social justice

Preaching and Social Justice

Since 2011, Charlie Dates has served as senior pastor of the historic Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois. He earned the MDiv and PhD degrees at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and now teaches adjunctively at both TEDS and Moody Bible Institute. He is a contributor to the 2014 book Letters to a Birmingham Jail, and is a contributing editor of Preaching Magazine. Executive Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Charlie Dates for a short interview.

Interview Transcript

Michael Duduit: You’re in Chicago, a city with some significant challenges, and I know you have a real burden for the area of social justice. As a preacher and pastor, how do you think preaching can play a role in contributing to that whole cause of social justice today?

Charlie Dates:  First of all, I think it’s clear to note that justice is a Biblically-defined, theological, Christian issue. It’s not a social construct per se. So much of American Christianity and the theology of American Christianity has kept issues of justice and society in kind of a Marxist category. I don’t think that’s fair.

Part of the reason I don’t think that’s fair is I think the New Testament is pretty clear in its use of the language of justice, that it is something that God cares about, and it’s also something tethered to the story of salvation. For that reason, it seems to me that a thorough reading of the proclamation of the redemptive historical narrative has to address issues of justice. It’s not an option; it’s not like some kind of passion that some should have and others should not. It’s tethered directly to the story of salvation.

It makes even more sense when you look at the world today in terms of why Christians and Christian preachers ought to be addressing it, because it is the word of God that defines what justice issues are. We have the most prophetic witness to the narrative of justice, something that the world, quite frankly in Chicago especially, younger people are clamoring for. We have the most prophetic edge because it is actually the word of God that delineates what justice is and what it’s not. We owe it to our fellow man, we owe it to the world around us, the communities that surround our church, to have a clarifying voice from the basis of righteousness, as it is explained in the Scriptures, what justice is all about.

Michael Duduit: Let’s think first of all about your own congregation, a primarily African-American congregation. How do you use preaching with your congregation to address these kind of issues?

Charlie Dates:  I’m very fortunate to pastor a historic black church, as you know. The history of our church lends itself to addressing these issues from the pulpit. From 1915 to 1919, 500,000 black people moved from the American south to Chicago alone. Then on the back end of that migration, by 1966 you’ve got more African-American people living in Cook County than you do the entire state of Mississippi.

It was our church, along with a number of others, that helped people, migrants who were marginalized and who were pushed to the fringes, simply on the basis of race, to experience the power of the gospel in building new community and in challenging systems that recognized the Imago Dei of all people, that all people are made in the image of God, and to press that against the conscience of the state.

For me, I walk in the lineage of a church that already understands that. The challenge, I think, is that the older generation of our church generally assumes the veracity of what I just said. The emerging generation, many of whom have no direct connection with church, do not understand how the Scriptures speak to injustice in the world. That’s the job that I have in terms of preaching: demonstrating from the Scripture, both the Old and the New Testament, that justice is something that God cares about. It’s not a human construct, and the Bible has to speak into it, so your preacher has to talk about it. Not only that – and this is what I would hope would be a great handoff – it cannot be just the pulpit proclaiming the truth about it, but the pulpit has to equip and educate the pew so that they can do it in their varying spheres of influence.

Michael Duduit: Think for a moment about your fellow pastors who are in predominantly white churches. They have members who don’t think of themselves as racist because they don’t do overtly racist things. How does that pastor try to help sensitize their own congregation in this area of racial justice?

 Charlie Dates:  I would say it begins with an understanding and then it leaps into teaching and preaching. First of all let me say this: my heart goes out to my white brothers who are pastoring churches who are sensitive to these issues, but they know that they will suffer significant blow-back for it. Some of them could lose their churches, quite frankly, for speaking out about these issues. So I don’t tread without careful thought into this subject. That’s a major issue.

Racism in America by and large has been thought of as being a de facto issue, which basically means that it’s a personal preference; it’s an individual’s choice to practice racist behavior, and where that individual does not do that, then racism does not exist. I would submit to that pastor to think of racism more so as a de jour issue, that what has happened in America is that our laws have built systems and structures that run against ethnic minorities, and not just black people – I include brown people, Asian people – such that the system is a declining scale for people who are trying to climb higher.

When you think of it that way, it kind of takes the burning burden off of a congregant who’s listening to say, “Hey, I’m not racist.” That’s true, you may not be racist, but the structure of the society we live in is racist, which means you benefit from certain systems. Others not only do not benefit, but they are set back by the systems put in place.

