As we enter the last quarter of 2020, it is hard to take in all that this year has brought our way. We’ve had a global pandemic, economic challenges, history’s largest mass protest for racial justice, and incredible polarization across political and ethnic lines. For pastors, ministry has included ministering to members with job loss, sickness, and relational tensions. Pastors are also ministering to people who are immersed in a 24/7 newscycle and social media feeds. Some church members are immersed in blogs written by other pastors telling them to listen for certain words that could “signal” their pastor is on a dangerous journey toward a false gospel. Evangelicalism is being drowned out by a mixture of fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism as national voices alert church members that their pastoral leadership should no longer be trusted if it is addressing issues of race, systemic injustice, and social ills.
That is not all that is happening within congregations. Secularism is producing strong currents of individualism and consumerism. Fundamentalism can take a different shape in progressive space: a narrowing tolerance for those who don’t share political or cultural values makes it nearly impossible to find common ground in the midst of difference. There is little willingness to work through tensions that surface in the context of community. It’s not uncommon for pastors to be approached by church members who are full of judgment for those with divergent opinions.
And yet, there is a third group. One that is suspicious of the extremes on either side. While they may reject ugly partisanship, there is another trap they can fall into. They can fancy themselves “moderates” and build identities around centerism imagining themselves abstractly floating above it all. Over time they can become cynical, apathetic, oblivious to the pain their neighbors are experiencing. These “moderates” can deny or minimize the suffering of others supporting injustice by maintaining the status quo with their silence or relational isolation from those suffering.
With all these groups represented in the body of Christ right now, how do pastors serve their church through this polarization? How do we listen to the Spirit’s call to do justice? How do we spur members to steward their resources to seek repair where injustice distorts and erodes? How do we ensure our congregations remain committed to the long path of racial reconciliation? I would like to propose three things to consider as you pastor through polarization.
First, the pastoral vocation has not fully prepared you for this season.
While this year brings an entirely new level of difficulty, 2020 has exposed challenges that have existed for a long time in the pastoral vocation. This season needs pastors who have the spiritual depth to sit in complex tension with no easy answers, practice discernment, seek God’s wisdom, and courageously respond in an anxious and dark season.
I’ve now sat with hundreds of pastors one on one and listened to their ministry struggles. There are consistent challenges pastors battle that make pastoring through polarization nearly impossible if they’re not addressed. The major models of the American church attracts and motivates pastors who really want to make a difference for Jesus by doing something really important for God. This is not inherently a bad thing. Children want to please their parents. We too want to do beautiful things for and with God. The problem comes when this desire gets intermingled with a leader’s identity. When this happens, one consequence is that pain becomes unbearable. This is a challenge for those of us who are called to shepherd complex people through disorienting and confusing times for the foreseeable future.
The pastoral vocation can reward those who like platform, authority, power, significance, control, and the approval of others. The problem is not that pastors desire these things. Every human does. The problem is a lack of spiritual attentiveness and self awareness that makes it difficult for leaders to notice how much these desires shape their identity and drive them. Spiritual depth allows leaders to resist shrinking back from these desires, ashamed that they exist or indulging them through their vocation or other addictions. Depth with God allows leaders to see their shadows, understand their wounds, and become comfortable with their unsatisfied longings. Pastoring through polarization means leaders will need a depth of spirituality and authentic community that is able to examine:
- Ego: Pride kills. It’s rampant in pastoral ministry. It can look like severe shame dependent on the affirmation of others or narcissistic dismissal of any who challenge you. Ego is a barrier to greater intimacy with God and others and you can’t will it away. The Spirit desires to expose and gently strip away new layers of your ego while forming your identity in Christ as a beloved child of God. It’s a painful process and yet a grace from God. Create space for the Lord to do the deep, slow work of exposing layer after layer. Meditate on scripture, practice prolonged silence, open yourself up vulnerably to trusted friends or a counselor. This is a lifelong process, yet years like 2020 allow for some extra heat to burn many layers away at once.
- Independence: Pastoring through polarization will require great inter-dependence, authentic friendship, and complex collaboration with other leaders both within your church and within your city. Polarization can create a lot of busy work for pastors. These times can be so distracting that little time is spent investing in the leaders who can encourage and nurture the maturing disciples within your church ready to risk many things to follow Jesus and make disciples. Busy pastors have little time to learn how to lead through a team. The season ahead requires a team of diversely gifted men and women committed to empower God’s people to be a faithful witness to Jesus. The church needs far more than pastors and elders; it needs every member of the body developed and activated to build and nurture reconciling communities.
- Ungodly fear: This is rampant in the nation and in our church and it distorts reality. We have fears of a slippery slope. Fears of losing too many church members. Fears of saying the wrong thing, being perceived wrongly, or offending people. Fears of moving toward our enemies. Fears of financial consequences. Fear can mass-produce converts to fundamentalism, but it cannot make radical disciples of Jesus. Fear is destroying the holy imagination of conservatives and progressives. It leads to judgmentalism, blindness and mischaracterization of those you disagree with. Be quick to notice, confess and repent of it.
- Needs and desires: Leading through these times will require being able to remain in extraordinary tension, increase your pain tolerance, let go of offense, be honest about the wounds that will come, and get in touch with your deeper longings. The most dangerous leaders are those unaware of their desires. Pastoring through polarization can feel like a lonely road, but the truth is you aren’t alone. Countless leaders across the nation are also walking this path. And even in the spaces where we truly are alone, the voice of Jesus whispers in these dark places calling us to experience our union with him in deeper ways. This is not some cheap Christian platitude. It’s excruciating to hold severe loneliness, rejection or relational loss and yet these are the places of loud invitation to greater depth with God, self and others.
