The Issue-Driven Church

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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.

That's part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can't pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community.

Now none of this is to say that the church doesn't need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won't think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there's a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

The Issue-Driven Churchruns 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.

The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues.

In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: "Issues are Us." Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.

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) and transcendent (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.

Finally, when we do address issues, let's gore everyone's ox and offer more than one way of engaging the issue faithfully. If the solution looks like something your secular neighbor would vote for or something off a party platform, it's probably not how God sees the issue.

11/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: