Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively, among those who care deeply about such things. I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not. I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.
The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle. Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.
Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’. This is the way everything’s done these days. If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever. It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it. The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations: Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires. They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds. How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds? It doesn’t.
What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset. “Who are we going after?” is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, program—it’s all designed to reach a demographic. The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.
Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people. But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post. Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization. But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.
A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”—between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females. This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing else—including one’s politics, music style. I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”. Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.
The Better Way –
Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:
1. Cross social divides rather than reinforce them. As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people. This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christ—see I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).
In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them. That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process. But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.
2. Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographic—rich, poor, left, right, young, old—everyone. This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions. We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation. That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.
When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right. We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left. We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again. We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again. Whatever. The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions” and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities. Otherwise, just go into politics. You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.
3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is. Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other. When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside. Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees. But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.
Dear Pastors and Churches: Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share. You’ll miss your calling. Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformation—even you, dear leader—and I hope, especially you.