“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
--Matthew 10:34 NRSV
“There are churches who want to avoid conversation about race, money, politics, gender roles AND want more young people to join them. People under age 40 will write them off as irrelevant and afraid right quick. Just sayin.”
I read the above tweet from Mark Tidsworth, a Baptist minister and church consultant, and I stopped dead in my scrolling on my iPhone. He expressed something I knew in my gut but had not articulated—church growth is intertwined with social justice. A big part of the reason churches cannot attract younger people is because churches have shied away from addressing the tough issues facing our culture. If churches do so at all, it comes from the Religious Right which preaches a Gospel of exclusion and justifies an unjust status quo. Most churches are conspicuously quiet about the issues many young people care the most about.
Younger generations who have grown up having the injustices of racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality and more thrust in their faces via their smart phones look at churches and see them at best as irrelevant and at worst part of the problem.
There are good reasons why churches have avoided talking about tough issues facing our society. The Religious Right’s hyper partisanship demonstrates the danger of confusing Christianity with worship of Caesar. Also, discussions of social justice often devolve into deadlocked arguments where people retreat to their preexisting partisan positions. (MSNBC viewers on this side and Fox viewers on the other side.) Certainly, we need spaces where we can set aside the polarization of our culture and share our common humanity and need for God.
Yet, there are bad reasons for avoiding tough topics in churches. Churches often ignore the difficult issues facing society out of a misguided attempt to avoid conflict. Yet, even a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that everywhere believers went conflict followed them. The “peace that passes understanding” does not mean the absence of conflict. Churches also avoid dealing with issues of social justice out of a desire to be “nice” lest anyone feel uncomfortable, yet the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t seem to care at all about people’s comfort and he certainly isn’t concerned with being considered “nice.” He knew he was asking his followers to accept lives of discomfort, being misunderstood and condemned. That’s why he spoke about them facing persecution from authorities, neighbors and even their own families. When Jesus says the difficult words, “I have not to bring peace but a sword” and “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother” he was talking about believers having to risk even their most important relationships on behalf of a radical love for every person. Many American churches seem more concerned about what the neighbors think of them than what God thinks of them.
A refusal to touch on political topics flies in the face of the Gospel. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, teachings and miracles are all political. To proclaim the Kingdom of God in a land occupied by Rome was to denounce the divinity and rule of Caesar. To speak of God incarnate in “the least of these” is to speak not of private charity but a world-changing ethic. To ignore the political dimensions of the Gospel is to remake the Gospel into a sentimentalized individual religion that costs the believer nothing.
Sometimes Christians care more about their political party than they care about the Gospel’s demands for justice. One can be political for the sake of the Gospel without falling into the trap of being partisan. All political parties would gladly claim your soul, but Christians are called to wade into the difficult waters of politics with their allegiance firmly given to Christ and his love for all people which must always be put above the demands of party, family or interest group. A good way to judge whether you’re following the Gospel or your own political preference is to ask how does a particular platform, policy or law affect people with the least political power? If you are wondering “what would Jesus do?”, a good rule of thumb is to side with people whom society considers “the least of these.” According to Jesus, that is where you will find him.
United Church of Christ minister Tony Robinson shares a story originally told by the South African anti-apartheid activist Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak:
Two men appeared at heaven's gate and were ushered into St. Peter's presence. One of the men looked just terrific. Tan, fit, a nice head of hair, clean nails, great suit and shoes. Except for the fact that he was dead he could have been in GQ. He smiled confidently at Peter. The other man limped into St. Peter's presence. He had a welt on the back of his head. His clothes looked worn (and not because he had purchased the "distressed" model). His teeth were imperfect and there was dirt beneath his nails. The look on his face suggested he thought he was in the wrong place.
St. Peter assayed the two people before him. He then turned to the first and asked, "Where are your wounds? Was there nothing down there worth fighting for?"
So many churches have died, are dying and will die without having any wounds to show for their existence. Along with St. Peter, younger generations are asking, “Is there nothing you found worth fighting for?”
Thanks to technology and social media which put the video, images and accounts of people facing injustice everywhere in our world right in the palm of our hand, we can no longer hide from the pain of our fellow humans. The days of retreating to a nice suburb where one could avoid the social struggles of our culture are over. We can no longer claim we didn’t know people faced oppression and abuse because of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation or economic class. Their stories find us in the places we created to escape from them.
One of the last places remaining where one can stick one’s head in the sand is in American churches, but that won’t last much longer. Younger generations see the church as either irrelevant to their efforts to improve the world or as part of the problem that needs to be changed. If a church wishes to survive or better yet thrive as it lives out the Gospel of Jesus Christ it must do the difficult work of finding ways to discuss and address the injustices of our day without succumbing to the false idols of partisan politics. Our partisanship must be with Jesus who sided with the poor, the outcast, the condemned and the broken hearted.
Grace and Peace,
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