Second, the worst may be yet to come.
November and the months that follow will likely increase the anger, fear, violence, and polarization happening within our nation. Wise pastors and church leaders would serve their congregations well by doing the following:
- Map it out. Ask yourself: what is another wave of polarization going to do to my congregation? Who will be most affected in the season to come? Most exhausted or discouraged? Most fearful? Most tempted to be divisive? Write their names down. Pray for them. Discuss with your leadership. Help your leaders identify now how the coming months may impact your congregation. Are there specific people that need intentional pastoring to foster fruit of the Spirit? Are there people who seem at odds with one another? Do you have adequate space on your calendar to provide pastoral care and sound teaching? Try to move from reacting to your church members to being proactive.
- Prepare your people. Keep communicating God’s heart to your people. He longs for his children to stay at the table, love one another and love their neighbors. Move away from overly nuanced language and find concrete words and images to help your church members understand what is happening. Help them articulate the various emotions polarization brings up for them. Tell them this will continue into 2021 and beyond. Ask them to take initiative to gather with those different from them in the church to pray. Help them learn to avoid swallowing the ideology of the left and the right, but give them permission to affirm the good intentions of both. Encourage them to not disconnect in some abstract middle, but to stick close to Jesus and grow in a radical love of neighbor, the marginalized, and their enemies. Keep talking about racial justice, systemic racism, and the individual ways we divide from each other. Keep giving vision for what the world could look like if Jesus followers learned to nurture reconciling communities. Tell them that if we are to endure and mature in this season, it will take growing in humility, providing hospitality, doing justice, participating in peacemaking, forgiveness, and setting aside time together to lament. These are the practices that make the truth of the gospel and the hope of the resurrection alive and real and this is what will pass on an authentic faith in Jesus to our neighbors and generations that follow.
- Name the appropriate enemy. One of the challenges right now is a misplaced understanding of who is the enemy. In seasons filled with confusion and distraction it is helpful to remind people who is not and who is their enemy and what kind of behaviors participate with the enemy, behaviors such as: dissension, factions, fits of rage, discord, hatred, and idolatry (Galatians 5:19-21). Ephesians 6:12 is clear: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The evil one loves to distort truth and take the good of creation and demand we become idol worshippers. Idols such as individualism and consumerism benefit from systems that oppress, dehumanize, and marginalize others. We are called to resist these forces often at great cost. Incorporate specific examples into your teaching and train church members to love their enemies.
- Accept it. 2020 has been disruptive for the entire nation, but this division began six or seven years ago for leaders of color within the American church. Many leading in multi-ethnic spaces began awakening to serious barriers to help Christians of different ethnicities participate in the work of reconciliation. Churches in urban contexts that have any measure of diversity have seen this disruption impact the life of their church and there’s much to learn from them. There are centuries of history that came before us in which the American church segregated and participated in acts of violence and perpetuated injustice in our systems and structures. The wounds are deep and old. As polarization continues, church members will likely leave your church in the months and years to come. Help leaders name the losses as they come. Remain tender to God’s people. Guard against self-righteousness and bitterness. Forgive each other. The Lord is pruning his church— don’t resist it.
Lastly, polarization isn’t always a bad thing.
Polarization isn’t always a bad thing. It can reveal how tribal we have become and shine light on the narrow path that Jesus offers those who dare to follow. The community Jesus created included the hated tax collectors, Roman oppressors, political zealots, Pharisees, rabbis, those deemed unclean from diseases, fishermen, some wealthy, a lot of poor, women, Samaritans, tradesmen (like carpenters) and on and on. Many “identities” were represented at Jesus’ table. He lived in hostile times and there were passionate disagreements around how to live within the oppressive Roman empire.
These identities did not belong to each disciple as an individual, but often the disciples inhabited them because they were family identities. Vocations, class, and political leanings were often passed down through family lineages. A decision to leave everything and follow Jesus could be seen as a rejection of a father, mother, brother, sister. Even more so, to build community and identity around a table that included the “others” threatened the identity and place of belonging you had with your own family. These “others” you were building relationships with were likely those your family spent a lifetime distant from, judging, perhaps seeking to defeat.
When Jesus says, “love me more than your mother and father” in Matthew 10, he is asking for something incredibly sacrificial—not simply a preference for Jesus over family, but identifying with the kinds of “other” people that brought shame and even distance to your family. To a culture that deeply valued honoring your family, this was more costly then we can imagine.
“Whoever loses your life for my sake will find it” Jesus says. Whoever loses their tribal identity because of Jesus in order to live within his radical reconciling community will find life within the beloved saints. Jesus’ disciples would live within this tension right up until Jesus’ death when their own family, their own “tribes” surrounded their Lord and yelled “crucify.” Imagine your own family, childhood friends, and college roommates surrounding the tortured and dying body of the man you’d spent years giving everything to, shouting “kill him.”
When Jesus resurrected from the dead, the disciples needed the breath of Christ on their face to empower their forgiveness (John 20:21) – forgiveness of themselves, the oppressive Roman rulers and their very own families who cheered on while Jesus was brutalized. This forgiveness was necessary if they were to become a new tribe that would go into the many existing tribes and call them into a new humanity, one in which Christ is the head and all dividing walls of hostility are brought down.
This new humanity affirms, subverts and challenges the identity of the existing tribes by uniting them to those who think and behave differently and asking them to radically and tangibly love one another, most especially the weakest, poorest, and marginalized among them. Polarizing seasons are a reminder of just how radical the way of Jesus truly is. This call is one in which you will lose your life, but you will gain Jesus and along with him you will gain his beloved community.
Pastors, as you continue to serve your churches in the days ahead traversing difficult terrain, know that Christ goes with you and guides you on this journey.