You need that understanding first, that we’re talking about a system of loss. We’re talking about a set of policies that funnel certain people into certain neighborhoods, which fund or defund their public schools, which gives them a disadvantage from the beginning, and then which criminalize racial issues. There are many helpful resources that one could study. One of the ones that I’ve been working through recently is The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America ,  by Richard Rothstein. There are a number of others, but that one kind of gets clearly at the issue.

Based upon that understanding, I think that culture gives us the natural platform to address these issues from the pulpit. Never have we seen kind of in plain dress, in modern day culture, what we’re witnessing now. If statistics are true, there’s something like 75 to 80% of white evangelicals voted for 45 (Donald Trump), and the same percentage of African-American Christians did not vote for Mr. Trump. Why is this the case?

It’s the elephant in the room that the church has a natural kind of opportunity to talk about. This doesn’t mean we have to solve it, but we get to talk about it. What is it that would make white Christians go one way and black Christians go another way? If we really do care about issues of justice, I think that’s a kind of slam dunk entry into it.

The next thing I would say would be with teaching. That is, as a black pastor and a white pastor or a Latino pastor and an Asian pastor develop relationships with one another, they can teach one another in dialogue. It’s harder to take some things from the pulpit than it is at the dinner table. Just kind of getting to know one another and learning to trust one another, you can take hard truths in that way.

I think it needs to be introduced to the church in that regard. Maybe it’s not a sermon on a Sunday morning before it is a conversation, like the one you and I are having, in front of the church, where two pastors or four pastors will sit in front of their respective congregations and just have the dialogue. That may anger some people, but it’ll do it in a non-threatening environment. The pulpit is a very authoritative place of proclamation. We get that, but sitting and having a conversation where you can respectfully agree and disagree and model charitable conversation is a way to open the minds of congregants to think critically and biblically about these issues.

This would be my preaching point: it’s not enough to do biblical and theological exegesis, not in the world in which we live, and I don’t think it ever was. I think we do that alongside and in front of social and cultural exegesis because the Bible is not just a book we interpret. It is a book that interprets us and it is a book that interprets culture. If we are unfamiliar with the things going on in our world, then we do not give the Bible in our preaching a chance to speak prophetically, critically and theologically about sociological issues.

Michael Duduit: This year we’re recognizing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King. What’s changed during that period of time?

Charlie Dates:  Well, a lot has changed from 1968. Within the church a lot has changed. It would only be appropriate, too, to mention that there were a number of white Protestant pastors who fought alongside with and marched with Dr. King. Now some of them suffered dearly for that. In telling history correctly, we cannot escape the fact that – though the issues have been polarizing – there have always been people who’ve met in the middle.

One of the things that has changed is I think America has changed in terms of its ethnic demographic composition, and that’s affected the way that we do church. I also think that there has been an openheartedness on the sides of, not to make it a binary, but on the sides of both white evangelical and black evangelical pastors to the point where we know one another more and our in conversation with one another more now than we have been.

Case in point, there was this gathering of 50 evangelical leaders at Wheaton College a few days ago. I was privileged to be at that meeting. What I can tell you is I felt like if a meeting like that had happened in the days of American slavery or even early Jim Crow, those things would’ve ended. I saw evangelical institutions in one space saying, “We recognize that there is a problem. The only way we’re going to protect the witness of a gospel is to do this together.”

I don’t think that happened 50 years ago. The fact that that’s happening, and that it happened at a place like Wheaton, is an amazing thing. We know one another more now. We are preaching with and for one another now. That’s significant.

You didn’t ask me this, but what has not changed is some of what I would call the theological arrogance and sociological privilege that has lingered in American Christendom for too long. In some segments – like the divinity school I went to – in American Church History we might have spent half a day on the Civil Rights Movement. I just don’t know how you tell the story of American Church history in that regard. There was not enough. There was some, but not enough conversation on George Whitfield’s endorsement of slavery to save his orphanage in Georgia or Jonathan Edwards’ participation in slavery and then conversion out of it.

Just being honest about the story, it has caused many genuine seminary students of good will to hold as heroes, which is certainly permissible, an uncritical view of the theological giants in American Christianity. That’s bred a kind of arrogance. To get the gospel right, I think, is to demonstrate where we have gotten it wrong.

Those are some of the lingering stigmas that relate. Then of course the economic injustice that yet affects the way we do church. The sociological privilege is part of what privileges certain ethnic groups to have thriving churches on the margins of some of our big cities and struggling churches inside. It’s not because we worship a different Jesus. It’s not even because we don’t hold to orthodoxy. It’s the way that culture has played out. It shows in how we’re able to fulfill mission in our local communities or tragically not fulfill it in some respects.

