The problem is not that people in the church disagree about who to vote for.
The problem is not that people get angry, shoot fiery emails to the pastor, and get into bruising fights with other church members on Facebook. (Though that does happen.)
And really, the problem is not even that some things are suddenly intensely political, though they weren’t before—trusting health experts, saying everyone is created in the image of God, or preaching on a passage of Scripture that mentions the poor.
The problem of polarization, according to the pastors of purple churches struggling to minister to red Republicans and blue Democrats during another divisive election, is that people stop fighting. They part ways. And they sort themselves by political preference.
Polarization makes it seem like unity in Christ can only come after political unity. Polarization makes it seem like partisanship is stronger than the gospel.
“The polarization is so deep now,” said LeRoy Lawson, an Independent Christian Church minister who started preaching in the 1950s, “[that] most churches lean to the Left or lean to the Right and they think only left or right can be true Christians.”
Polarization is a 30 years cultural trend, according to sociologists and political scientists. When Bill Clinton beat George H. W. Bush in the 1992 presidential election, a little more than a third of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” where one of the two candidates won more than 70 percent of the vote. In 2016, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, more than 6 out of 10 Americans lived in landslide counties. Most people lived surrounded by people who thought just like they did, “clustering,” as sociologist Bill Bishop wrote in The Big Sort, “in communities of like-mindedness.”
Some American evangelicals have embraced this kind of segregation. One of the premises of the church growth movement taught by Donald McGavran at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1970s and ’80s was the “homogeneous unit principle,” which said that people should be able to convert to Christianity and join a church without having to cross too many barriers of race, class, caste, language, or even politics.
But others have rejected this. They’ve worked to resist the cultural trend, saying the gospel calls Christians to something different.
“I think a church ought to be solidly purple,” said Chris Rea, pastor of Church of the Savior, a Christian Reformed Church in South Bend, Indiana.
“Our identity should be in Jesus, not in anything else,” she said. “Our political persuasion should not be our primary identity.”
At Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Glen Elliott said demographic diversity creates opportunities for outreach. When people are convinced that “Christian” means conservative, that limits evangelism to conservatives, according to Elliott.
“If I say this is a right-wing Republican church, well, that’s who comes,” he said. “We want to reach lost people. Not just lost people of a certain segment. I want to reach anyone who doesn’t know Jesus.”
The 3,500 who regularly attend Pantano are predominately conservative, but there are left-leaning Christians too, especially among the younger attendees and the roughly 50 percent who aren’t white.
That creates tensions. The congregation has had conflicts over the election, the phrase “black lives matter,” and the proper response to the coronavirus.
According to a recent LifeWay Research survey, responses to the pandemic are a major point of conflict in 2020. About a third of Protestant pastors said the struggle to maintain unity was the No. 1 “point of pressure” caused by COVID-19.
Trevin Wax, senior vice president of theology and communication at LifeWay, said there has always been polarization in American culture and American evangelical churches, but the coronavirus has made it worse. Even if most people in a congregation “kind of bear with their church leadership,” the 10 percent or 20 percent who strongly disagree with decisions about health rules and the pandemic can be very loud and disruptive.
At New Life Bible Fellowship, about 25 miles from Pantano on the other side of Tucson, John Beeson got an angry email about his church’s requirement for a recent service that everyone wear masks and stay physically distant, following health rules.
New Life also got an angry reaction to a social media post with a picture and caption that said everyone is made in God’s image. Someone in the church saw that as a statement about Black Lives Matter and fired off a response.
Beeson worries about how easy it would be for church staff to want to get rid of those people, accepting the inevitability of polarization. Instead, church leadership has tried to return to basic themes, not avoiding the issues but addressing them in a different way.
“We’re doing a series on the kingdom parables—a not-so-subtle attempt to say, ‘Let’s remember and reorient ourselves around the king and the kingdom,’ ” Beeson said. “Kingdom language is so helpful, reorienting our identity, reshaping our hopes, and giving us clarity about where our peace comes from.”
A lot of purple churches are doing politics-themed sermon series right now. Faith Church in Indianapolis is running a series on the prophet Micah, looking at the issues the prophet challenges God’s people to care about.
Pastor Jeff Schultz tells the Evangelical Free congregation that there are some convictions that aren’t negotiable. The church is committed to supporting pro-life ministries and to helping the refugees who moved into nearby apartments. The Bible doesn’t teach theories of racial superiority, and it condemns rich people taking advantage of the poor.
But Schultz points out that Christians can disagree about how to apply these principles. The church has Republicans, Democrats, and Independents on staff, and they all have blind spots. We all need to act with humility, he said.
“Hopefully we can acknowledge that in any election, it’s not pure good versus pure evil, white hats versus black hats,” Schultz said. “Our identity is in truth, and the ultimate truth is the God who doesn’t fit neatly into political categories.”
It can be hard to tell if the proclamation of a God and gospel bigger than partisanship is enough to counter the forces of polarization. In the middle of the coronavirus, a national discussion about racism, and a presidential election, it’s easy to feel like it’s not. Every pastor who is trying to minister to a congregation that spans the political divide has a story about a family that left, a fight that blew up, or a feeling of futility that was overwhelming.
But the pastors of purple churches say they can only keep preaching what they know to be true.
“We’re saved by grace,” Lawson said. “I think churches will be saved by grace and communities will be saved by grace. Learning to extend grace is the only thing I know, honestly.”
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today.
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