Politics is a dangerous detour for the church
I have had countless opportunities to sit with small groups of pastors – one or two or five or 10 at a time, of all denominations and theological beliefs, often with their spouses – and listen to their stories. I ask them how they were called to ministry, what challenges they face, and how they think God wants to use them in the future. Many of their stories are inspiring. Numerous blessed churches dot the landscape.
For many other pastors, however, their tone changes as the conversations delve deeper. I share with them some of the struggles and discouragements that my wife, Carol, and I have faced over the years. Then they share their own experiences, slowly and hesitantly at first, then, as their defenses weaken, in torrents. Defeats, frustrations, personal challenges, family tensions. Often the tears flow. The most common and overwhelming stories are those that feel like they have failed and forsaken God. They try to show more faith and perseverance; but it’s hard to go sledding when you’re just “doing church”. And too many people want to quit.
A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time since polls began in the 1930s, the number of Americans who describe themselves as affiliated with a church, synagogue or mosque has fallen below 50%. Actual church attendance is even lower. According to a recent survey, only about a third of Americans attend services every (or nearly every) week; more than 50% say they have attended “rarely” or “never”.
Christians are leaving American churches in droves, and leaders are losing heart and leaving the ministry, so something is obviously wrong, and we have to be open to changing course. From time to time, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “Are our fundamentals good? Are we doing things God’s way? All the technology, mood lighting and great sound systems won’t help us if we don’t build according to God’s plan.
There are many tempting detours from the foundations of faith, including detours from tradition or the latest trends or even secular culture. But one of the more subtle distractions derailing ministers and churches today is the political detour.
Without a doubt, Christians are called to be a light to the world, and without a doubt some of the finest hours of the church have featured humble, dedicated Christians serving the poor, uplifting the oppressed, and working for justice. But only the spirit of God can change the human heart. Institutional and governmental changes alone will never produce love and unity among peoples.
The danger of politics is that we are seduced by the very structures and political forces that we believe must be changed. Church leaders sometimes form coalitions with high-ranking politicians, and in doing so they can easily stray from the fundamental tenets of the faith. Cynic politicians like these leaders not because they care about Christ, but because they think the ministers will somehow give the “gospel vote”.
The tragedy is that entire segments of the church then identify with a political party. And that’s never good. When our faith is identified with a political party, we lose our ability to have the gospel heard because of the acrimony inherent in politics. Not only do we fail to change these political institutions, but they end up injecting us with the intolerance and venom that has characterized politics for millennia. The church thus becomes entangled in the affairs of this world, harming our testimonies and hindering our work for the kingdom of God.
There is no record of the early apostles trying to improve the politics of the Roman Empire or any province within it. God is not interested in building or promoting a specific country. He intends to build his church. Jesus declared that his disciples are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Democrats or liberals or progressives are not salt. Republicans or conservatives or libertarians are not the light. Our orders are not to curry favor with kings or presidents, but to carry the message of Christ to all.
Perhaps this political detour contributes to the decline in American church attendance. On the one hand, we see people leaving the churches because the churches have lost their spiritual calling and power. Their services look like a superficial religious spectacle with little spiritual nourishment. On the other hand, we see faithful leaders become discouraged and burnt out. Enough to ? Could it be due to banging their heads against a wall as they build revolving door churches where people come and go every few years?
We need humility to face the possibility that we are on the wrong track. Maybe what we are building is not what Jesus had in mind for his church. For those who are open to changing course, now is the time to get back to basics: to preach the gospel in the power of the Spirit, to unite humbly in prayer, to encourage each other to persevere in our callings. spiritual and keep your eyes on eternity. .
Jim Cymbala is pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle and author of several books, including Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. This was adapted for The Dallas Morning News from his new book, Fan the Flame: Let Jesus Renew Your Calling and Revive Your Church.
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