January 16, 2021

Open Mic: Joel Hunter on Difficult Subjects in Church

Presented by Chaplain Mike

The following is a brief video presentation by Pastor Joel Hunter of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida.

Though it was published by BioLogos, this video is not about issues of science and faith, except by application.

It deals more generally with the subject of how pastors, churches, and church members handle tough conversations about issues where there is disagreement.

  • How should pastors approach controversial subjects from the pulpit and in the teaching ministry of the church?
  • What should pastors and churches do when people leave the church because of issues about which people disagree?

Here’s your chance to chime in. Watch the short video, and give us your perspective.

Pastors and church leaders: I’d especially love to hear from you.


  1. I am not a pastor nor even a church leader at this juncture so I’ll be brief.

    No subject should be avoided because it is controversial. If it is part of reality, a part of human life and condition then the Church should be discussing it. If it is not discussed in the church then it will be discussed somewhere else. Most people don’t leave because an item is discussed, but because the church leadership comes down with a dogmatic view on that item, where there are none.

    However, the Church should only be implicit and dogmatic where scriptures are the same. The vast majority of other (nonessential) issues must be discussed with the humility of, “Here is one way of looking at it, but then here is another way of looking at it.” The pastor and leaders must have the wisdom to discern between the essentials and non-essentials.

    • Good thoughts, especially in regards to humility.

      However, you write: “The vast majority of other (nonessential) issues must be discussed with the humility.”

      The problem is that some regard such issues as essential, and therefore get very passionate about it.

      Therefore it would be wise to first set the foundation of essentials and non-essentials, before moving on to such tough topics.

    • “Here is one way of looking at it, but then here is another way of looking at it.”

      But oftentimes this is not humility, it’s just proud double-speak – particularly when essential issues are suddenly branded as “non-essentials.” In fact, this is fast becoming the hallmark of modern preaching. No convictions. No certainties. Let’s all just agree to hear everyone out – with exception to the fundamentalist and the evangelical, of course.


      • This can be a fine line, Brad. How does a pastor allow for the legitimate need for growth in understanding on the part of some in the congregation, and thus encourage them to use their minds and explore various legitimate interpretations, and on the other hand hold convictions and proclaim truths that he/she has come to through hard study and prayer? I believe that line can be walked, but it is treacherous and when one walks it, he/she becomes subject to getting a lot of stuff thrown his/her way.

      • However “single speak,” and I am defining it as certainty in the un-certifiable, has been one of the Church’s downfalls through the ages. I think Tomlinson described in well in his book The Post-Evangelical when he described one of the hallmarks of this (PE) movement is the giving up certainty in all things. Not meaning giving up all certainty but simply not having a comprehensive certainty. In other words, I no longer know all the answers. I no longer have a 1,2,3 stepped solution to all problems and I no longer have a “Biblical” position on all matters. The Bible is silent (and for a good reason) on a huge part of life.

  2. Also not a church leader or pastor, but I think what Joel is saying is true. There are some who are going to leave no matter what if you approach certain issues without affirming what they already believe. In those cases, maybe that church is not right for them and that’s ok — they’ll find a church that is a better fit.

    My church has discussed some controversial issues, such as women in ministry. Our church doesn’t officially recognize either a complimentarian or egalitarian position. Currently, the pastor and all elders are male, but it has been said that this could change at some point.

    For those who aren’t over-reactionary, I think the approach is to treat those views with respect. So if the pastor wants to talk about how Genesis could be compatible with modern science, make sure he doesn’t insult the YEC people in the church when doing so. If he’s going to talk about the role of women, let there be room for dialog, etc.

  3. I serve as a pastor in an independent Evangelical church. I watched this the other day when it was originally posted, and thought Joel spoke truth.

    A couple of thoughts on speaking controversially.

    1. You have to consider your audience. To whom are they listening when not in the church? For a lot of Evangelicals, their pastor is not really their pastor. Many put more stock in what Jim Dobson, John MacArthur or Glen Beck says than what their pastor says.

