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Missio Mondays
Written or edited by Jeff Christopherson (Christopherson3), Missio Mondays is a weekly examination of key missiological issues affecting church planting and evangelism within North America. Read more from this column.
July 15, 2019Missio Mondays

Partisan Evangelicals and the Burning of the Mission Field

When Christians opt for political power, the gospel mission is undermined.
Partisan Evangelicals and the Burning of the Mission Field
Image: Pixabay/StockSnap

If the social media experiment was intended to connect and enlighten the world, it appears to have failed, and failed spectacularly. Our social connectivity has actually produced a more disconnected, isolated and polarized society. We have become more entrenched, angrier, and observably much, much dumber. Political, cultural, and—yes—theological echo chambers have only served to exhaust any semblance of critical thinking and extinguish any light for truth. Now we have two-dimensional caricature memes encrypted with sanctioned code words that are regurgitated and reprocessed as digital graffiti and online gang colors designed only to flaunt our tribal affiliation and embolden our venomous nests.

When it comes to mission, we know our sides, but we seem to understand little else.

Square in the middle of this social morass, a hefty subset of evangelicals have staked their sacred ground. The seamless convergence of cultural politics and religious identity has provided the climate for darkness to flourish with full permission from the very people who are commissioned to bring Jesus’ light. But sadly, this isn’t a new thing. This marriage of an exterior religion shrouding an interior darkness has often been recorded throughout church history in the most shameful seasons of our past. Another chapter appears to be in order.

Here is a question. What happens to the mission field when partisan evangelicals collectively turn their missionary platforms into ideological troll farms? What happens to the mission field when our highest calling is to leverage a profound cultural angst into a vitriolic nationalism? What happens to the mission field when those with whom we disagree become cultural enemies to vanquish rather than friends and neighbors to love? What happens to the mission field when an aberrant version of Jesus is formed in our own image and weaponized online as a parochial wrecking ball? What happens to the mission field when evangelicalism’s good news has nothing to do with the gospel?

This happens:

The trajectory of the religiously unaffiliated continues to climb at unprecedented rates, while the great evangelical prize—political significance—will continue to erode.[1] Our preferred weapon of cultural engagement, politics, will, as Jesus taught, be turned and used against us in full measure.[2] The mission field has been torched by our own hand, and the utility of evangelical voting bloc will no longer be desired.

It’s a lose-lose scenario by any measure.

So, how do we clean up the toxic swamp that is today’s evangelical reputation? In light of all the public vitriol, how should we, as evangelicals, understand our own mission field?

Here are four thoughts to consider:

1 - Christian Beliefs have Public Power

The very essence of the gospel is a transference from brokenness and darkness to a heavenly kingdom. This spiritual, physical, relational and ethical miracle is God’s handiwork inside a submitted life. It is always an inside job with external implications. The very act of submission changes ‘belief’ from a theoretical noun of intellectual ascent to an active verb of obedience. So, the gospel requires a fundamental shift from ‘owning’ beliefs to ‘living’ beliefs. It is in the obedient living of our faith that spiritual power is issued.[3]

Bruce Ashford observed that, “Whatever your religion is will necessarily affect your public life. It will shape the way you do whatever political engagement you do, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not really your religion. So, for me it’s not a question of whether we should or not, it’s just the fact that it does. We should recognize that, and seek consciously for it to be Christ that shapes our engagement, rather than some false God.”[4] A robust theology rooted in the Lordship of Christ over all things compels believers to direct all of their activities toward Christ-honoring worship, including those in the political realm.

2 - Blind Affiliations Can Only Compromise Christian Beliefs

The public flip-flop of evangelicals on the importance of personal character within public office has created a tsunami of an integrity crisis within larger evangelicalism. The collective perception that public figures are held to account by evangelicals, or given a free pass, adjudicated solely on the color of the candidate’s brand is difficult to dance around. The moral inconsistency of our positions only leads a watching world to conclude that our religious convictions—the essence of our faith—is up for sale. It’s a venal dogma.[5]

Rather than clear alignment between evangelicals and any political party, Tim Keller suggested that believers should have some commonalities with both political parties but should be uncomfortable aligning themselves completely with either.[6] A blind capitulation to a political party as a play for power always leads to spiritual compromise. The Christian revolution started not with a grasping powerplay, but with an open-handed emptying of power.[7] Scarred palms are the symbols of an uncompromising kingdom insurrection. Perhaps it’s our way forward.

3 - Christian Beliefs Assume that Kingdom Patriotism is Primary

Mixed up in the convoluted concoction of politics and religion is a reemergence of a very unchristian patriotism. Caleb Cohen reminded us that, “It does not take an unpatriotic American to recognize that our society has long nursed a heresy of American exceptionalism, equating our national values and interests with those of Christianity itself.”[8] This breed of patriotism is always an affront to our primary allegiance – one that calls us to seek God’s Kingdom first.[9] In fact, when any physical identity eclipses the ethical solidarity of our heavenly citizenship, that identity itself becomes an idolatry.

John Piper also didn’t mince words when he stated, “I’m one hundred times more passionate about creating Christians and churches that will be faithful, biblical, countercultural, and spiritually minded in a socialist America, in a Muslim America, in a communist America, than I am in preventing a Muslim America or a communist America. That puts me in a very different ballpark than many public voices.”[10] He continues, “My main calling is not to help America be anything, but to help the church be the church.”

Perhaps the most patriotic gift any Christ-follower could give his or her nation, is a life that emulates its Master. The ethical and cultural ramifications of such a life always carries a life-giving transformational effect.[11]

4. Kingdom Patriotism Chooses Truth over Power.

As Jesus sought out a metaphor to explain to humanity the countercultural nature of his kingdom, he chose unlikely yeast.[12] A humble and invisible ingredient that changes everything that it encounters. And it was this yeast-like movement of the multiplication of Jesus’ disciples that led to the Roman Empire bending its will to a revolution of Truth. But soon, Christianity became Christendom as it grasped for earthly power, and the transformational influence of yeast was no more.

So, how do we redeem the scorched earth that the evangelical partisans have inflicted on the mission field?

It won’t happen through pithy tweets and sarcastic memes. And it won’t happen through politically charged sermons that animate churchmen to further exacerbate divisions. And it certainly won’t happen by ratcheting up our political activism; proximity to earthly power isn’t likely to produce a Jesus movement.

Jesus’ kingdom, the source of restoration, seems to require the humility and invisibility of yeast.

Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.

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Partisan Evangelicals and the Burning of the Mission Field