If you have ever read the Gospel Coalition Blog you will be familiar with a writer by the name of Trevin Wax. I do not know this writer personally, I only know what I have read of his writing over the last several years. To put it mildly, I am not a fan of his. I think he is an exceptional writer, and I am sure he is a stellar person, but much of his advice revolves around issues many of us here at Patheos Progressive Christian write against.
Trevin recently wrote an article titled “Pastor’s Brace Yourself For Another Election Year”. Although I think he had good intentions, I found it both poorly executed as well as a terrible misrepresentation of how Christians should behave in the United States. What I have decided to do is give the advice that Mr. Wax should have provided.
The Good, Bad, and Ugly – Mostly The Ugly.
There are some things that I agree with in Wax’s article. First, I agree with his assessment that much of what used to concern us theologically has now become fodder for political debate, which in turn makes it difficult to have meaningful cultural conversations if our primary concern is avoiding controversy.
With that said, I found the following statement disturbing. Warning: if you are eating or consuming a beverage, you should pause for a moment while you read this statement. I am not responsible for whatever regurgitation might occur as a result.
“We may bemoan the encroachment of politics into every area of life, but this development is no excuse for silence…as we bring the Word of God to bear on the issues we face in our day. To avoid any topic that touches on the political is to forfeit the fields where discipleship happens. Loving our neighbors means willing their good….We fool ourselves if we think Christians can be a ‘faithful presence’ in society apart from being a ‘truthful witness’.”
My guess is that you had one of two reactions. You either cringed or shook your head (I happened to do both).
I cannot think of a better statement to sum up the problem with evangelicals and politics than what Mr. Wax stated. What evangelicals like Mr. Wax misunderstand is that for the Christian love is in no way judgmental. I am constantly reminding people who think this way of the passage in James 4:11-12
“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one lawgiver and judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?”
There is this idea in evangelicalism that loving others sometimes means having a judgmental attitude toward those who refuse to capitulate. As Mr. Wax says this is what being a “truthful witness” means. This is wrong and shameful.
Mr. Wax’s advice for Pastors is to first show love to their congregation by being present in their lives, which will aid in fostering their spiritual development. I could not agree more. Now, if we could get Mr. Wax to apply the same charity toward those who are not a part of the Church.
The second recommendation Mr. Wax has is:
“The church needs heralds of King Jesus. And the world needs churches that speak the truth in ways that transcend the current moment yet still intersect with it, churches whose presence proves unsettling and disturbing to the powers that be, as we ensure our earthly battles never dwarf our eternal hope.”
I’m not sure if he has any real recommendations here because it seems as if the poetic language interferes with whatever his message is. With that said, the over-masculine war-like drum beat of his cry is typical of those associated with John Piper and the Gospel Coalition and is usually meant to invoke an emotional response from their readers.
Actual Helpful Advice
Although I am not a fan of mixing religion and politics there is a time and place, especially for pastors, to engage in these types of conversations. After all, who we vote for is deeply personal because it requires us to consider our own moral ideals. And, given that in our day and age social justice is inseparable from politics, sometimes the overlap is inevitable.
So how can pastors engage in meaningful dialogue with the people in their congregations?
- Being Present – I agree with Mr. Wax’s first recommendation. There is something about being present with another person that cannot be imitated on social media, email, or a phone call. There is a temptation for pastors to address issues their congregation may have from the pulpit or after a sermon. Take the time to do a home visit or meet at a café so that quality time can be invested into the individual – Remember, that is one of the reasons you became a pastor.
- Ask Questions – People are very passionate about their political positions. Most people come out fighting when they have these types of conversations. It is tempting to go tit for tat with people in order to show the illogic in their arguments. Over the years I have found it best to take a more Socratic approach when dealing with people like this. The best way to engage people’s passionate ideas is through questioning. Ask probing questions that allow the other person to think of the issue on a deeper level. For many their passion oftentimes clouds their intellectual judgment.
- Avoid the Bully Pulpit – It might also be tempting to kill two birds with one stone and address political issues from the pulpit. Keep in mind that the pulpit is not the best place to deal with these issues. There is no way you can address the nuance that accompanies political positions from making generalized statements from the pulpit.
- Social Media – Although there is a time and a place for social media, it is not when it comes to people’s political beliefs. You may feel the urge to be passive-aggressive by posting a meme or some pithy statement. The problem with this approach is that most people will not interpret what you say in the way you meant it to be understood. In the end, this often causes more problems than it solves.
- Protect Your Opinion – Many people will want to know your opinion. You should resist the urge to state your opinion – even when asked. First of all, it is no one’s business who you vote for. Second, telling people your voting preferences or stating your political opinions will only serve to pigeonhole you in the future. But, perhaps the greatest reason you don’t want to disclose this information is that you may inadvertently put off others and thus harm your potential outreach.
Coming into the next political season learn from the mistakes that were made in the past and take a more intentional approach with your congregation. It will not only save you a headache, but it should keep your congregation united. It might even be prudent to teach this approach to others as well. Set the example that everyone can follow. Help people understand that there is always nuance when it comes to personal beliefs and that no one system has the “correct” answer.
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