The often angst-filled conversation among church leaders, consultants and others who give attention to congregational and denominational life has a common theme: How do we get people engaged or reengaged after the pandemic?
These explorations take seriously the reality that habits changed during the lockdown. And we all like our habits, whether good or bad ones.
So, the focus of these ongoing conversations tends to be singular: How do we get those who became accustomed to watching worship services online in their pajamas — or at a time of their convenience during the week — to come on down to the church house?
One pastor rightly confessed: “During the pandemic we told them they don’t have to gather here to be the church; now we’re telling them that they have to be here.”
Some church members couldn’t wait to get back, while others took it more slowly. Others found a routine that didn’t involve once-familiar Sunday practices.
While valid and important, this singular conversation ignores the fuller cultural reality that confronts churches now. This other reality is something less comfortable to talk about above a whisper.
While COVID-19 isolated us, its impact did not occur in cultural isolation. It tracked with the rise of a political ideology that is infectious and deadly as well.
And, so far, there is no effective vaccine. While the source of the pandemic-driven virus is debatable, this other infection is not.
The reality is that the growing presence of bigotry, hostility and conspiracies that have arisen in places of power in America was fueled (and continues to be fueled) by overwhelming support from those who strongly claim to be Christian.
Ignoring, suppressing and fearing that reality — because it doesn’t play as well in public — is understandable. But it doesn’t make it go away.
Churches — unless they capitulate to or even advance this ideology that conflicts with Jesus — are facing the results and challenges of two infections.
Over the last half dozen years, the cultural context in which churches must minister has been impacted by more than a shutdown of its facilities.
It is fair and important to note how many people got used to staying home on Sundays. But this other reality is greatly shaping the church’s future.
Do we dare say it in public? If so, it goes something like this:
In recent years people have also become accustomed to professing Christians, in large force, embracing and advancing a political ideology that conflicts with the life and teachings of Jesus.
So, why would someone who seeks to follow Jesus — or simply finds Jesus’ ways to be meaningful — want to engage with those who claim his name but not his agenda?
Oh, we’ve got excuses for avoidance: “We’re all sinners.” “We don’t want controversy.” “We’re not political.” “We’re trying to keep the ones we have.”
But let’s be real: The underbelly of white Americanized Christianity — fear-driven racism, with all of its related ugliness — has once again been put on high public display.
No wonder so many turn from it — even at the expense of good expressions of Christian community.
Do we keep talking solely about the impact of the pandemic on church life? Or do we face up to the elephant in the church?
White Americanized Christianity, tragically, is generally not defined by its faithful response to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”
In its stead, is a political ideology that most oddly gets cast as being “biblical” or “Christian” yet flies in the face of everything Jesus called his followers to be and do.
Downplaying this reality is understandable. Confronting it is likely costly, but so is ignoring it.
My heart is with congregational leaders who face this challenge. They know that bigger churches with higher profile pastors are actually drawing people in by going with the political flow — choosing so-called success at the expense of faithfulness.
And a minister’s conviction-driven refusal to embrace that political agenda often brings threats and criticism from members who stay but want the church to reflect the self-serving values they picked up on radio, TV and social media.
Talk about managing expectations. That seems to be an ongoing effort for church leaders seeking to be pastoral and prophetic — while pleasing a range of persons with hardened personal preferences.
It would be foolish to suggest that there are easy answers to this dilemma. Especially, since Jesus found his message of truth, grace, mercy and inclusive love to be less than socially acceptable.
Ignoring this reality, however, serves no good purpose other than perhaps pushing its impact away for just a little bit longer.
Calling Christians to actually reflect the life and teachings of Jesus seems like the right thing to do. Is that attractive enough?
As Jesus found out, it is to some but not to everyone.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.