Amid all the analysis and opining about the 2020 presidential election, one thing must not be overlooked: The church’s witness in the world has been damaged almost beyond repair.
The politicization of the faith, the abandonment of biblical teaching, the hypocrisy, the sacrifice of truth, the love of money and status — all these have caused the church to lose relevance and authority to speak to modern culture. Of course, erosion of trust in the church did not begin with this presidential election or the 2016 election, although the divisions of the past four years certainly accelerated the trend.
It wasn’t that long ago that American conservatives — and especially Christian conservatives — cared deeply and passionately about absolute truth and strict morality and certain reality. And it wasn’t that long ago that American progressives were accused of promoting an “everybody do your own thing” mentality that empowered looser morality, sexual ethics and doubt that there is such a thing as absolute truth.
Yet today, it is the progressives who are most likely to be fighting the onslaught of misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and outrageous lies by demanding a consistent standard around a flagpole of definitive truth.
No wonder we’re all confused; some would say the tables have turned and the sides have switched uniforms.
Every publication and pundit out there is commenting on how this election has revealed the deep divides in American society that might as well have us living in two separate universes. And in the midst of this, pastors are left to try to make peace in their churches. Is that possible?
Here are five challenges pastors and church leaders face in these post-election days:
“Both-sides-ism is a lazy and unrealistic way out of this quagmire.”
Avoiding both-sides-ism. The natural tendency for peacemakers is to point out that there has been wrong done on both sides and to call everyone to the middle through confession and forgiveness. That will not work in the present moment. Although both sides may feel equally offended by the other, both sides have not acted in the same way or with the same malice. Each “side” must be dealt with on its own merits and actions, just like good parenting requires dealing with each child as an individual. Both-sides-ism is a lazy and unrealistic way out of this quagmire.
Restoring a respect for truth. This is not simply a matter of one side believing the truth and the other side believing a lie. It is, instead, a case of both sides firmly believing their views are truth. Except in rare cases, it is not possible for two opposing ideas to be simultaneously true. Somehow, we’re going to have to come to an agreement on what is true and what is false in the real world. Coronavirus has shown us the peril of living in a world of lies. Eventually, lies will get you killed. If the church can’t help us sort out truth from lies, we don’t need to stay in business.
“Coronavirus has shown us the peril of living in a world of lies. Eventually, lies will get you killed.”
Overcoming the love of money. For the church, this is a debt that never gets paid. We’ve got to keep telling this story over and over. Remember that Jesus talked more about money than any other topic recorded in the Gospels. Getting this right sets up all other successes. And yet time and again — in both Democratic and Republican campaigns — appealing to personal economic interests tops all other concerns. Our society has conditioned us to care most about our own economic well-being; the Bible should condition us to see that the love of money is the root of all evil.
Revaluing community. Too often, the church has portrayed “community” as a kind of forced uniformity or assumed uniformity or even homogeneity. We go to church and assume everyone else there thinks like we do, and we tend to cluster with others who look like we do. We foster community that is as shallow and superficial as a Sunday morning hello at a coffee station. True community places us in the same boat together with everyone given an oar. We’ve got to figure out how to row the boat without capsizing. This is a lesson the church should model. We should be handing out oars, not complaining because the boat is taking on water.
“True community places us in the same boat together with everyone given an oar.”
Loving neighbor. I long for the old days when we could debate what was the best way to love our neighbors, meaning, for example, is it better to give a homeless person money, job training or food. When we agree we must love our neighbors, we can engage in helpful conversation about how to fulfill the command of Jesus. Sadly, the debate today has moved to another realm: “Must we help that pitiful person?” Or a somewhat gentler adaptation: “That’s not my problem to worry about.” Getting this fundamental teaching of Jesus right would set in motion a lot of cures for the other things that ail us. We love God by loving neighbor as ourselves.
Underling all this is the need to restore trust in the church. To get there, the root question pastors may need to face is whether they want to serve the church that has been or the church that will be. I’m reminded of our church’s journey toward LGBTQ inclusion four years ago, when an older member said: “I know where the trend is going on this and that in 20 years this will not be an issue at all. But can’t we older folks just have our church the way it has been until we die?”
Whatever the issue — don’t get hung up only on the LGBTQ illustration — the church cannot regain the trust of the community until we’re able to see all the community around as beloved of God and not just targets for our conversion.
Church consultant Mark Tidsworth hit this nail right on the head in a recent BNG story: “If you want more young people in church, you are going to have to drop belief that social justice issues are off limits while focusing only on personal piety and salvation. People under 35 write us off as irrelevant because we are unwilling to address the issues of the day.”
It’s time to flip the script and show the world that the authentic church of Jesus Christ solves problems rather than creating problems, tells the truth, loves people more than money, and builds authentic, diverse community.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.