Some pastors simply can’t win for losing when trying to navigate the politics consuming many American churches.
Those who try to stay clear of contentious issues are criticized for avoiding important issues. Those who take up those topics are accused of playing partisan politics from the pulpit, said Mark Tidsworth, a clergy and congregational consultant and founder of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.
“The political tension in churches is so intense right now,” he said. “Many of them get pushback from both sides. They just feel caught in the middle with all that.”
A new Barna survey confirms the trend. It reports that political engagement has intensified since the 2016 election and has increasingly spilled into the pews. The survey did not define what is “political,” which often is a point of contention in churches where pastors believe they are being “biblical” but are accused of being “political.”
“Regardless of whether pastors are talking about political issues, their people certainly are — and much more so than in the past,” according to the study released Oct. 21.
The root cause of the tension emanates from a transactional attitude toward church membership prevalent in the U.S., Tidsworth said.
“This whole struggle with politics in the church speaks to the issue that we in American Christianity have adopted a consumeristic point of view, believing we participate in a church to have our political preferences affirmed,” he said.
The result is often a Catch-22 for ministers who speak about, or avoid, politics in “the purple church,” Tidsworth said of congregations consisting of highly divided Democratic and Republican members.
“Pastors … are slightly hesitant when they preach because so much of what they say is interpreted through a political lens.”
“It’s extremely challenging to be a leader in that context,” he said. “We are hearing that all the time from pastors: that they are slightly hesitant when they preach because so much of what they say is interpreted through a political lens.”
Barna found that 58% of practicing Christians (those who attend church monthly) and 64% of churched adults (those who attended within the past six months) reported hearing church leaders speak occasionally about politics. Smaller numbers of them – 36% and 27%, respectively – said pastors never broach political topics.
Many of those surveyed said they want more political topics discussed in church, Barna found. Slightly more than a quarter of practicing Christians and 30% of churched adults want more political engagement at church. About one in five said they want politics discussed less often.
“Among both practicing Christians and churched adults in general, data show that those who are male, Millennial or identify as an ethnic minority are more likely to say they prefer their ministers to speak on political issues ‘a lot more,’” the Barna report said.
Barna also measured the frustration ministers feel in this environment, noting that church leaders “express frequently or occasionally feeling limited in their ability to speak out on moral and social issues because people will take offense (50%) and pressured to speak out on these same issues even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so (34%). The majority of church leaders says these limitations (64%) and pressures (69%) come from people inside their church — not outside.”
Lay people aren’t much happier. “When it comes to church leaders’ reliability on key topics within the church and our nation, just 17% of U.S. adults say pastors are very reliable. A plurality (39%) view them as the opposite,” Barna said.
Another source of potential pressure is the well-documented social action orientation of members of the Gen Z and Millennial generations. For them, avoiding difficult social and political topics will not do, Barna found.
These generations of young adults are “connected to their peers around the world and are highly aware of the social issues that plague not just our country, but nations around the globe. When it comes to solutions for these issues however, young people are not turning to the church for answers,” Barna reported.
“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.”
Tidsworth said he hears from congregations that want to attract young adults while continuing to ignore social justice issues — two desires that cannot co-exist.
“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,” he advised. “People under 35 write us off as irrelevant because we are unwilling to address the issues of the day.”
And to get out of the uncomfortable political middle, preachers must remind worshipers to keep faith and politics in proper perspective, he said.
“It’s about raising awareness with our people about the nature of our faith and the nature of the gospel, that the gospel transcends political parties and that God and the gospel transcend American politics.”