Leading the Church in a Polarized Era
4 things we need to pay attention to
Regardless of who wins the presidential election on November 8, you can be sure of one thing: Half of America will be disappointed with, if not outraged by, the results. In nearly 30 years of voting, I have never seen the electorate so polarized about candidates and issues. It has been said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This year, reversing the terms of that statement seems truer: Politics is the continuation of war by other means.
I mention this not because I want to talk about politics per se but because I want to talk about leading a church in the current political environment. It would be naïve to think that we can avoid polarization entirely. After all, even Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Sometimes, controversy is unavoidable.
By the same token, however, it would be presumptuous to think that we are always right in any given controversy. After all, when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Matthew 16:23), He was speaking to neither the devil nor the Pharisees. He was speaking to Peter, His own disciple, chief among the Apostles. Sometimes, we meet the enemy only to discover that it is us.
So, as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, how do we lead our congregations—neither naively nor presumptuously—in this era of American polarization? Let me suggest that we need to pay attention to four things.
First, ministers should pay attention to their church’s reputation. The dictionary defines reputation as “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something.” In a polarized age, having a bad reputation means that your unbelieving neighbors won’t even bother to listen to you. Having a good reputation, on the other hand, means that those who disagree with you nonetheless might listen to you because they respect you.
In a polarized age, having a bad reputation means that your unbelieving neighbors won’t even bother to listen to you.
How do we get a good reputation? In Matthew 5:16, Jesus commands us, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Notice here that what we do doesn’t merely build our reputation in the eyes of others, it builds God’s reputation in their eyes too. Good deeds, in other words, lead to a good reputation.
In a polarized age, it is not enough for the church to do good deeds, we must be seen doing good deeds by our neighbors. Such deeds are a crucial component of our public testimony to Jesus Christ. According to 1 Peter 2:15, they “silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” A church with a good reputation based on its good deeds has begun to earn the respect of people who disagree with it on other matters.
So, what beliefs or opinions does your community or neighborhood hold about your church? Do they see your good works and glorify God?
Second, Christian leaders should constantly work to build relationships with people across the lines of faith, ideology, and party. This is a very difficult task, for people naturally relate to others who have beliefs, values, and practices similar to their own. Birds of a feather flock together, as the old saw has it.
The problem with this flocking instinct is that it builds an in-group mentality that is hard to overcome. People inside the group begin to see one another as better than they are. After all, they’re part of our group. People outside the group begin to be seen as worse than they are. After all, they’re not part of our group.
Jesus avoided the problem of this in-group mentality by building relationships with all kinds of people. The spectrum of his friendships ran from prostitutes to Pharisees to everything in between. On numerous occasions, we find him dining in the homes of Pharisees who argued with Him (e.g., Luke 14:1—14). On other occasions, he associated with people of such ill repute that critics began to say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).
When we, like Jesus, build relationships with others, it becomes easier for us to talk about tough issues because there is a foundation of love, respect, and trust between us. Jesus’ love empowered prostitutes to leave their lives of immorality, tax collectors to leave their lives of theft, and Pharisees to leave their lives of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
So, how well is your church building relationships across the lines of faith, ideology, and party?
Third, ministers should be unafraid to take risks. The order of this point is important. Risk—by which I mean the willingness to tackle controversial and divisive issues—should be taken only after you have secured your good reputation and built loving relationships relationships.
It has been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. In my own life, that’s certainly true. I generally ignore the criticism of strangers, but I pay close attention to the rebukes of family and friends. Why? Because I know they want the best for me and are only raising an issue because my wellbeing is on the line.
As I said above, it’s naïve to think that we can avoid controversy and polarization entirely. Take abortion, for example. Killing an innocent life is both a sin and a crime in Scripture (Exodus 20:13). Beginning with the Apostolic Fathers and continuing to the present day, the Church has applied that commandment to abortion and infanticide. Abortion may be common in our day, but it is still wrong. A Spirit-filled church is a prophetic church, and a prophetic church is a pro-life church. In my opinion, it really is that simple.
But some people are not ready to hear this truth. They need to see that we are not merely pro-baby but pro-mama too. They need to experience our love, concern, and practical care for women who have had abortions or who are giving birth to children in difficult circumstances. These actions earn us the respect necessary to have gentle conversations about divisive issues.
The list of controversial issues could be multiplied endlessly. Racism, income inequality, sexual immorality, gun violence…you name it. We need to have those conversations because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution to all of them. We need to take risks and talk about these issues, but only after we have shown others the depth of our love for those on the other side of them.
So, what kind of risks is your church taking to be a prophetic voice in your community?
Finally, pastors and the churches they lead must practice continual repentance. At the outset, I mentioned that we should not be so naïve as to think we can avoid controversy entirely. Sometimes, we must take the risk and have prophetic conversations. By the same token, however, we should not be so presumptuous as to think we’re always in the right. We need to acknowledge our faults and commit to a renewed faith and practice every day.
We need to acknowledge our faults and commit to a renewed faith and practice every day.
To do this, we need to develop the habit of listening. The listening is threefold. First, we listen to God as we prayerfully read His Word. “I have hidden your word in my heart,” the psalmist says, “that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Second, we listen to spiritual mentors as they offer constructive criticism of our lives. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted,” says Proverbs 27:6.
Third, and perhaps more controversially, we listen to those outside the faith because their words sometimes carry a grain of truth that needs to be planted in our heart. I think here of a remark the apostle Paul made in 1 Corinthians 5:1: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate.” Pagans aren’t always right, of course. They’re not always wrong either, however. Sometimes, they see through and call out the religious rationales we offer for misbehavior. When they do so, what else can we do but repent?
So, how well is your church listening, and how quickly is it acting on the constructive criticisms it hears?
On November 9, a lot of people are going to be disappointed, mad even. Those on the winning side might feel temporarily magnanimous…or they might think it’s time to settle old scores. Whatever the case, our polarized nation is and will continue to be wounded. Let’s make sure that our churches do what they can to bring gospel-healing to a hating, hurting America.
George Paul Wood is executive editor of Influence magazine.