Recently I was having a conversation with a dear friend who preaches for a church about the tension between centering on the message of the Gospel, the life of the church, and the craziness and insanity that seems to dominate our existential anxiety and frustration with everyone who doesn't think exactly like us. This person specifically (and insightfully asked): "How do you decide between focusing on the Gospel and letting Donald Trump define the lectionary?" The question wasn't really about Donald Trump (though that's another conversation entirely and for another time), but about the difficulty of forming a faithful witness as a community of faith and addressing (or not addressing) the "pressing issues" of the moment. This is a real tension, and one that lacks an easy answer.
This is more difficult than it seems for a number of reasons:
- The task of leading a congregation as a pastor/teacher involves communicating with and seeking to (positively) form people across a wide diversity of experiences, perspectives, and opinions. (Even within churches at the far ends of the spectrum, fundamentalist and extremely progressive, this is the case.) While there may be areas in which there is significant theological agreement or resonance, when it steps into the contemporary issues facing the culture(s) in which the church lives, it is most likely another story altogether.
- It is emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually exhausting to go around preaching from one dumpster fire to another. This doesn't mean that it isn't important, and that those who preach should simply beg off in the name of "self-care" or a more utilitarian desire to avoid conflict. But I think most people who preach regularly would tell you (if they felt like they could) that this kind of response to the culture wars of the moment is not only exhausting, but it doesn't form healthy Christian communities.
- If you serve in a church that is predominantly white and middle class, many of the hot-button issues of the day are not hot-button in your communities. While there are certainly issues affecting these kinds of communities, they often aren't the ones that tend to bring out all the venom and alienation that comes from real problems facing communities of color, LGBTQ+ persons, and those of different social, economic, or immigration statuses.
So what are those who are called to preach and to lead churches to do?
Here I want to make two important distinctions before I offer what I think is an initial solution...
First, I think that it is important to recognize that there is a difference between the church's ethic (this is right or wrong, or to put it another way, in keeping with or in opposition to the implications of the Gospel), and the church's practices. Here is what I mean by this: The Christian ethic is relatively universal (e.g., The Greatest Commands), but the church's actual, concrete practices are as diverse, particular, and evolving as we could possibly imagine. Christian practices of the Christian ethic in the Philippines look fundamentally different than they do here on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Concrete practices of love and generosity, while driven by the same ethic, are distinct in Flint, Michigan (where you couldn't baptize someone in the water) and the wealthy suburbs of Phoenix (where everyone has a pool and one of the nation's highest rates of domestic violence homicides).
Second, I think it is important to say that perhaps we have simply made things entirely too complicated. (Yes, I said it.) It seems to me (and this has been my experience in trying to have thoughtful conversations about a whole host of contemporary cultural and world issues), that too often we are simply unable to ask the most direct and meaningful questions that would enable us to get to the root(s) of an issue instead of simply talking past one another. (Again, another issue for another essay.)
So here is what I am proposing as an (initial) answer:
The ethic of the church should be clear, concise, and explicit. The resulting practices of the church should be thoughtful, engaging first the voices of the marginalized and the non-ecclesial expert, and should reflect the complexity of the issue(s) to which they are responding.
Now that sounds really nice (and it does), but this seems vague and smacks of a church-growth kind of "plug and play" solution that can simply be franchised into a never-ending stream of products to be sold. But I think it is quite the opposite.
First, this idea virtually eliminates the call for or expectation of universal specific practices. More concretely this means that while all churches should embody the Christian ethic, the specific ways in which this is done in their respective contexts has a degree of fluidity, variety, and value that is unique to their (social, economic, geographic, and cultural) location(s).
Second, this not only brings voices that have too often been excluded (the marginalized and the non-ecclesial expert) to the table, but it gives them the first turn to speak to the community. Here's why I think this is important: (1) It is so easy for issues to be convoluted from poor sources, (literal) fake news, and issues related to bias. This tendency is lessened (as much as possible) by bringing in individuals and organizations who can speak to these issues and conversations with some actual expertise. (2) In order to prevent this from merely becoming an intellectual exercise, or to prevent the ecclesial community from acquiring its own Messiah-complex, it is also important to center the voices of those who are caught, trapped, or crushed under the issue(s) at hand. This is meaningful because they most likely have not had a voice in the ecclesial community, and they certainly haven't had one in the larger context. The church can learn more clearly and directly how its commitments to the embodiment of the Gospel might emerge by listening to these two voices which often find themselves "locked out" of the positions of influence and discernment in our churches.
So what might this "clear, concise, and explicit" Christian ethic look like?
The following list is my initial suggestions about what this might be. I will frame these two ways: (1) As a proclamation, and (2) As a question or series of questions. These serve as the boundaries of our reflection when we are confronted with issues both internal to the church and outside of it. (And as we find if we look close enough, those issues are always connected.)
A clear, concise, and explicit Christian ethic for disorienting, overwhelming, and ambiguous times:
If it is harmful, we seek to disempower it.
Does this cause harm?
If this denies the dignity of a human being, we seek to restore it.
Does this denigrate someone?
If this comes from a motive other than love, we seek to reorient it.
Is this loving?
If this excludes or alienates others, we seek to reconcile it.
Is anyone being left out or pushed out?
These claims can be held up against and questions asked about any of the contemporary issues that church leaders feel pressure to avoid or address within their communities both ecclesial and otherwise. And while these questions are simple and concise, it is the responses that are complex and difficult. And that's ok. Churches that live in the real world (instead of holding on for the next one) will find that their decisions are no more complex than real, everyday life for people in their communities. This also enables the church to face these issues with a healthy dose of humility, transparency, and willingness to both confess and repent when they have messed up.
So go ahead, pick an issue, ask these questions, and then get to work embodying this ethic in your ecclesial community. I think you just might find that instead of the culture leading the church that the possibility for the Gospel to speak clearly and powerfully just might emerge.