    2. Know what you’re talking about, and don’t make assertions you can’t defend from scripture or otherwise.

    3. Know that there will we fall out. Live with it.

    4. Don’t let your lay leadership be surprised. Let a few of them know what you’re going to say before you say it. If they are against you, you can stick to your guns and take the consequences, shut your mouth and violate your conscience, or start looking for a new ministry. Good lay leadership will rarely tell you not to say something, but they might help you think through how to best nuance what you want to say. Be humble enough to listen, but bold enough to press on if you must.

    5. In the independent church world there are no protections for the pastor. The people who support you financially to minister among them can simply stop paying. It’s more than a little tricky trying to lead people who think you are working for them and not with them.

    6. Be patient. Opinions aren’t normally changed because of one sermon.

    7. Be gentle. Sheep scare easily, and we are sheep. Make no mistake about that.

    8. Know that sometimes you’ll be in trouble for what you don’t say rather than what you do. Some people have litmus tests and are looking for you to say exactly the right words.

    9. Keep in mind that when people start leaving, it scares those that remain. These are addicted to head counts. These may not disagree with you, but if they determine that you’re at fault for people leaving, you might find yourself in a precarious position. Whether or not you spoke truth is irrelevant at this point.

    10. Sometimes you just have to let them go. They are in God’s hands, not yours. You are not in their hands either. My father once commented that it bothered him that pastors took this attitude until he became an elder at his church and just how ridiculous people can be.

    11. Pray. Lots.

    • Eric, this is one of the best responses I’ve ever seen. Thank you so much for sharing this.

      • Thank you. It’s just a few lessons I’ve learned. Some of them have been the hard way.

        • Eric, it is an excellent response that obviously reflects experience as well as good thinking. As one who also has experience, some of it very hard, reading your post was at points painful too. Especially point 5: “In the independent church world there are no protections for the pastor. The people who support you financially to minister among them can simply stop paying. It’s more than a little tricky trying to lead people who think you are working for them and not with them.” Working without a net is more than a little scary, and I wish there were another way.

  4. When I watched this video the other day at Biologos I immediately thought of the Greg Boyd situation in 2008 when he preached his “Myth of a Christian Nation” sermon series at his church in Minneapolis and lost 1/3 of his congregation over it. When uncomfortable truths are declared, there will be fallout. But it’s a necessary fallout.

    I’m also reminded of Derek Webb, who though not a pastor, still nonetheless is a teacher for the church through his lyrics. And at one show he sang “King and a Kingdom” which includes the line, “There are two great lies that I have heard; the day you eat of this tree you surely will not die, and that Jesus Christ is a white middle class republican, and if you wanna be saved you have to learn to live like him.” When he got to these lyrics 1/3 of the audience got up and left before the song even ended. Afterwards, Sandra (Derek’s wife) asked him how he felt about that. Derek’s response? “It means they’re listening.”

    I think it’s these uncomfortable truths that Jesus is referring to when he uses the language of having ears to hear and eyes to see. If you’re not being made uncomfortable, then it’s not God or God’s word speaking, it’s our own ideas just externalized. And ultimately that’s idolatry.

    • Wow, Boyd has a lot of courage. If he preached that at my church, 75% would have left. I, on the other hand, would have moved up front and volunteered to be an elder again.:>)

  5. Irenicum,

    I listen to the podcast for a church in Canada called The Meeting House and the pastor there is named Bruxy Cavey. He’s not afraid to tackle controversial topics. He’calls those sermons, “Purge Sundays.”


  6. “Courage is going where the church has not been before.”

    It’s a reasonable video. But the pastor knowing he’s right (about whatever), doesn’t actually make him right (about whatever). It’s a bit more complicated than that. Just because the church decides to take something on doesn’t always mean it’s thinking clearly about it, by which I mean theologically.

    A congregant or so getting up and leaving merely because of a controversial topic is a knee jerk reaction and perhaps the matter can be explained to such a person a little more fully in private. That’s one thing and nobody likes it. However, per the quote from the video, parts of the church have, and are going, where they have not gone before and that cannot be assumed to be a good thing in and of itself. So……not so fast with that. In fact, we can point to scenarios where, sadly, thoughtful Christians have concluded over time that this sort of trajectory has isolated and alienated them. So they leave, with tears and grief, but they couldn’t in conscience stay. There’s more than one side to this issue.

