that preachers continue to rank economic issues as their foremost concern,” said Schade, noting that the Gospels mention the subject of money more than any other topic.  “Jesus talked a great deal about how to handle money and possessions. As we’re grappling with the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country, it makes sense that preachers are addressing justice issues that have to do with the fair distribution of resources, housing, and the ongoing issue of exploitation of those with limited access to funds,” Schade observed.

She also pointed out that many of the issues listed in the survey intersect and overlap with each other.  “For example, systemic and institutional racism contributes to poverty and hunger among people of color. And climate change impacts the refugee crisis, which is also complexified by Islamophobia and xenophobia,” Schade observed.

What topics scored lowest?

Schade also noted the topics that preachers ranked lowest on their list of priorities to address in the coming six months.  “Disabilities,” “Human trafficking,” “Terrorism,” “War,” and “Criminal justice reform” all ranked below 10% among topics preachers intend to address in their upcoming sermons.  “Ministers have to prioritize, and it’s interesting to see the issues that have moved lower as others come to the forefront in relation to executive orders and policies of the Trump administration,” said Schade.

One of topic that took a notable hit is attention to mental health issues, Schade observed.  “Mental illness was among the top ten in issues addressed in the last 12 months, but now only 17% of pastors plan to address the topic in their sermons over the next six months.  Mental health is related to so many other issues such as addictions, suicide, and domestic violence.  But it’s just not seen as a priority when compared to so many other issues that need urgent attention.”

She also noted one topic that rose in importance for preachers to address:  environmental issues.  “Things like species extinction, pollution, and environmental racism ranked at the bottom of the list of things pastors addressed in the last 12 months – less than ten percent in most cases,” Schade said. “But environmental issues saw a slight bump up to 17%.  This may be due, in part, to the realization that the Trump administration is undermining all aspects of environmental protection, from gutting the EPA, to reversing key environmental regulations, to dismissing the reality and dangers of climate change,” Schade suggested.

Attention to Bible and lectionary readings are key

Schade stressed that many respondents took care to note that their sermon subjects are not necessarily driven by current events, but by the lectionary readings assigned for the day.  “Many preachers follow the Revised Common Lectionary and will only preach about a specific topic if it is applicable to the biblical text,” Schade noted.  For example, one respondent wrote:

My preaching does not address specific issues. I talk a lot about the Biblical importance of justice and care of the poor, stressing human dignity and our responsibility to be good stewards of all that God entrusts to us. I try to give people tools to do their own assessment of the issues that they are concerned about.

Other respondents noted that they do not decide what they will preach about until that week, but will often mention current issues as they pertain to the biblical text.

Ultimately, preachers keep their focus on the scriptures, Schade concluded.  As one respondent said, “The top topic I intend to preach on is the gospel reading of the day. If it leads me to preach on any of these [issues] (and often it does), I will go there.”

For more information, contact:

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship

Lexington Theological Seminary; Lexington, Ky.

lschade@lextheo.edu; Cell:  610-420-6861

And visit her website, https://www.thepurplezone.net/ for more information.


Question:  Pick the TOP FIVE of the following topics that you INTEND to address or incorporate into your preaching WITHIN THE NEXT 6 MONTHS.*

top topics, bar graph

 top topics, text

* The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.2 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. In addition to sampling error, survey may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context and order effects.  Survey was designed and conducted using SurveyMonkey.com.