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This past Saturday my Twelver colleague Debra Rienstra posted a very fine blog here on the future of in-person worship services. She noted the challenges of getting people back in person after the long COVID hiatus and what some discovered as to the convenience of worshiping at home. She also took note of a controversial Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Tish Harrison Warren and her suggestion to take the Livestream option away from people 100% as soon as possible to get bodies back into church buildings.
The day before Deb’s piece appeared, David Brooks also made a splash on the Op-Ed page of the Times with a longer-than-usual piece on the people working to save evangelicalism. The article featured the names, faces, and quotes of people whom many in my circles at Calvin know well, including Kristin Kobes DuMez, David Bailey, and Mark Labberton. Brooks focused on the efforts of these people to bring about reconciliation after a period over the last half-dozen years that has seen a deep polarization and alienation that on the face of it seems, in fact, to be irreconcilable.
Over the last year or two I and others have written here on The Twelve about the terrible toll that COVID and all its many angles of politicization have taken on pastors. And a few commentators on my blogs have reminded us that there is a flipside to that particular coin: some congregational members have also been traumatized by their pastors for various reasons. In general a gulf has yawned open inside many individual congregations and across the larger landscape that is both wide and deep. Even the most optimistic voices in the Brooks article last Friday harbor no illusions that anyone can build a bridge over this gulf quickly or easily.
I want to be hopeful. Seems like a decent Christian posture just generally. I want to be optimistic even if that per se is not a particular Christian virtue. I want to affirm what Deb Rienstra wrote and I want to side with those interviewed by Brooks who believe a newly vibrant church can yet emerge from this mess. But in no particular order let me detail a few aspects of recent times that strike me as so jarring as to feed my more pessimistic side, my unhope.
First, try though I have these past two years of COVID, I just cannot wrap my head around the idea that so many have not been able to see the simple act of wearing a mask as a tangible example of neighbor love. And it’s not as though all these mask-resisters were also COVID deniers, though some were. But there were plenty others who believed the virus was real but who were convinced by someone that the denting of what they perceived to be their “personal freedom” was more important than loving your neighbor as yourself. And yes, there were still others who accepted the idea sold in conservative media circles that masks made no difference. But the only reason someone bought that bogus idea still went back to that personal freedom thing.
“Love your neighbor,” Jesus said. But so very many have countered Jesus with “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Second, Jesus also said to love God with everything we’ve got. Our devotion is to the Christ of God and to the cross on which he sacrificed himself for us and for our salvation. Yet it has become clear in some of the more radical fringes of the church that the flag is more important. And if one doubts that, then just take a look at any collection of photos of the January 6 insurrection that you can find and notice: A) The prevalence of the cross itself being wielded as a political tool; B) The prevalence of the name of our Savior being mixed in with the name of the former president on red, white, and blue banners and flags and signs; and C) The campaign-style flags that just went for broke and said “Jesus 2020.”
Yes, perhaps a lot of that is fringe stuff. But the lack of subsequent rebuke and critique of it all from pastors and other Christians leaders since has been striking. There are still far too many congregations where the mere mention of January 6 in a negative light will land a pastor or worship leader in swift trouble.
Third, weaving through it all is a streak of racism that could not be more at odds with the Gospel of reconciliation and the dismantling of what the Apostle Paul called the dividing wall of hostility. No, Christian people do not have to follow or fully endorse Black Lives Matter and its ilk to avoid being racist themselves. But as with seeking reasons to cast doubts on the effectiveness of masks because as a matter of fact you valued freedom over neighbor love in the first place, so the shade some in the church have cast on BLM (the movement or even just the sentiment shorn of any organization) looks too much like an excuse not to engage at all due to some deep-seated racial issues we’d just as soon not bring to the surface.
David Brooks opened his article imagining that you had twelve friends to whom you thought you were utterly close. But suddenly one day half of them started to take public positions you found so repugnant, you realized they were as good as total strangers to you. That is an apt analogy for what has happened in the church. I am not sure how successful I would be in getting those six alienated friends back into my life in a positive way. It may be humanly impossible. So perhaps better to focus on the other six and go from there.