By Dean Inserra
Relocating an influential leader’s Sunday School classroom. Changing the color of the carpet. Going “contemporary” with the music. An unresolved interpersonal conflict. Being against the capital campaign.
These scenarios used to the be the reasons an individual or family would leave a church. While I’m certain those reasons still exist, the new reason people are leaving churches today is American politics.
Yes, there has always been the reality of churches mixing in too much politics, but this is different. It’s not necessarily about the pastor being too political, as would be the common claim before our current political climate.
Today’s criticism is more focused on what the pastor is not. This usually takes form in two different outrages:
1. The pastor isn’t God-and-country enough.
In these cases, the expectation is for the pastor to recite conservative news talking points, and to make it clear the Republican party is the “Christian” party.
They should speak to rioting, call out progressives and their politics regularly, and make it clear—even without saying it—that they’re voting for Donald Trump in November.
Who you were voting for was once considered a private matter—between you and the Lord. Now it has become a litmus test for one to be respected as a leader—or even for a parishioner to maintain fellowship.
When people are challenged by this, the claim would be that politics isn’t their god by any stretch, rather it’s just that their faith informs their politics.
Somehow, those faith-informed politics seem to line up perfectly with the Republican Party and President Trump.
The “Make America Great Again” campaign, rather than simply being something to resonate with or one’s preferred agenda for the 2020 election, has, for many, become synonymous with making disciples.
In a God-and-country faith, those things don’t know how to be distinguished from each other.
It’s complicated for pastors when church members sincerely believe their pastor is somewhere between malpractice and heresy if the gospel preached isn’t what they’re also hearing on conservative talk radio.
Part of the issue of linking American Republican politics with Christianity is that it often doesn’t allow room for issues of significance that are outside one’s particular way of seeing the world.
There’s no space for having our views challenged by the Bible, written long before the United States of America was even remotely an idea.
I know pastors who have received votes of no confidence and have been asked to resign over speaking about refugees and racism.
We once had a family leave our church over conspiracy theory videos they watched on YouTube asserting our denomination was tied to progressive political operatives.
Examples such as this are not extreme or exceptions. Pastors can get away with saying the wrong thing biblically or theologically before they could say what some might consider the wrong thing politically.
There’s no margin for error in the eyes of these beholders. They’ll leave the church and find a place that boasts of American values.
2. The pastor isn’t “woke” enough.
This is the new reality leaders are facing, and there isn’t much time given to get in line.
A widely held belief is that the pastor should have a strong and progressive opinion on every issue driving the social media cycle.
If not, they are viewed as cowardly or uncaring. There’s no place for nuance or even time for collecting and processing more information before sending out a tweet.
There is no way to win, as it seems the line moves daily for what is considered being on the right side of an issue.
People are leaving their churches not so much because the pastor is an ardent Trump supporter (they wouldn’t have been at that church anyway), but because the pastor doesn’t spend each Sunday speaking about the lightning-rod issue that matters most to them.
Simply caring about these matters and teaching how the Bible and a Christian worldview speaks to various issues of current attention should be enough.
But many churchgoers expect their pastor and other church leaders to be all in, all the time, or they will leave for a church where the leadership “gets it.”
This often means they want a pastor who despises the president, publicly embraces and supports the cause du jour, and regularly calls out conservative evangelicals for their politics.
I know situations where families left churches because they found out a family leading their small group voted for Trump.
Churches are receiving transfer growth from other churches not because of reasons of doctrine or scandal, but because of political preferences.
A 2018 Lifeway Research study found 46 percent of Protestant churchgoers admitted they prefer to attend a church where people share their political views.
This is real. It’s our new normal. And I know I’m not the only pastor sensing this growing divide among church members.
So how do we as church leaders respond to this? How do we maintain unity in an increasingly divisive culture?
I’m still trying to figure it out. But as a pastor, I have to speak to the idols. It’s going to be uncomfortable, and as a people pleaser, I don’t like it when others are upset with me. But this is reality.
If we aren’t speaking directly to the idols of our hearts, what exactly are we doing as pastors and leaders? People are going to leave, and it will always be justified in their minds. Speak to it anyway.
It’s a tragedy that political views are now often elevated over theological views among church members. Pastors are now expected to take their cues from social media mobs and shared articles, rather than Scripture.
If faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10), then we must take these matters on from the Scriptures.
There also must be a renewed emphasis on what it means to be citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), and strangers and exiles (1 Peter 2:11).
There should be a feeling of political homelessness—but without neglecting to participate in political matters that affect our nation, and more importantly, our neighbors.
Our discipleship models have to equip people to see themselves as part of a different kingdom, while living as faithful witnesses here on earth.
There’s also a lack of self-awareness that shouldn’t be a reality for Christians.
An important question to regularly ask ourselves is, What in my perspective—and even in my outrage—is merely a product of political influences in my life and not Scriptures?
We must also help people distinguish between what the Bible speaks to as spiritual that we only see as political. There are also issues the Bible is neutral on, which should leave room for disagreement among church members.
Ultimately, as people who have received grace, we should be people who show grace. It’s hard to focus on Jesus, when we’re refusing to “lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Jesus is alive forever, but this world and its ideologies are temporary. They shouldn’t be litmus tests for legitimacy and fellowship.
Instead of dividing over politics, I pray that believers choose to unite around the gospel and Jesus Christ our King.
Dean is lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel and Without a Doubt: How to Know for Certain That You’re Good with God.