In recent columns, we’ve looked at the political polarization prevalent these days. We’ve observed the causes of our societal fragmentation, and we’ve seen how too often the church has fallen prey to similar divisions that leads to a manner of debate that mirrors the world instead of resists it.
Can we do better? How can the church respond to these cultural developments? Fragmentation and polarization present distinct challenges for the church in fulfilling its calling, but with these challenges come opportunities as well. What are the opportunities for the church to stand out in this fractured world?
Transcendent Reference Point
The starting place must be the gospel, because the good news of the reign of a crucified and risen King is an announcement that transcends all the political talking points of the current moment. It is cosmic truth with personal and societal implications. It wrests away the spotlight from our individual pursuits and turns our attention to the only One worthy enough to sustain it.
Because of the gospel the church has within its DNA the calling and the ability to bring people together around something other than the pursuit of personal fulfillment. As we’ve seen, expressive individualism often leads to polarization, because it imagines the individual at the center of all things and then recasts relationships and communities in terms how they either help or hinder one’s own pursuit of self-fulfillment. The church, by exalting something (or Someone) greater than the individual as the organizing center of life, stands out in this kind of world. The gospel rescues us from the exhausting exploration of the caverns in our hearts and frees us from the dictatorship of our feelings and emotions by setting before us a vision of something glorious, something transcendent—powerful in its effect on the self precisely because it is not centered upon the self.
The gospel that lifts high the name of Jesus transcends the personal goals we seek for ourselves and makes it possible for people to come together into one community—a community that transcends political affiliations, racial and ethnic distinctions, generational preferences, and class divisions.
No other institution has the opportunity the church has. Even non-Christians see the potential here. In Habits of the Heart, the team of sociologists (most of whom are secular) saw the church as unique in its ability to reach people from different classes:
When we consider how to renew the cultural capacity for community and solidarity in each of the three classes into which our society is divided, it would be well to remember something we have already mentioned: that in American society religious associations have the strongest hold on their members and almost alone have the capacity to reach individuals in every class.
If non-Christians see that the church is primed and ready to reach across class divisions, then why shouldn’t we? I realize that churches often cater to class sensibilities, sometimes intentionally, but often unwittingly. We are often less aware of class distinctions than we are of racial discrimination (and that’s saying something!), so we have much work to do here. But why not start? Why shouldn’t pastors and church leaders see themselves as missionaries to a fragmented culture and understand that at least part of our challenge is to bring people together who, in the natural sense, would never fit in the same place? This means the church can and should transcend political alliances (which are often more class-based than we realize) by bringing people with a common faith together around the table of the Lord.
Flesh and Blood Community
We are not powerless before the mavens of social media or the talking heads on the cable news shows. We may look at Washington, D.C. and (understandably) be cynical at the dishonesty and deception of so many political figures, but we don’t have to look at our neighbors that way. We don’t have to see our communities that way.
The church has the opportunity to show the world that there is something more important than politics, something more lasting than the social media fervor of the day. Flesh-and-blood people are more important than the celebrities that grace our screens. We look around our neighborhoods and see people made in the image of God. We look around our churches and see people who have been redeemed by the broken body and shed blood of our Savior. We are not anonymous avatars, but flesh-and-blood people bought by Jesus’s flesh and blood.
The church has the opportunity to show the world that there is something more important than politics, something more lasting than the social media fervor of the day.
When I speak about the local church community, I am not advocating for something like the Benedict Option (which I’ve written about here), although I do appreciate some of the smaller-culture-building elements of that proposal. I am not advocating for cultural withdrawal or the dismissal of politics at the national level. I am simply encouraging pastors and church leaders to recognize the ways in which the church, as a mediating institution, can push against fragmentation by being salt and light in actual, living communities.
Don’t withdraw. Focus. Focus attention onto local communities. Turn off the news and talk to a neighbor. Don’t imagine the church as an abstract idea, but a concrete reality. Here we encounter people, actual people, who sit across from us in a worship service, who bump into us on the way to the bathroom, whom we call when someone is in the hospital, whom we celebrate life’s greatest moments with, whom we comfort during times of suffering and bereavement. Church can be the place for real-life connections with real-life people.
If your church doesn’t feel like a family, be part of the change in building that kind of community. You’re not called to love “the church” in general, but your sister in the faith who you see every week. You’re not called to love “all mankind,” but your actual neighbor as yourself. We have the opportunity to build and cherish a local church in all its glorious messiness, rather than pine for an idealistic picture of a community of faith that we silently judge because it doesn’t fulfill our needs as much as we like.
Deeper Unity, Greater Mission
We have the opportunity to show the world a community that is deeper than online chats or Facebook-friending or Instagram-liking. We can be one of the last places where people who are relentlessly committed to one another spend time together—physical time in physical space—with people on the other side of a contested issue.
What’s more, when we are gripped by the Great Commission given to us by our Lord, then our churches will not become an enclave of self-centered people who care only about their preferences. No, the exclusive vision of salvation in Jesus alone includes within it the beautiful image of people from every nation gathered before the throne of God. Our exclusive identity includes an inclusive impulse that should always put a check on our isolationist tendencies and propel us out into the world in the name of our good King. The missionary God of the gospel draws us in and sends us out.
So where does this leave us? It’s time to turn to some practical suggestions for pushing back against the fragmentation of our age. More on that to come . . .