Discipleship by Proxy

Discipleship by Proxy March 6, 2021

In regard to our present moment, when it comes to white evangelicalism and the political, in my view there are three types of evangelical pastors/leaders.

The first is in complete agreement with a large percentage of their flock when it comes to the last four years and the events of January 6th in our nation’s capital. They agree the former president was wonderful, his election “stolen,” the insurrection either justified or a “false flag,” and are sympathetic toward conspiracy theories like Qanon. We might call them the, “true believers.” This post/essay is not for them. In my opinion, they are a disgrace to their calling.

The second type of pastor isn’t really sure what’s going on. They’ve never been that interested in the political, don’t follow it at all, rarely watch or read the news, and mostly focus on religious, spiritual, or theological matters. Of course, that’s only when they’ve taken their fill of sports, Netflix, movies, music, and other entertainment.

They’re perplexed during the potluck meal when they hear one of their members froth at the mouth about, “demon-crats,” the government coming for everyone’s guns, and how the Republicans are fighting a war against the evil Democrats. This pastor remains silent and just tries to change the subject. This post/essay is not for them either. They’re immature and in over their heads.

These two types of pastor are practicing discipleship by proxy. They imagine they are discipling their members, but they fool themselves. The first type, of course, has not only fooled themselves but is being discipled by the same teachers (Fox News, et al) as their members. This pastor might as well sit out with his (the masculine is used on purpose as most these types of churches only call male pastors) members and stare at an empty pulpit—or just put a television or screen in its place and turn it to Fox.

The members of the churches led by these types of pastors are really being discipled by Fox News, Newsmax, OAN, Epoch Times, Breitbart, and other far-right, radical, white nationalist media. To such we could add Parler and other social media platforms where racists, gun nuts, and misogynists can gather without shame.

Pity these poor, poor pastors. Their members show up on Sunday morning already discipled. They hear their pastor, their leaders, through the right-wing political sifter or grid placed in their heads by the media sources noted. This sifter/grid removes anything that would disturb the worldview they’ve imbibed and, in fact, makes what they hear in church correspond with and even support it. It becomes reinforcing.

The first type of pastor, like their members, is also a product of the view provided by these sources. Whatever this pastor learned in college and seminary has been trumped or set aside by the new view they’ve now allowed to permeate their life. These media sources are a well of which they’ve now drank deeply. They both, pastor and flock, practice discipleship by proxy. These pastors no longer disciples themselves or anyone else—it’s all done for them by someone else. It’s a nice gig if you can get it.

The second type of pastor also practices discipleship by proxy but they’re entirely unaware. They just sort of sense they’re losing their people to forces they know nothing about. Thus, they plod along hoping people don’t begin to realize, one, not only do they have no idea what’s happening in the political/cultural world, but, two, they have no idea the impact it’s having on their people—and it’s happening right under their noses. They’re oblivious.

I write for a third type of evangelical pastor/leader. This type was appalled and horrified at the last four years. They never understood how 81% of their people could have voted for that guy. They’ve watched as the media sources I’ve noted brainwashed, divided, and transformed many of their people into angry, fact-challenged, conspiracy minded zealots. This post/essay is for them.

First, stand firm. You represent the very best of your tradition as to theology and political/cultural engagement. Both your history and theology are on your side. And I note such, while at the same time, disagreeing with much of it. However, that isn’t the point or important at the moment.

My point is that the current white nationalism, emperor worship (Trump), conspiracy-minded, right-wing, mind-set—that seems open or sympathetic to racism, sexism (they call this not being “politically correct’ as cover), and even violence if necessary, is not the best your tradition or theology offers. You are in the right to stand against it and you represent the, “orthodoxy” of your tradition. These others pastor types do not.

Second, double down on your efforts to disciple your people out of this ignorance, this haze perpetuated by these media sources. Develop sermon and small group studies that focus on passages like 1Peter 2:9 and Hebrews 12: 25-29 wherein is stressed the idea we belong to a nation that is global and a Kingdom not of this world. It is to each we owe any final allegiance—not a political party, ethnicity, or geographical boundary. Beyond that, our allegiance is to our neighbor, especially the least of these.

Third, do a series of sermons or small group studies built around the insights given here by Phil Vischer on the subject of abortion. Until white evangelicals understand the complexities of this area and how they are being played on this subject by Republicans, they will continue to be single-issue voters, which ultimately isn’t healthy or wise and a big reason we are in this mess.

Finally, challenge your people to take a three-month break from the media sources I mentioned, or any like them. Ask them to get their news only from the newspaper of the largest city closest to them. Read this news either online or the physical paper. They don’t need to even read the op-ed parts or opinions. Just read the reporting so they know what’s going on. Reconvene after the three months and discuss.

I certainly understand such a course of action may get this type of pastor in trouble. Their members may not like going down this road. Some may leave. Some may stay and lead a revolt. In our current climate, many of these types of pastors may lose their jobs. I get that. I don’t want anyone to lose their job, but I’m tempted to think this may be the best thing to happen.

Some of these types of pastors may realize they need to leave their traditions, their denominations, and move into something else—traditions or movements that foresaw and understood the political problems of the last four years. Some though, may need to stay and fight. I commend either.

I do know this: This last type of pastor, unlike the first two, will, at the end of the day, be able to hold their head high knowing they did the right thing, come what may. They will have a clear conscience; they will be able to tell their children and grandchildren where they stood in those days. They will sleep well at night. We will see them as the ones who held their principles, orthodoxy, and integrity intact. And that, I would say to this pastor, is no small thing.

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