    Let the pastor consider well what issues stand at the centre and which are adiaphora.

    • Great, John. I was hoping we’d hear from folks on the congregational side of this too. It can be a tricky balance for the person in the pew, also. Believe me, as a former pastor who is now in that position, I’m getting an education.

  7. I give up. This sounds like lose-lose. If parishioners say they just want Jesus, but what they really want is to hear what they just heard Glen Beck say, then who is their “Jesus”?

    I’m currently reading Jeremiah, and trying really, REALLY hard not to identify Israel’s idolatry with American quasi-Christianity.

    • Stop fighting it. It’s pretty much a one to one correspondence. Every time I read the prophets I see that we haven’t changed one bit. That’s one reason why I constantly stress the continued importance of them for the church.

      • The word, “pretense”, really jumps off the page of Jeremiah. Judah under King Josiah was very religious, but what Jeremiah implies is that it was mere externals. The temple was restored and gorgeous; the law was read, the ceremonies were observed. But the hearts of the people were on the hills at the shrines of idols. The poor were exploited. The widow and orphan were neglected. Business was domininated by treachery and imbalanced scales.

        Nope. Can’t see any parallel. Might be awfully controversial to imply that there was.

      • Problem is, people will read the prophets, nod gravely to themselves about how God justly punished Israel for its wickedness, and never will it enter their imaginations to apply the prophet’s warnings and descriptions to modern America.

        Examples cited above show that people will leave a church or show in a self-righteous huff at the barest suggestion of insult. How do you think they would react if you directed the insults of Jeremiah at them?

  8. One thing that I think is important in churches is for all people to have the opportunity to discuss issues and not just have someone get up front and tell them what to believe. And those times of discussion need to be nonjudgmental and loving. One thing that the speaker said in the video that I really liked is that someone disagreeing with what he says does not mean they are “lost” to the kingdom. Sometimes we treat people as if they are lost if they disagree with certain ways of looking a scripture.

    • I agree, Amy. I think it’s a healthy and important thing for churches to discuss and have conversations about difficult and contraversial issues. But I think the key words are “discuss” and “converse.” Sermons are fine, but they are not discussions or conversations. They are one-way communications from one person to an audience. And one thing is certain — church members are going to talk among themselves about what the pastor preaches from the pulpit, especially if that pastor tackles difficult and contraversial issues. And usually this talk takes place out in the parking lot or later at the restaurant or over the phone during the week — and usually such conversations progress along the lines of existing or forming cliques or factions within a church body.
      Events like a sizable portion of long-standing church members getting up and walking out during a sermon do not just happen out of the blue. They happen as the result of numerous behind-the-scenes and behind-the-hand conversations taking place within a congregation over the course of weeks or months.
      Since such talk is going to happen regardless, I think it’s a good idea for churches to try to bring it out of the shadows where it’s sure to breed division and make a place for it in the full light of day and within the official and public life of the church. I’m talking about churches establishing forums and opportunities for discussion that are open, free, and fully participatory. Of course, that would require making a spot for such forums within the busy schedule of church services and programs. And it would also require that church pastors and leadership teams control their inner control-freaks and allow for the uncensored expression of opinions and ideas that might contradict or differ from their own. I know that sounds dangerous, but I’ve seen it work, even in traditional church settings. In any case, I think such forums would be better and healthier than the usual policy of sweeping disagrements within the church under the rug until they finally explode in everyone’s face.

  9. I hear Hunter washing his hands of people who leave, even thinks it’s better if they leave. Very sad.

    • Sometimes it is better. Depends on the circumstances. Those who leave are sometimes hurt, and sometimes they are doing the hurting. That might be hard to see from the post-Evangelical wilderness, but it is the reality.

