“We don’t preach politics here.”
This word, from our pastors, is what we want to hear on Sunday. We don’t want our weekly gatherings to be a political party rally. We don’t want our small groups to sound like a panel on Meet the Press. We don’t want every conversation in the church foyer to center on delegate counts, swing districts and multi-colored maps of the U.S.
When we come to church, we want to worship the King of kings, we want to feast on food from the Word of God, and we want join in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But, I wonder if we have failed to equip ourselves to engage the world because of our desire to keep church apolitical in order to avoid the kind of patriotic syncretism of a previous generation.
Piety Without Purpose
Thankfully, there is a discipleship revolution in evangelicalism. It’s what our leaders—pastors, denominational voices, scholars—are emphasizing in books, conferences and curriculum. But still, it seems models of spiritual formation only involve the essential acts of piety—Bible reading, prayer, evangelism, personal integrity and human relationship—with little or no teaching on how to engage cultural issues. Where are the resources to help the follower of Christ understand how to steward his earthly citizenship well?
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This might explain why the definition of “evangelical” is undergoing more stress than perhaps any time in the history of the movement. On the one hand, the shift in marriage norms have left many evangelicals flat-footed, either agreeing with but unable to articulate a biblical view of marriage, or capitulating to the culture with hackneyed exegesis of Scripture. On the other hand, the rise of secular nationalism and Darwinian populism has captured the support of some evangelicals flocking to leaders who make hollow promises to restore American greatness.
There are myriad reasons for this confusion. But, perhaps the biggest reason many evangelicals seem unable to do cultural engagement well is a resistance on the part of pastors and church leaders to fully equip their people to live on mission for Christ in this world. Have we failed to give our people the theological tools to think deeply about pressing public issues?
Pastors are called as shepherds, obeying Jesus’ commandment to “teach them all I’ve commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). God’s people can’t rightly love their neighbors, can’t seek human flourishing and can’t pursue justice if they don’t have a biblical framework with which to understand their world. Thabiti Anyabwile says it well: “Preaching ‘something political’ is necessary if we are to live under Christ’s lordship in every area of life. Not doing so means secular news outlets … disciple us instead. I fear that’s been the case far too long and to disastrous effect for the church and the country.”
By not “doing politics” many are actually doing politics, offering subtle affirmation, by their silence, to the culture’s reigning orthodoxies. In other words, you can’t escape the culture wars, even if you tried.
Many pastors might read this and chafe at the idea of even approaching issues that might divide. They recoil at the tactics of a previous generation that seemed too closely aligned with a political party. But there is a way to help the church engage cultural issues like marriage, race, immigration, poverty and abortion from a gospel-centered perspective without offering up God and country nationalism.
If we believe Christ is Lord over all, we need to not only teach people to engage the spiritual disciplines like Bible-reading, prayer and evangelism, we need to teach them how to engage the world outside their prayer closets.
When pastors fail to equip their people to think biblically about issues, they cede authority to the high priests of culture: the talk show hosts, cable news hosts and online opinion-makers. People will go somewhere to have their consciences formed. Why isn’t the church their first choice?
By refusing to cover difficult cultural topics, as they come up in the preaching, through teaching forums, small group curriculum and by resourcing through discipleship, church leaders communicate a subtle dualism, that the gospel relates only to Sunday worship and spiritual disciplines and has no effect on Monday’s voting, citizenship and opinion-making.
Our discipleship models, curriculums and systems need to include both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, piety and practice, personal integrity and public engagement. We don’t need pastors to become party apparatchiks and church lobbies to be campaign offices. What we do need is to recover on Sunday, and in other formats, the opportunity for believers to be equipped to steward their citizenship well and engage their world with the gospel. Where else, beside the blood-bought community of faith, would we want God’s people to go to understand how the gospel applies to their world?
After all, the gospel of the kingdom is not some tidy piety, reserved for Hallmark cards and Christian calendars. It is an inherently political statement. When Jesus declared himself to be King, he was saying to his people and to the world that the man in Rome was not the ultimate sovereign of the world, that the powers that be rule at the discretion of God and that his new people are signposts to the kingdom to come.
What does this look like?
So the obvious questions for many pastors is this: What does this look like in the context of a local church? How can a pastor equip his people to address cultural issues with a biblical perspective? Every pastor knows his church best, but here are a few thoughts:
1. Lay gospel foundations. Your best work is in consistently preaching and teaching the Scriptures from a Christ-centered perspective. Teach faithfully through books of the Bible and give your people a steady diet of preaching over a long period of time.
2. Don’t skip hard issues. When cultural issues arise from the text (and they will), don’t skip over them because they may offend the sensibilities of your people. Declare what God has said, and let the Spirit work in the hearts of your people.
3. Make specific, real-world application. Always be thinking of how the truth in the passage will not only confirm what your people already profess to believe, but ways in which the gospel might convict and probe and change thinking that has been formed by cultural trends.
4. Find creative ways to inform in forums other than Sunday morning. When I pastored, I did a Sunday evening series of talks on key cultural issues. I’ve seen other pastors do this as well. Perhaps you might bring in an expert and engage in some question-and-answer time.
5. Promote good resources from organizations that have a biblical worldview. Always be suggesting good books, small group resources and other gospel-centered resources that can help more closely align thinking with the Bible. Be careful here, though, to be a good curator and ensure the content is actually gospel-centered. Do this both in one-on-one conversations and other public opportunities.
6. Stay equipped as a leader. You can’t be an expert on every cultural issue. But you can, by intentional reading and study, be knowledgeable on certain pressing issues. Use trusted resources, attend relevant conferences, listen to podcasts and read books to study up. The job of a pastor is to shepherd and a shepherd must be skilled at caring for and feeding his flock.
How churches shepherd their people through cultural conflicts will differ, depending on context and church culture. What is important, however, is that leaders not abandon this important part of their calling. We must love our people enough to intentionally equip them to live on mission for Christ in this world.
*Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on erlc.com and is used with permission from the author.
Daniel Darling is the Vice-President of Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, First Things, Relevant, Christianity Today and others. He is the author of several books, including his latest, The Original Jesus.