Michael Duduit: What is it like to pastor a church in a huge urban area like Chicago with all the challenges and issues that are there?

Charlie Dates:  First of all, I would say that it’s a privilege. I’ve got an old deacon; he’ll be 88 in a couple of months and never went past third grade. I’ve learned more about the Lord and faith in a real sense from watching him these last few years, and people like him at the church, than I did from some text books. One of the things that I’ve learned is in a place where you lack privilege and where you kind of live from hand to mouth and you fight and scrap, you learn really what it means to trust God. That doesn’t mean that people who have means do not, but these are people who historically have walked with God and not complained given the circumstances.

I mean, they’re not phased by 45 (Trump) at all. The day after the election this one deacon looked at me and said, “What’s your problem? Man, do you know what we’ve lived through?”, and he just ran a list of everything that they’ve lived through. The testimony of that is significant. That’s a privilege.

Some of the challenges, I think, come from preaching to and shepherding an emerging generation of black Americans who are more privileged than their forefathers in terms of education and housing and the like, but who exercise less faith. Some of that is because they have a theological issue of how God could let things be the way that they are. It’s an age old question, but they’ve got to work their way through it.

Some of the other challenges are specific to the neighborhood. We need more resources to do things like counseling for kids facing trauma, who’ve watched other kids get shot or lost so many relatives in that respect. The kind of pressure that failed economics puts on marriages and on families with multiple children, and then the unreadiness that many of our children face coming out of school; although they’ve done what they’ve been told to do, when they get to college they often academically do not compare to kids that come from other side of the tracks.

We’ve got to find a way to make the word become flesh in our communities. Not that it’s not already flesh; clearly Jesus Christ is an all-sufficient prophet, priest and king. But how does our right doctrine in the church transform the lives of people once they leave church in a physical, tangible way? I mean, America is very wealthy so we’re not talking about a country where we cannot effect these changes. How does the gospel speak to those things so that our children experience hope, so that our teenagers do not give up and despair based upon what they’re seeing, and so their fathers and mothers stay together to fight for building a family? I think those are some of the challenges.

I see them so closely related. I don’t want to mar the distinction, but the spiritual issues have to speak to the physical outcomes. Otherwise, we’re just all waiting for heaven; that’s cool too, but I think Jesus came so that we could see clearly and reclaim what we lost in Eden. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect, but I don’t think He came just to kind of let us linger in the sinful dire state that we’re in. Sin affects everything. It’s not just a matter of personal piety and moral uprightness. Sin affects systems. I think the gospel should not be reduced to the social action, political action committee. It cannot. At the same time, it should not be restricted to the point where it does not speak courageously and prophetically to structures and systems.

Michael Duduit: The gospel touches every part of life.

Charlie Dates: Yeah, it does. One way that I’ve said it – I’ve taken this from Raphael Warnock – Black churches have not just had to be concerned with the slavery of sin; we’ve also had to be concerned with the sin of slavery. Both of those have to find a nexus in our preaching.

Michael Duduit: Let’s drill down a little bit into your preaching. How many services do you preach each week?

Charlie Dates:Two at Progressive, but now out on the road it could be upwards of three or four, sometimes five. Then I get to teach preaching too at Trinity Divinity School, along with history. On an average week three, but sometimes it’s a lot more.

Michael Duduit: Do you primarily preach in series?

Charlie Dates:  Yeah, and that’s the only way to be sane these days for me. We’re working our way through 1 Peter. My hope is this is going to carry us at least for another two years. We may just fall on into 2 Peter. We’ll see. We’re breaking up 1 Peter basically into six to eight week sections so that we give people a break. Then we honor the Christian calendar and the like.

I preach in series. Sometimes they are thematic and topical. They’re not all kind of sequential expositions or a book. We did one for African American history month. We did a series through the Psalms last summer. There are critical issues that come up in the life of the church that have to be addressed, so we’ll do something on discipleship or on finance. Every year we’ve got to do evangelism; we’ve got to have some series that keeps in the forefront of the church’s mind how we share the gospel in a lifestyle way.

Michael Duduit: How do you go about deciding on a series, and how far out do you know you’re doing a particular series?

Charlie Dates:  I kind of famously fell into Romans and did it for three and a half years. The reason I say fell into it is because I didn’t start at Romans 1:1; I started with Romans 1:16. Pastor Meeks said to me, “Why don’t you just go to the next verse the next week?” That’s how it was the next three and a half years. I had had a plan, but it did not happen.

