I grew up in a small town in northwest Georgia. As a teenager, I went to church at a relatively large (for that area), conservative, Bapti-Costal Church where I was a faithful member. Though I am no longer in sync theologically with the church of my youth, I do treasure the way that this church formed me into the person I am today.
The two main tenets I still hold onto from my teenage years are this: one, Scripture matters; and two, truth is important. In today’s cultural context we find ourselves in a battle for truth. We are bombarded with partisan news sources, a crowd of loud, divisive voices screaming at us on social media, and conspiracy theories enticing us and our loved ones. We live in a world divided.
The church is not an exception when it comes to division. In fact, the more I read and experience, the more I am convinced that unless we turn the tide, we are quickly coming to a decision point. Can those who disagree still find ways to be sacred community together, or will we continue to segregate ourselves to theologically homogenous communities of faith?
If we are going to resist this growing cultural divide and choose to stick together, there are a couple of things that churches needs to consider:
1. No one holds the absolute truth. Spiritual formation matters.
Most of us acknowledge this to be true, but we do not always practice this in the way we live out our faith. Perhaps, if we could admit our “humanness,” we could accept that there is more to God than we could ever comprehend, more to truth than we could ever hold and more to the call of God than we could ever fathom. Understanding our humanness changes the starting point of our conversations with those with whom we disagree.
Humility might be the cornerstone of the church to come. For years many have chosen to speak with such certainty that the idea of questioning faith was an absurd ideal. Yet if we approach faith with a humble curiosity, seeking to learn rather than to defend, we present God with souls yearning, ready to be formed.
Christianity is about becoming more like Christ. If we are supposed to be on a journey to be more like Jesus, we have not arrived. We do not have all the answers. We do not own the truth. There are ways in which we need to continue to grow. If we approach faith in this way, we no longer look only for those we agree with. It is only when we are exposed to different perspectives and diverse ideas that we can grow. If we understand that God is bigger than we are, we can look for other ways of seeing God, hoping to find new ways to grow and mature in our faith.
2. Accountability really matters
We must admit that we live in a world where the truth is under attack. The rise of social media and YouTube has provided the perfect framework for those who want to divide us to easily find a foothold. Faceless people hiding behind creative profiles post untruth, as though it is true, shaping the narrative in ways that are divisive and destructive. We have seen this play out. When there is no meaningful underlying truth, people seek out the truth in other ways, often with violence.
We must hold each other accountable. That is easier done face to face. (In fact, I would dare to say that people wouldn’t say most of the things that they do if they were looking into the eyes of another human.) So, how do we call out those posting things that are not true or promoting conspiracy theories? My guess is it isn’t by barking back at them in the comment section. In my experience it is about a direct message, maybe even a phone call where we speak truth in love.
Accountability is a deeply spiritual practice. If you Google “accountability in discipleship” you will find a plethora of verses on the subject. Read the letters of Paul. In almost every letter, Paul urges church members to hold one another accountable.
Do we love our brother or sister in Christ enough to help them on their journey? At some point, we all need to be held accountable, right? Are we willing to risk relationship in search for truth? I know that most churches are scared to death that if we hold someone accountable, he or she will head to the church down the street. This mindset must change. While we rarely want people to leave, we cannot be held captive by members leaving the fold.
3. The best is yet to come!
This is not a “good attitudes will save everything” idea. This is a “God will help us navigate towards the future” idea.
Nostalgia is a powerful tool. Nostalgia has its advantages, but if we live in the past, we long for a time that was instead of looking forward to what God has for us next. Do we believe that God is done with the church? I truly believe God is doing something new and call us to rise from the ashes to live God’s calling in the world.
If we can agree that the best of the church is yet to come, if we can agree that God is not done with the church yet, then perhaps we can stop making decisions out of desperation. Desperate churches make desperate decisions. Hopeful churches make hopeful decisions. Which mentality will your church return with post-pandemic? Which road will you take?
Where do we go from here?
I don’t know about you, but through my life I have learned a lot from people who think differently from me. Though my theology has certainly not been thrown around by every gust of wind, it has been shaped and formed by deep conversations about different ways of viewing faith and the church.
During the last political season, I posted a blog online. It wasn’t overtly political but called for the church to rise above the political banter and to keep our eyes on what we are called to do. Two days after posting, I got a direct message from someone from the church I grew up in. That message merely said, “You wouldn’t be welcome at our church.”
While I know this isn’t the stance of everyone in that congregation, it was a stark reminder about how divided we are. I long for a church comprised of people who really love one another and look out for the best of everyone in our community and in the world around us. In a world that wants to divide us all, can we choose to move forward together.
I have the luxury of working with different churches and lots of different young ministers. These young people inspire me with the depth of their faith and their vision for the church. Let me be clear: these students do not want the status quo. These students want the church to be a place that speaks directly to things going on in people’s world. They want a faithful, yet brave church. The students care less about theological uniformity than they do about being faithful advocates of God in a world in need. These students are one of many things that give me hope for the church to come.
This really is a choice. We can choose to sit down and talk with one another. We can choose to learn to live in the tension. We can learn to have hard discussions (holding one another accountable) while speaking the truth in love. This certainly takes work. But we can do hard things.
In the midst of tension and disagreement, the most human thing to do is walk away. But as we emerge from this pandemic (hopefully soon), and as we begin to see each other again face to face, how can we stand in tension and choose to stay?