Michael Horton recently noted, “Our churches right now look like Fox and CNN. You can tell when you walk into a Fox church and a CNN church. The ideology, not the gospel, is the priority.”
It’s a worrying and saddening trend, Horton observes, that many churches have become enclosed by contemporary partisan bubbles. Our true calling is to be a community that transcends these divisions: “no longer strangers and aliens . . . but fellow citizens” in Christ (Eph. 2:19).
The thing about bubbles is that you rarely realize you’re living in one. A bubble is translucent, giving you a sense of being in touch with reality when, in truth, your perception is more skewed than you think.
Signs Your Church Is in a Bubble
How can we identify if our churches have become bubbles? Here are three signs.
1. Ideology Over Doctrine
As Horton observed, one of the main indicators of a bubbled church is an emphasis on ideology over doctrine. If you’re in a church in which congregants are less concerned with a pastor’s doctrinal stances than with whether he reads Fox News or The New York Times, you might be in a bubbled church. If you’re in a church in which the average person could articulate a political-party platform more accurately than the Ten Commandments, you might be in a bubbled church.
Another bubble indicator is uniformity within the church body, which now could simply be because of geography. Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford professor of political science, notes that “we’re at a moment of extreme geographic sectionalism.” Simply by being in Montgomery or San Francisco, your church is likely filled with members who think alike in ideology, politics, even TV shows. Do you rarely find yourself challenged by, or disagreeing with, the opinions or preferences of others in your church? If so, you might be in a bubbled church.
3. Us vs. Them
Pervasive in a bubbled church is a tone of hostility expressed in an embattled, warlike mindset in which congregants routinely decry the other side and an array of threats “out there” in the culture or in other churches—far more often they look within. If you’re in a church that spends less time on internal discipleship than on external cultural polemics, and gives more attention to listing the errors of other evangelical churches than in partnering with them in a common mission, you might be in a bubbled church.
How to Pop Church Bubbles
If we’re honest, most of our churches are bubbles to some extent. But this is not the biblical ideal. Paul is clear that the church should be a mixture of classes, ethnicities, and perspectives (Gal. 3:2; Col. 3:11); a place where worldly bubbles go pop as we “bear with one another” and “grow, so that [the church] builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).
How can we pop our church bubbles? Here are three tips.
1. Let the Air Out Slowly
One would think the best approach, especially within churches, is to pop these bubbles immediately and to forcibly diversify. But as Duke professor Chris Bail has noted, “Exposing people [rapidly] to other views from the other side did not make them more moderate . . . it reinforced their pre-existing views.” It’s better to gently let the air out of these bubbles. If we rush to pop them in haste, it may inadvertently fortify bubbles even more. Rather than making significant ministry changes or immediately hosting “point-counterpoint” debates on thorny topics, start small. Grab a handful of mature members you know might disagree and invite them over for a private meal and charitable dialogue.
2. Address the Issues
Whether CRT, complementarianism, or any number of divisive issues, the bubble-making problem is less a result of the issues as it is our reluctance to talk about them. Many pastors understandably ignore flashpoint issues because of potential fallout from both sides. But the more we bypass sincere dialogue out of fear, the more our people will find “safe space” bubbles elsewhere—and further entrench their views. Create spaces not simply to preach about these issues but to have honest discussions. This may create more friction in the short term, but pray that it produces the fruit of unity in the long term.
3. Social-Media Discipleship
Excessive social-media usage is often blamed for these bubbles, and there is certainly truth to this. But the solution can’t be as simple as just telling congregants to use social media less. Rather, churches should disciple their members in how to use social media Christianly—where to look for helpful information online, how to wisely vet and share information, and how to behave online in ways that edify the body and honor Christ.
Better Sort of Bubble
The church, in a sense, is a bubble of its own. We are called to be set apart from the world (John 15:19; Rom. 12:12), but not from reality. As people set apart, the church is not meant to be a bubble fortified for warfare, but a refuge where lost souls and sojourners can hear the gospel and be shaped by it in community.
We are called to be set apart from the world, but not from reality.
Indeed, at its best, the church is a bubble not detached from reality, but closer to it than anything else. Where else in this current cultural moment can people find a space or community as diverse as the church—from every tribe, tongue, and nation? The church has always been an unlikely household, composed of a diverse spectrum of humans entirely unlike each other. In a fracturing culture in which bubbles of division further alienate us, the church has the potential to be the rare space where tensions are diffused and walls are broken down by Jesus Christ, whose power and peace pop every bubble.