    • Moonshadow, I struggled a bit with that too. Hunter pastors a mega-church and can probably afford to let some folks go. In the small churches where I served, every person who left was like a knife in the gut. It almost always created a pastoral predicament—chasing them never seemed to work, “let them go” and one got accused of not caring.

      Man, I don’t miss those days. Can’t tell you how much sleep I lost.

      • Very true point. Losing people hurts much more in small churches. it feels, and likely is, far more personal.

        We had a group of about 30 people (about 10 families) leave our church in 2006. It was painful, but we had come to an impasse with them, and there was no other option. We could absorb it fairly well as we averaged about 350 people at the time, but the absence was obvious to everyone. The pastor with whom I serve and I spent many hours discussing the situation and trying to decide how to resolve it. In hindsight, the leaving really was for the best.

        • Eric, I think one thing that hurts evangelicalism is that we think of it primarily as a “preaching” faith. This has led to the culture of following a particular teacher or preacher and forming one’s Christian identity around the specific emphases of that leader. I’ve noticed that traditional mainline churches and confessional churches don’t struggle with this nearly to the same degree (though it is not absent). They are built more around a historic tradition and, week to week, the liturgy, rather than a particular pastor’s views. Good and bad there too. But this is one reason why true spiritual formation is difficult in free church evangelicalism. We are programmed to follow particular teachings and those who promote them in an acceptable (and entertaining) way. Pastors who don’t “measure up” or fit in don’t gain the credibility with many people to provide pastoral care or discipline.

          • Chaplain Mike,
            I totally agree. There is definitely a checklist of beliefs that any “good” pastor is supposed to have. This list is normally given to the people by some nationally prominent evangelical to whom they are listening during the week. Since you are judged primarily by your preaching ability, if you can’t preach well, then you clearly must not be a good shepherd to the flock.

            In our case, we took a very mild stand against the teachings of Bill Gothard. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. Those that followed his teachings and ultimately left called us everything from antinomian to anti-homeschool.

            • Eric, I was one of those young people that the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts was founded to reach. I attended many seminars. In the beginning, the teaching was fairly innocuous (though now I would still reject most of it as at least misguided), but as the years went on, Gothard, his teachings and his group became more and more cult-like. I dread hearing the name now.

              • Cult-like is exactly the right description. The attitude was that there was only one way to be a true Christian, and of course, that way was whatever Gothard said it was. If anything was said against him, there was a swift and harsh reaction from the “Gothardites”. The breaking point came when our lead pastor preached a series from Galatians. One family insisted that he was preaching directly against them. It was a mess, we had multiple elders involved, and the whole bunch of them left. We are all much more at peace.

                That’s why I mentioned that sometimes the “leavers” are the ones doing harm and it really is best to just let them go.

    • zack keyes says

      I too think it’s sad. If a shepherd had a few sheep that were difficult would he be glad they left the flock? Wouldn’t he go looking for them?
      Could it be that the dismal state of marriage and the family in the US today is reflective of the state of the church? If we have disagreements (in the family or the church) we just leave and find some one new. Maybe we’re better off without them?

  10. I think he makes some good points. I appreciate Eric R’s more. I think what he’s saying has to be a two way street. Not only does a member of the body have to listen/wrestle with new or different interpetations/approaches to difficult issues but the pastor/leadership needs to be able to listen/wrestle with those who may view things differently vs. graciously implying “get on board or catch another ship”.

    I also think I (and maybe others) can feel we need to responsibly address contemporary issues which is fine but it also can see how these things can distract me from simply embodying in word and deed the simple but powerful gospel of Jesus. Is he relevant to everything? Yes. But sometimes in my attempts to prove his relevance to everything his relevance to the soul(s) of the people I’m speaking to gets lost on “issues”.

  11. I wonder if the challenge with controversy is how to be prophetic without falling into legalism, i.e. law-gospel-law. If a pastor starts with moralistic-therapeutic deism (be nice, be happy), anything that causes discomfort will sound controversial.

