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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.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

13 Comments

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Scott, I really appreciate this article. I’m a bit broken hearted with the last sentence but maybe because it’s true. Jesus teaches us to kick off the dust from our sandals and maybe it’s one of those moments. Who knows?
    I wonder though if you left unaddressed the most important love in this situation. You can only love God and especially neighbor as much as you love yourself. I wonder how much racism and “personal freedom” to “don’t tread on me” is an expression of a broken self-love, a form of grasping for attention that longs for a group to provide an external affirmation with desperation because there isn’t a healthy sense of self-love or an internal center of self-understanding and acceptance.
    We Reformed folk are not always so good at loving ourselves, what with our “I am a worm” misunderstandings of total depravity, and I’m afraid I often see the same in my evangelical siblings.
    As usual I’m likely asking for more than the word count can offer, but I’d love to hear your feelings on the matter.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      It is a most important point, Rodney. On one level someone could look at this larger situation and conclude there is far too much self-love going on. I love me more than you. But of course this is indeed a disordered love of self. John Calvin began his Institutes by claiming there were two forms of knowledge we all need to have accurately: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Ourselves. When both are rightly ordered, there will follow also neighbor love and things like selfishness, narcissism, and their many behavioral cousins will be ruled out. So it is for sure a point worth pondering. Thanks for the comment.

  • Vern Swieringa says:

    There came a point and time in Paul and Barnabas and John Mark’s ministry and friendships (perhaps) where they needed to part ways, because of a disagreement about John Mark’s loyalties. Maybe many of us are at such a point. Hope is that John Mark and Paul did reconcile somewhere and at some time, as Paul calls Mark to join him at the end of his ministry, recorded in 2 Timothy 4. I agree that some things are humanly irreconcilable, but He who raises the dead can and does raise dead relationships to a new beginning. With that said, a time of separation may be just what many of us need for our health and sanity!

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Vern,
      I appreciate what you are saying about reconciliation, but sometimes that new relationship does not and should not include reconciliation. Self-care requires boundaries from people who are abusive and manipulative, unless and until they experience authentic transformation. I believe that transformation can happen (amen to the work of the Spirit), but that time of separation may be permanent and that’s ok if it’s what the new relationship (and the victim) needs. That being said, we are still called to love. We do so; however, from a distance.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Scott and All. I know exactly what you mean about pretty near everything you write. A few comments: NOT being able to meet together, of course, whether in churches, schools, restaurants, camp sites, enables the polarization, opposition, disrespectful Facebook posts (FB itself making it way too easy not to see the people who are our “friends”–but not really. Self-control (a part of self-love and a fruit of the Spirit) is sorely lacking in our FB posts and in many church Zoom meetings with dozens of people not being in the same room, not seeing and talking with each other over coffee breaks and meals.
    And now to speak sadly and personally, the protest or noisy, rude -occupation of downtown Ottawa by anti-vax mandate truckers is tearing at storied Canadian decency and toleration and certainly love of others is not factoring in there and in other places across the nation where imitation protests are sprouting up. These are fraught, dangerous times, looking much like the Great Emergence, which Phyllis Tickle descried and described in her 2012 book of the same name. Such times, she posits, develop every 500 years, taking the better part of a century to settle down after the emergence’s chaotic disruption. With Hope, though, buried in a footnote, she says that while the last and dying emergence was “the Age of Jesus Christ,” the one we’re struggling through now will be “the Age of the Spirit.” Let’s pray for that and trust that Spirit.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Scott, your lament and last line so powerfully written: “It may be humanly impossible. So perhaps better to focus on the other six and go from there.” sums up the unhope of your title. However I believe, (help my unbelief “You have to have a death to have a resurrection”.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thank you … well said.

  • Scott, I appreciate that you brought up “don’t tread of me.” Here in Virginia, you can have it on your license plate and I cringe every time I see it. Generally, I judge such folks as ones willing to thread on others, but claiming freedom for themselves. That may be my sin.

    Yes, we’re called to hope, not to be optimistic. And our hope is in that which is beyond humanly possible.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Thanks, Scott, for highlighting the remarkable Brooks piece, which took up two full pages of Sunday’s NY Times. (So says a dinosaur who still prefers ideas spread out on paper before him on the breakfast table — but I confess that I read the essay first on my phone, wondering whether it would ever end). And also for reminding anyone who missed it to read Deb Rienstra’s response to Tish Harrison Warren’s (somewhat hyperbolic) requiem for in-person worship a few days earlier. Also worth the attention of Twelve readers is Warren’s carefully framed case against easy abortion (Jan. 24), arguing that “a culture that embraces abortion on demand will end up, however unintentionally, incentivizing that choice.” And let it be noted: these thoughtful expressions of conservative concerns for church and society did not appear in First Things or CT or World magazine; they were written by regular opinion writers for a supposedly godless communist media empire.
    Brooks closes with a set of prescriptions borrowed from Tim Keller, among which one stood out for me: Protestant churches need to formulate a coherent body of social teaching, as the Catholic magisterium has done for a century or more (he cites Rerum Novarum, an 1891 encyclical). The Twelve — and yes, let’s say it out loud, even the New York Times — are making important contributions to that urgent task.

  • Loren says:

    Great content this am. Two scriptures come to mind as I preach to myself, again,. “Judge not that you (I) be not judged” …and, “I will build my church.” So, let’s watch & pray.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Wow, such great posts today and yesterday, sparking important conversations. I think often these days about the 16th century. That sounds weird, but it’s because that’s my area of scholarly specialty in literature, so I read people from that period, trying to figure it out in the midst of huge religious transitions. I agree that we, too, are in a period of great upheaval and also Great Emergence. We are in the midst of a new Reformation. The problem is that while it’s happening, it’s terrible. Confusing, rancorous, upsetting. There’s much darkness and people seem to lose their minds and cling to extreme views to the point of violence (there are many kinds of violence). And what’s emerging? We don’t know. I wonder if it would help at all to just accept that this is a mess and it’s awful. There’s much to grieve and be anxious about, for sure. And then we can try to take the long view. Our hope is not in the past or in ourselves, but in the slow, sometimes secret workings of a faithful God. And we can see glimpses of that.

  • Thank you, Scott and also Deb. I’ve been asking God to strengthen my hope muscle lately, and it does help to accept that this is a mess and it’s awful and we grieve and are anxious, but I can trust and have hope in the slow work of God.

  • Roger Boyd says:

    I am a psychologist and I have taken in recent months to frame the difficulty in changing people’s minds about several of the social issues I am concerned about (e.g. climate, Covid, race, immigration, prison system) in terms of “cognitive dissonance.” This theory, introduced by Leon Festinger many years ago, is defined by VeryWellMind: “The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. . . . People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.”
    I believe this concept helps explain why so many people, who I otherwise consider reasonable, intelligent and loving, get so locked into belief systems that seem so “un” those qualities. They are often in a grouping of friends (church, work, social) who come to believe misinformation but then mutually reinforce each other with more information which confirms those beliefs in more and more extreme ways. It is very difficult for any one of these people to change because they would be committing “social suicide” from those relationships. Besides praying for them asking the Holy Spirit to work his healing, all I can do is to try to remain as loving to them as I know how to be so I don’t create any roadblocks to future change. I want to take the long view on this one.

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