Polarization isn’t just present in politics; it’s a problem in the church.

In the previous column, we looked at Chris Bail’s research on how social media distorts our perspective. The online world is more a place for trying out “identities” than debating ideas. The tribes that develop around these identities and offer a sense of “belonging” show up in evangelical circles, too.

Closer in Conversation

The environment of social media distorts what is really happening among church leaders. You may think, based on what you see online, the evangelical world is splitting into either a faction of neo-fundamentalists or a group of neo-progressives, with people lining up on one side or the other of a massive divide.

But then you encounter people in person. And when you have substantive conversations with church leaders, you realize most people are not that far apart. Sure, there may be a difference of emphasis, or a different assessment of what problems pose the biggest threat to the church, but you may be surprised at the doctrinal commitments you share and at a common acknowledgment of multiple threats facing the church.

This has happened to me. More than a few times I’ve assumed, based on social-media postings, that someone is “all in” with whatever is considered “woke” or “progressive,” only to discover they worry about the influence of impulses and ideologies behind recent movements combatting racial injustice. I’ve also sat down with people who share links and quotes from leaders who would be seen as “fundamentalist” or “culture warriors,” only to find they worry about an unhealthy narrowing of the parameters for partnership, and they share concerns about why some conservative churches push for cultural withdrawal on certain issues but advocate culture warring on others.

What is going on? We are misreading signals, constantly. Online, we are sending and receiving signals, and when different tribes and fault lines form, it’s easy to assume the signals indicate a person is either on this side or that side, when, in reality, there’s a spectrum.

1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s 

Earlier this year, Kevin DeYoung offered a taxonomy of different responses to controversies about race, gender, and politics. He used titles and descriptions as graciously as possible, so that people would be able to see themselves in these groups.

  • 1s believe the church’s biggest problem is complicity in past and present evils, and the world’s great need is for the church to make up for and overcome our blindness to injustice.
  • 2s believe the church should lament with those hurting and grieving in the world, to listen and learn and chart a better future of demonstrating the love of Christ.
  • 3s believe the moral confusion of our time requires us to pay attention to our language, to draw from our theological inheritance so we can meet today’s challenges faithfully.
  • 4s believe the church has capitulated to the spirit of the age, and the proper response is the trumpet blast of truth, no matter how unpopular.

1s and 2s may have a lot in common, but 2s may be uncomfortable with the direction and decisions of some of the 1s, who appear to be departing from the historic Christian faith. 3s and 4s may have a lot in common, but 3s may worry that the posture of the 4s leads to an isolationist “faithful few” mentality that unnecessarily separates brothers from others who share the same core convictions but not the same prescription for improvement.

1s without the ballast of 2s and 3s drift toward the left into liberalism. 4s without the ballast of 3s and 2s drift toward the right into fundamentalism.

Online Escalation

The problem online is that 1s and 4s are often the most vocal. When they debate and argue, they tend to escalate each other, pushing their groups farther and farther apart. 1s become more extreme, and so do 4s. They feed off each other.

All the online incentives lead to increasing polarization. Chris Bail’s work explains why this happens in the sphere of politics:

Political extremists are pushed and pulled toward increasingly radical positions by the likes, new follows, and other types of engagement they receive for doing so—or because they fear retribution for showing any sympathy toward the mainstream. . . . The social media prism makes people from the opposing party seem more extreme than they really are. . . . Just as the prism normalizes extremism on one’s own side, it also thus exaggerates the extremism of the other side. (66–67)

Over time, 1s and 4s become so shocked at what they assume to be representative of the “other side” that they give up on trying to convince others of their view. Instead, their online sparring can become more about status signaling and bonding than persuading others.

This explains why, strangely enough, those who are adjacent to a certain perspective often come in for the biggest criticism. Bail calls it a “purification ritual”—attacking those on the periphery of their own side. For example, 4s get angrier at 3s who still partner with 2s than they do 1s, who they’ve already written off. The same is true of 1s, who are shocked when 2s don’t disassociate from 3s or don’t go along with every proposal for fighting injustice in the way 1s demand.

What happens next? 2s and 3s often go quiet. Those on the extreme side of 1s and 4s grow louder and louder, escalating the polarization. Research shows that false polarization takes place because those on the ends post far more often than those in the middle (76).

I say “false polarization” because many church leaders drastically overestimate the difference between their views and someone “on the other side,” and they are also likely to underestimate the diversity of opinion within their own camp. Most church leaders you talk to—really talk to, not just watch online—are on that spectrum, fitting that 2–3 category. But because they’re quieter, the church leaders who are 2s and 3s, even if they’re the majority, don’t realize how many other pastors line up with them.

Multidirectional Sensibility

To be in that 2–3 space doesn’t make you a moderate, as if there’s virtue in being “middle of the road.” Moderates look to find the middle or believe a third way must exist between opposite views. They desire to avoid ditches on one side or the other and so look for something middle of the road.

Chris Bail uses “moderate” as a distinguishing term from “extremist,” and that works, so far as it goes. But in the church world, moderate connotes a lack of conviction, a squishiness that doesn’t resemble the forthright proclamations of the apostles.

That’s why multidirectional is my preference. The goal is not for 2s and 3s to find a perfect balance of competing interests and beliefs. Instead, pastors must pursue a manner of leadership grounded in the un­shakable conviction that all the truth revealed in Scripture must be de­ployed for the good of God’s people. It’s not about finding the middle between extremes, but about holding fiercely to both extremes, insofar as we see them in Scripture. It’s important to be aware of our leanings and inclinations and the role of our background in our judgments and assessments.

The need of the hour is faithful, convictional pastors who, when surveying the evangelical landscape, can resist the distorting prism of social media that makes us think every issue and every debate is “all or nothing.” Push back against the impulse to find or create your identity online, or to find your worth in the “group” you belong to. Cultivate the desire to remain faithful to Scripture, look for ways to align with others who submit to the authority of God’s Word, even if some of their conclusions differ from yours. Because, as we’ve seen, you may not be as far from other Christians as you think.

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