The politician declares, “This is a pivotal season!” The pastor warns, “We are at a crossroads!” The lobbyist reminds us, “This is a time for action; make a bold pledge now!” The spam emails that turn up in our inboxes challenge us to, “Find your courage; don’t sit on the fence!”
How many times have you experienced these call-to-arms in your lifetime? Furthermore, how many of these types of social media posts have you seen in your newsfeed, or chain emails have you received? If you are like me, there’s no way of counting the endless flow of “decide-and-pledge-now” type media we are exposed to 24/7.
Perpetual Campaign Mode!
I’ve pastored the same church for over 15 years now, and I’ve seen these call-to-arms ploys play out over and over again. In the past, the intensity only increased around the four year election cycle. However, with the rise of cable news TV stations, talk radio, politicians in perpetual campaign mode, and religious lobbyists constantly soliciting support, the restlessness in the pews has reached a sustained high all year round. Hardly, a Sunday goes by that I’m not questioned about some particular headline or cause.
Sadly, for many regular church goers, it’s no longer enough that the person sitting next to them every Sunday has come for the same reasons as they—to experience grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, belonging, etc. No, we need to eventually know how they vote, what source they get their news from, and where they stand on the latest top topics. If you think I’m exaggerating to make a point, I beg to differ.
We Got A Problem!
As much as you might like to disagree, I’m honestly not intending to offer an opinion here. I’m only endeavoring to share my firsthand experiences and observations. And that is simply this: I’ve witnessed differing people sitting next to one another year after year without any problems, until… they learn of their differences. Then… there’s an immediate problem! And oftentimes, without any meaningful discussion occurring, someone is quickly out the door (usually stopping first to quietly encourage a fellow comrade-in-arms to follow). The national average for annual church congregant turnover is roughly 20% a year (largely due to a difference in opinion with a small percentage due to geographical moves, death, etc.). The discouraging inside joke among ministers is that if you can stay at least 5 years in one church, you’ll have a brand new congregation in front of you!
Our national culture is a consumer culture, but per my observations I would add that we are a hyper-consumer culture. If we don’t get what we want when we want it, we are quick to let someone know—our waitress, service provider, politician, pastor, school board member, neighbor, and even our spouses! We want what we want now, and we need people around us at all times who validate our preferences and supply our demands. If there’s a snafu within our support/supply system, well then, it’s easy to find another like-minded support group close by, not to mention a new spouse too! As a result, we’ve become a hyper-consumer-divorce-culture, constantly separating ourselves from one another on many issues which quickly become old news within 48 hours. Sadly though, the damage done to our relationships lasts far longer. These are my personal observations within society and the Church world.
Our Highest Vigilance!
A recent research poll revealed over 70% of churchgoers believe that the person sitting next to them holds the opposite opinion to theirs. However, the actual difference is less than 50% with many of the nuances being far less. Maybe, the imagined 20% difference could be connected to the 20% inflow/outflow we commonly see in our churches every year? In reality, we have more in common than what we realize. And for the things we differ on, given enough respectful dialogue, patience and grace, perhaps our differences could be arbitrated to the point of avoiding needless division?
All in all, my observations have led me to believe that what is really at stake in our society and church culture is not all the things related to the various political and religious “call-to-arms.” No… Actually, it’s relationships. Despite what some may tout as the main focus of our times, Christianity has always claimed that one’s relationship with God and others is everything—and I mean everything!
As long as churchgoers are preoccupied with agreement and not love and grace, relationships will continue to suffer and the hyper-consumer-divorce-culture will continue to thrive. What kind of impact could the Church have on society if those looking in saw a group of very diverse people loving and demonstrating grace towards one another? What kind of impact could we have if we refused to be manipulated by the social media feeds, chain emails, 15-second soundbites, and political/religious call-to-arms? What if our highest vigilance was to love God by loving one another… period?
Though the national average of 20% outflow/inflow has not escaped my church, I’m happy to say that my core leaders and congregants have largely stuck together these past 15 years. Not because of where I (or we) personally stand on the fleeting issues of the day, but because our relationship with God and one another is a non-negiotonable. Thank you my friends; yes, for the sake of grace, thank you for your stick-to-it-ness. Perhaps over the next 15 years we can prove to a few that diversity is a gift which highlights just how STICKY GOD’S GRACE REALLY IS. Amen (Hebrew for “so let it be”).