How do I decide? I’m trying to sense in my own devotional reading what burden the Holy Spirit is putting on my heart. One reason we fell into 1 Peter is I was on a plane a few years ago. My devotional reading was in 1 Peter. I was just so grabbed by it I just kept reading all the way through it until I got through the book. Then I found myself doing that again a few weeks later. I remember in Divinity School working through the entirety of 1 Peter and just saying to myself, “I wonder why I never thought about this”. As soon as the next window opened, which did not come until this year, I dropped it right there.

I don’t know what will happen next in terms of the next long length series, but I’ve got a good while until that one comes. We’ve done a couple of books of the Bible. Ideally I guess if I could I would go from the New Testament to the Old Testament and then from genre to genre, so we don’t just do straight didactic. We try to involve narrative and history. Every year we do something of poetry in there just to keep the palate fresh.

Michael Duduit: Tell me about the process you use in developing an individual message, as you move from Sunday to the next Sunday.

Charlie Dates:  This is a fortunate question for me. I’m teaching a New Testament preaching class now at TEDS, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about: text to sermon. The benefit of preaching through a book like what we’re doing now is that all of the background, the historical work, all of that’s done already so I don’t have to do that from week to week. I printed out all of 1 Peter in the original language. To whatever the facility I have with that, I’m basically translating the entire book and just making exegetical notes along the way so that by the time I come to my pericope for the week, if I’m ahead of the game, then I’ve already got the exegetical insights laid out on my own. I resist the urge to go to a commentary first. I just kind of want to sit with it and see what the Lord will show me, notice some oddities maybe in words that strike me. Then from there I’ll go to some kind of grammatical diagram on the passage.

I’m trying to work from a diagram of the passage to a homiletical outline, then just trying to sense what weighs on my heart for the people I’m preaching to. I can’t deal with everything that strikes me, or I can’t give everything equal time. I’m trying to make those decisions as I go through. Then, I’m working from a hybrid of a grammatical diagram of the passage to a homiletical outline, I’m working between those two and hoping that the homiletical outline is forming into this wonderful crisp, clean preaching outline.

Then I’m adding flesh to it. Does the text give me word pictures to illustrate, or what’s a good way to build a porch for the people who will be reading this text, some of them for the first time? What kind of references is Peter making to the Old Testament that the people who I’m preaching to may or may not understand?

Then what practical applications, how is this passage speaking to our condition today and across the board? We’ve got a church with multiple generations. I’ve got to think about the people in their 80s. We’ve got a woman at church who was 95 on Sunday. Then how in the world do I talk to these kids who are in their 20s from the same text? I don’t have the luxury of not thinking about it.

Then I will end up with what I call an annotated outline. It is the closest thing to a full manuscript. Sometimes a full manuscript boxes me in, because I tend to like to be precise with language, but I like to dance on my feet in the pulpit too, so if I miss a line or a transition then I’m in trouble. I try to write strictly enough to where I have to stay within the bounds, but loose enough like a jazz musician where I can improvise in the structure as it goes along.

Michael Duduit: That’s an interesting thought about the cross generational issue. Where that really strikes me as always as a challenge is in the area of application. The exegesis is the same whether they’re 20 or 90, but it’s the application that really varies.

Charlie Dates:  That’s right. One of the ways that I try to do that is to pick music metaphors if I can, songs from artists like the Temptations or Bill Withers. I’ll go back to some stuff that spoke those ideas in their cultural lingo, and then I’ll beg for help while I’m preaching. I’ll say, “It’s not Beyonce, it’s not Jay-Z. Come on now, those of you over 55, help me out here. You see I’m reaching, I’m trying.” We’ll have a good laugh over that. You’re right, the burden is finding cultural windows that appeal to them.

Then there are some that are just blockbusters, I mean they appeal to everybody, things that happened in history. Sunday I was in this passage on 1 Peter where Peter says, “And do not be conformed to the former lusts, which drove you in your ignorance.” That’s the same word Paul uses in Romans 12:2, but whereas Paul is talking about breaking with present culture for the sake of future glory, Peter is arguing about breaking with past sin for the sake of future pleasure and salvation. The question becomes how can people go back to the former lusts?

While I’m thinking about this to the issue of justice and whatnot, I’m thinking about how the schools in Chicago have basically re-segregated after desegregation. There’s a strong contingent in our church who remember Brown vs. Board of Education, some who were bussed to other schools because they had to do that. Then somewhere around 1980 or 1981, schools started to resegregate to the point now where some schools in our city are virtually all black again and some are all white. I’m asking the question: how did we get to this place? The larger issue is Peter is saying: how could you go back to what you have been liberated from? It wasn’t a court decision. It was a crucified Savior on a cross.

Trying to find larger blockbuster issues for application, a window that helps us to see – regardless of where we are generationally – the force of the truth of that passage.

Michael Duduit: How long does it usually take you to develop a message for Sunday?

Charlie Dates:  My whole life. Who said that? It varies. I think if I’m being a good student like now, trying to get ahead in terms of translation and exegesis, then it does not take as long. I’m about a four day preacher; it takes me over the span of about four days. That includes some creative dislocation. It’s not just kind of like, my process is not just kind of with my nose to the grindstone, ink and paper. It is reading and processing and then stepping away from it for a while to let the thoughts settle in their own places, and then letting that time clarify things to come back to it.

Michael Duduit: What do you find to be your biggest challenges in preaching, and what do you enjoy most about preaching?

Charlie Dates:  The biggest challenge is biblical illiteracy in the pew. It takes longer sometimes to get at things, because you’ve got to explain so much that 25 years ago people just generally had. Case in point: I was talking about the Passover recently, and I’m looking at people looking at me like, “What is he talking about?” I’m like, “Well, wait a minute. You don’t know what the Passover is?” That’s a great burden. It’s a joyful burden, but it is a challenge nonetheless.

I think too, television and social media and the internet have corroded the attention span, so finding a way to be crisp and clean without hitting a saturation level is one of my challenges. It may not be everybody else’s challenge, but I’ve got to work hard to be a 30, 35 minute preacher and I often go over.

Another challenge is having to confront my own sin nature in preaching. Peter says basically now that you’ve been saved, keep your mind ready for action, keep sober in Spirit, your hope fixed upon the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. He jumps into this language of holiness. Man, if that doesn’t cut me first, if it doesn’t strike, if it doesn’t bring me to life in a real sense first, then it’s going to be hard going throughout. That’s a joyful challenge too, but it’s a challenge of just being honest over the passage.

The joy is, I think, finding my voice and my rhythm now. I feel like I’m starting to hear more of what God made my voice to sound like in preaching. For so long, and appropriately so I think, I’ve been so shaped by the voices that I admire that I’ve sounded like them in my mind. Now I can honestly say I’m hitting the beginning of some strides to where I’m enjoying hearing my own voice, in the sense that that’s just what I sound like. That’s my personality in one sentence, so I’m very grateful for that.

Michael Duduit: Who are some preachers who have shaped and influenced you?

Charlie Dates:  Let me start with some that are not alive. Gardner Taylor, for sure, Sam Proctor would be another, and G. Campbell Morgan. If I may add one more, Alexander Maclaren. Anything that I can read that Alexander Maclaren wrote . . .  I wish we could talk like Alexander Maclaren, but you can’t just fashion those sentences in that way.

Michael Duduit: Unless you could dig up a Victorian audience.

Charlie Dates:  That’s right, who would appreciate that. Those are preachers that I’m reading and trying to get my hands on whatever I can. In terms of living voices, I’ve got an eclectic spread. I mean, Ralph West is one of my favorite preachers on the planet, probably because of his ability – not to diminish the scholarship – but to speak plainly and in images where people can connect. James Meeks and K. Edward Copeland are another set, I was pastored by both those guys, and BJ Tatum for that matter too. All three of those are Illinois pastors and they have had a wonderful ministry of elevating the mind and moving the people at the same time. They’ve taught me that preaching is not merely explanation, it’s got to be proclamation within that.

Then I’ve got some contemporary friends that I enjoy listening to like Bryan Loritts and Philip Pointer Sr, Romell Williams, Adron Robinson, George Parks Jr, these are brothers that I’m listening to on a regular basis.

Michael Duduit: Suppose the angel shows up on your doorstep and says, “Pastor, you have one more sermon.” What would it be?

Charlie Dates:  John 3:16 I would think, the gospel in plain language: “For God so loved the world,” that he did something about it, “he gave his one and only son.” That line, one and only, makes me want to cry often when I think of it. He gave that so that whoever – it doesn’t matter what your social location is, where your educational background, or your family of orientation may have been – whoever you are, if you believe, you will not perish but you will have life everlasting. That would be it. Then I’d beg for another!