The Issue-Driven Church

The Issue-Driven Church November 16, 2011

By Frederick Schmidt:

As sociologist Robert Wuthnow observes, the early ’60s continued the emphasis of the ’50s on a spirituality of dwelling and, therefore, church building. But the trends at work in the larger society also gave birth to a spirituality of seeking that had little use for the church at all. Like others, Wuthnow chronicles the factors that undermined the authority of religious leaders and the communities that they represented, including the Vietnam War, the resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, and the Watergate Scandal.

Wuthnow and others have less to say about the kind of church that was left after the “rock and roll” of the ’60s had come and gone. One way of characterizing the result is to describe it as the decade that gave birth to The Issue-Driven Church: the church that sees itself as the vanguard of social change and transformation—a church that lives from agenda to agenda, legislating policy, and issuing position papers.

It is not the model for doing church that necessarily dominates the local parish in mainline churches. In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren’t, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church.

And here is his commentary:

But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

The Issue-Driven Church runs serious risks . . .

  1. The loss of a distinctively Christian narrative for what it does.
  2. The loss of an identity and mission that is (for lack of better terms) trans-historical and trans-cultural.
  3. The loss of a call to a common mission that allows for differing convictions about how faithful Christians might fulfill that mission.
  4. And the loss of the conviction (or at least the awareness) that God-as-three-persons-in-one is indispensable to the life of the church.
  5. So, if so much is at stake, why is The Issue-Driven Church so powerfully attractive to some denominational leaders?
  6. It gives us a church we can control and a definition of the church’s mission that we can name.
  7. It allows more easily for making common cause with socially active secularists.
  8. It caters to the de facto deism at work in American religious communities, which finds it difficult to believe in a God who is active in the world in other ways, but has no difficulty in believing broadly in a God-out-there that charges us to care about certain issues.
  9. And it is inclusive, minimizing the theological barriers and practices like baptism to people finding a way to connect with the life of the church.

And then this:

So, how do we recreate a shared life that preserves our ability to address issues, but moves us beyond The Issue-Driven Church? Some suggestions:

  1. Worship the God who is both immanent (near us, among us) andtranscendent (other and beyond us). The church always makes mistakes when it forgets one side or the other of this truth. God does care about our issues. But God is also bigger than the moment.
  2. Re-inhabit the Christian narrative—not the American narrative or the Marxist narrative. It is not a Republican narrative. It’s not a Democratic narrative.
  3. Get a sense of what God is interested in doing. With millennia behind us and with more to come, it is likely that God’s agenda is a bit bigger than the United States (or even the world) in 2011.
  4. Let the denominational agenda be set by the parishes, their people, their clergy. Part of the reason that local congregations are so deeply alienated from their denominational leaders is because the people who inhabit those offices aren’t listening.
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  • I’m not sure if this is a push-back or not, but I hope it contributes to the discussion. I just got done writing a blog entry spinning out of Scot’s recent posting on the issue of women bishops in the Church of England, where I argued (more fully than I did in the comments to that original post) that one shouldn’t argue against people who want to serve on the basis of other (legitimate!) needs in the world.

    I’m not sure that advocating for more people to serve in church office is the kind of “issue” that Wuthnow or Schmidt has in mind, but I’m certainly aware that many people look at women’s ordination (as just one such example) as an “issue” that distracts from other important needs, and I would definitely think that, to the degree that it is an issue, it is one that (by its very nature) is set to enable more people to meet the other needs that are out there, and thus shouldn’t be opposed on the basis of those needs.

  • One more thing (wish I could just edit the original post), I do find myself wondering if Wuthnow or Schmidt sees the only “needs” that deserve the church’s attention as “worship”-related needs. I’m not sure that they do, so apologize if this is a mischaracterization. Of course, if they do, my previous comment is perhaps out of bounds altogether.

  • Steph

    Regarding “God’s agenda” in #3, is that something that the process of setting-the-denominational-agenda-through-the-parishes (#4) is supposed to get us closer to? Or is #4 something to do alongside of looking more carefully at #3 but not something that moves us closer to #3?

    I suspect that the answer to my first question is no since the denominational agenda is something that is likely to still be very issues-driven if the local parishes set it.

    So what is #3, and who helps us steer towards it?

  • Jeff Stewart

    Re-inhabiting the Christian narrative would not only make the denominational agenda obsolete, it would make denominationalism, parishes, clergy and offices obsolete.

  • Steph

    A side note: A lot of the chatter I have seen on blogs and in comments critiquing The Issues-Driven Church has not described the situation as a local parish versus denominational leadership split. The rhetoric has been “we the young” versus “the illegitimate and destructive authority of the old,” which must be thrown off.

    Am I reading the wrong blogs? Or are others noticing an intensity and escalation in the rhetoric that disturbs them as much as it disturbs me? Anyone else seeing the young vs. old classification in the conversations they follow?

    All that to say, it is good to see a different approach here. I hope it catches on. And I wish for the people in churches to have a better grasp of history (of both church and society) in order to understand that every generation enters into conversation with the preceding one, debating and correcting, that these debates often repeat themselves, and that they do not need to lead to wishing the older generation would just die off.

    The church really needs help with this conversation … or I may just be getting a skewed look at it through my readings.

  • Jeff Stewart

    “We the young” *can* be old.

  • so you’re saying the gospel is more than one of its parts? the gospel is not just substitutionary atonement or just a social issue? perhaps true church is found in making the gospel *jesus himself? 😉

  • Steph

    Jeff, I do see commenters on the blogs I read often chime in and say, when the generational stereotyping gets too strong, “Hey, I’m such and such an age, and (yet) I agree with what you just wrote here/feel as you do. And I love your blog…..”
    I have no idea where the age cut off would land, but the concept of generational warfare is apparent in the discussions.
    What sparked my comment was the article above’s description of the dramatic shift that occurred in the sixties and wondering whether the tone of the conversation now (in many spots) might be reminiscent of the tone of the conversation then…… I don’t know. I missed the sixties. 🙂