If you’ve been paying attention, feelings about American politics, presidential or otherwise, are… let’s say divided. This division is rooted in different visions of our nation’s values, its history, and what should be its future. Furthermore, American Christianity has become a microcosm of this divide. While many look to the Church for moral clarity, many are distraught at the in-fighting and judgmentalism they have found instead. What is actually going on, and what does this say for the future of Christianity?
Church attendance is in decline across the country. American Christianity has been at the mercy of evangelical Protestantism for decades, but a cultural shift away from magical thinking has led to many churches being shuttered, salaries cut, and clergy-people out of work.
A common (and somewhat valid) observation about progressive churches is that our membership decline has been sharper than that of our conservative friends. For critics of progressivism, this decline means the mainline churches are doing something wrong. These critics seek to improve their own chances of survival by a hard turn toward the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.
Yet in an effort to save themselves from obscurity, some churches have endorsed or chosen to ignore hate speech. They have “doubled-down” on opposition to loving, monogamous same-sex relationships. They have advocated for the elimination of women’s health care—not just abortion services. They have served as the laugh track while people with disabilities were mocked on live television.
They have also vacuum-sealed their churches and conferences from the vast majority of Christians around the globe, choosing to ignore rather than address the changing times. They’ve also used political bullies to validate and expedite this approach. The term for this is “circling the wagons,” though many Christian bullies prefer the expression, “renewing our faith.”
But renewal doesn’t sound like hate speech.
Reaffirming our commitment to the Gospel doesn’t look like a Klan rally.
Asserting the fundamentals of Christianity doesn’t have to be brainwashing.
When Christian leaders endorse and bless those who embody hatred… when they celebrate those who see bullying as a tool for success… when they are willing to grant pardon to those who daily demean others while ignoring the homeless or deriding the HIV-positive…. the Church suffers.
We live in a results-oriented society, the kind that says the end justifies the means. When this logic is applied to the Church, however, we should be troubled.
The Christ tells us that “the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14b). Some have used this verse to justify everything from anti-Semitism to using fear tactics in conversion. Look closer. As the Christ speaks further, he warns us to fear the coming of “false prophets”—those who appear to be righteous, but are secretly “wolf-like” and “ravenous.” To celebrate these wolves in exchange for political power, all because we fear the Church won’t survive without it – these choices betray our doubts. They say to others, “We don’t buy any of this Jesus crap either, and we never did.”
I want a Church unafraid of death – a Church willing to lose its financial assets, its fair-weather membership, its political influence, and its social status in the pursuit of what’s right. A “let this cup pass, but not my will” Church.
This is what it means to follow a Christ who was slaughtered by a bigger, better-equipped Empire. To feel ourselves being swallowed by Rome, but refusing to despair. If our own Christ has prepared the way, then whatever victory may look like in the end, we can know it has already been secured for us by our Unpopular Savior.
“You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever” (Psalm 16:11).
Jon Beren Propper is an educator and author serving a United Church of Christ congregation in West Michigan.