For three years, I worked in public policy and gained first-hand experience to the growing polarization that exists in our nation. I went into it, perhaps, with a bit of naive hopefulness believing that everyone would work for the same common principles, especially since we were an issue-oriented group. What I often saw was how some were more interested in defeating the “other side” than about promoting the cause or working towards a consensus.
That experience led me to make one of the most common statements I share about my time before going into ministry: I give thanks to God I had some political experience, because it has helped to find my way through church issues.
It is sad for me to admit that being in politics, even as a staff writer for a higher education policy group, was one of the best training grounds for ministry, because it gave me on-the-field perspective regarding the polarization that exists in the church today. The church, especially my own United Methodist Church, is suffering in the United States because we often reflect of the same political polarization that has crippled Washington, D.C., and state houses across the nation for a generation. We are more interested in winning political arguments than we are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Our politics is what guides us and it is what leads us to ridiculing anyone who thinks differently than we do. Just as our national conversations often lead to divisions along “red state” and “blue state,” our theological and political conversations within the church are more attuned to the same divisions of being a “progressive church” and “conservative church.”
As what often happens in Washington, D.C., it is the extreme on both sides of the theological aisle that is leading us further and further apart from one another. It is the leadership of those who articulate for only a theological and politically pure form of Christianity that looks as much like their own political thought that is dividing the church and has led to infighting amongst brothers and sisters in Christ for generations. The loudest voices often blame the “other side” for not sharing the love of Christ or living according to a true witness to Jesus. It is only “their side” that is promoting true Christianity.
The protectionism that comes out in these arguments carries with it a cost. One of the biggest consequences is that there is a lack of trust within the church today, especially among leaders and pastors, than at any other point in my memory. We can see that played out in the distrust some have with the Commission on a Way Forward – a called committed to look at the future of the United Methodist Church – and the recent Judicial Council decision that said the election of a homosexual bishop in the Western Jurisdiction in the United States was against church law. When church members refuse to see the best in one another it is hard to live into the decisions that the church makes together.
It also comes in the cost of our mission. Is it any wonder that as the church becomes a religious expression of what we often see on cable television that our influence in the local community has diminished? Many will claim this is because the church is not welcoming enough or we are not holy enough, but let’s also admit that if we are unwilling to live truthfully, humbly, and gracefully with one another we will have a hard time trying to convince a new family why they should be a part of our church. Younger families want nothing to do with the conflicts that plague our church, because they get enough of these conflicts at work and in the political climate of today.
The church must find a better way forward to the serious and difficult issues we face. We cannot continue down this path of church politics that is often about winners and losers. To continue down this way will only enhance the issues we face as a denomination and a movement.
What is needed are holy conversations and the acceptance that we are all in this together, striving to be a better witness of Christ today than we were yesterday. If we can hold a basic desire to work with one another on what we hold in common and allow our commonality guide our conversations about our differences then and only then will we come to some consensus about the issues before us.
Though before any of that can happen we have to stop the yelling in the church. It is hard to have a conversation with someone if we are yelling at them and not talking with them. We have to stop being the church that looks like a religious political expression and more like the church of Jesus Christ.