    I’m not a pastor, but I appreciate when a pastor uses controversy to drive me to Jesus rather than to moralism. If I need to be challenged to love my neighbor, I need Jesus for for forgiveness and the Holy Spirit that the Father’s will may be done in me. Guilt will not change me; but as Paul implies, it can crush me. But it can lead to repentance – turning to Jesus.

    I used to hate prayers of confession when I was young, but now I get it. We publicly confess our shortcomings and receive the pronouncement of forgiveness. Then we gather at the alter to receive Jesus through communion.

    But I think a pastor needs to be careful not to create a false controversy, like the churches where I have seen the congregation asking forgiveness for not being purpose-driven. Beware of man-made controversies based on man-made standards.

  12. Just a question that has been rattling around in my head for a while based on observation and reflection. Is this ‘vote with your feet’ reaction reflective of an attitude that the Kingdom is a democracy in which the walker gets a vote?

    If it comes to that, what makes anyone think that being a Christian means that you should not have to have the hard conversations and face the hard issues? This approach is much like the ” I go to this church because I like the worship”, or “I like the congregation”. Excuse me? Who is being worshipped there? You or your God? Who cares if you like the worship? If you like the people attending your church and you are comfortable there, I wonder if your church doesn’t really need a shake up.

    Disclosure – I attend a church with shocking worship (in a musical sense). We do however, make a joyful noise!

  13. Beelzebub's Grandson says

    But if the “kingdom” is NOT a democracy, and the king disinclined to actively rule it, then who gets to be his regent?

    Using the business model, it would be more efficient if each church (however governed) would make clear its required beliefs (perhaps by posting them somewhere, reciting them in the form of a creed, or fighting over them in the newspapers), and then let the customers pick whichever version they want. Just like we do for restaurants–we don’t care who owns it, but if they know what’s good for them, they’re going to communicate somehow what sort of food is served there (and perhaps adjust the menu depending on the response).

  14. I’m the pastor of a small Southern Baptist church in Los Angeles; we have about 50 people in our English language service and another 20 in a Spanish language service which is overseen by an associate minister. Speaking from within that experience I can say that if Joel Hunter’s words make sense, they must only do so within the context of a megachurch. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say Hunter’s being flippant here, but he’s close. Were I to lose even five members due to a controversial sermon, it would be a total disaster. Two or three such disasters and I’d likely be fired. So I think that pastors of small churches really, really feel the weight of the question, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” in a way Hunter clearly does not.

    I remember the anxiety I felt before preaching on the mythopoetic nature of Genesis 1 to my small congregation of Southern and Midwestern senior citizen transplants (http://www.fbcgh.net/wordpress/archives/110). I remember the insecurity I felt when I preached on the ways in which the revelation we find in Jesus helps to relativize the gruesome parts of the Old Testament (http://www.fbcgh.net/wordpress/archives/64). In the end, I went forward and preached these sermons for the glory of God and the edification of the members and (even more) the visitors, but Hunter’s seeming triumphalism never entered my mind.

    • Eugene, you bring up a vitally important issue. A preacher like Hunter or Boyd can “afford” to preach on controversial subjects even with the fallout involved, because they’re mega-church preachers. But the vast majority of the churches in America are just like yours, somewhere between 50 and a 100 folks. Only once was I involved in a mega church. The rest of my Christian life has been involved with churches with between 12 to 120 people. And you’re right, losing even a handful in that context can be disastrous. As much as I like Hunter, I think the advice from Eric R up thread is more appropriate for normal ministry situations.

      • Kenny Johnson says

        I remember hearing Francis Chan say that he thought if Jesus or Paul had a church near his, he thinks his would be more popular. His point was that he’s not nearly as controversial or counter-cultural as either Jesus or Paul was.

  15. Forget the Hebrew prophets. If you want a “purge Sunday,” just go to the pulpit and read Flannery O’Conner’s “Revelation” word for word. And then give an altar call.

  16. Allan Schwarb says

    “If you earn your living by your faith, you’ll lose one or the other.”

    Speak the Truth in love and suffer the consequences.

    Allan Schwarb

  17. Hi Mike –

    Your dear ol friends have written a new BioLogos piece:



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