Beliefs Culture David Gushee: Christians, Conflict and Change Ethics Faith Opinion

The church’s surprising public contribution

First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia, which David Gushee serves as interim pastor.

Most Christian social ethicists have been trained, and have trained others, in a tradition in which the most important thing the church does is to address public moral problems via declaration or action.

I am discovering as a pastor that the church has other ways it contributes to society that may be just as important. I will name three.

The church challenges people to be their very best selves.

As a pastor, I get the extraordinary privilege of preaching to a community gathered expectantly to listen for a word from God. My congregation may be somewhat progressive on many parameters, but it is not too progressive to have lost its reverence for Scripture or its desire to listen for words of challenge, direction, and exhortation from the pulpit.

As an ethicist, it comes naturally to me to season all of my preaching, even on doctrinal matters like the meaning of the cross or the work of the Holy Spirit, with moral exhortation. I believe that it is my obligation to offer such exhortation, not based on any moral perfection on my part but as an aspect of the pastoral office.

In turn, I find that most of my congregants share with me a theological vision in which human beings are sinners in need of moral challenge to become their very best selves, and that this effort is fundamental to being a Christian.

In any society, and perhaps especially in America 2017, any place where people gather purposely to be challenged to be more kind, more just, more self-controlled, more merciful, more forgiving, more peaceable, more loving, and so on, is doing something important. The church helps people seek higher ground in their lives. That’s not a small thing.

The church counsels and comforts people in times of crisis.

Yesterday I did two funerals, and so far in pastoral ministry I am averaging one per month. I have made countless hospital visits. I have spoken with folks about the challenges they face with their children, or with life after divorce, or when facing infertility, or dealing with kids with drug problems, or unemployment.

I find that at least here in Decatur, Ga., people still do sometimes turn to the church, the Sunday school class, and the pastor for counsel and comfort in times of crisis.

I am thinking about a single mom in our congregation, now raising two children on her own and dealing with post-divorce messiness. She is plugging in as deeply as she can in  our church, even though she is so busy — because she and her kids need community. I could name so many others for whom our congregation is their primary community and their emotional lifeline.

If churches are helping people weather crises, keep their emotions together, take good care of their kids, avoid making destructive decisions, and grieve their most painful losses, we are doing something important. It is important not just for the individuals involved, but also because every person who is able to be sustained by the church doesn’t have to be rescued (or imprisoned, or treated) by some other institution of society. That’s not a small thing.

The church preserves a space for a community that transcends political and ideological loyalties.

Everyone knows that America is becoming tribalized on every parameter one could name — political, ideological, economic, educational, religious, moral. We encounter each other across tribal lines as little as possible, and mainly in order to put the other tribe to rout.

Some churches, I know, merely reproduce existing tribes. But a lot of churches transcend them. Mainline and Catholic churches in most parts of our country are quite often communities that transcend our Fox News vs. CNN vs. MSNBC tribes, our red vs. blue vs. purple tribes, our Bernie vs. Hillary vs. Donald vs. Whoever tribes.

My congregation makes for a good example. Our political and ideological diversity is profound. It is a delicate task keeping us focused on the Jesus who unites us rather than everything that divides us. But it can be done.

By creating at least one space in society that transcends our current tribalisms, I think we are making a significant public contribution. Here is one place where Americans are choosing to remain in community over the long term with one another despite profound ideological and political differences.

It seems to me that any place where we choose to transcend our tribalism is a major contributor to a better future for this fractured country.

So here’s to the humble local congregation, which makes a surprising public contribution through its everyday work. It’s not “news.” It is important nonetheless.

About the author

David Gushee

12 Comments

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  • “The church preserves a space for community that transcends political and ideological loyalties.”
    That statement might deserve a big old fashion Amen. I don’t care how progressive the church or the pastor is. My political and ideological tribes tend to remind me of me, literally and figuratively. My tribes remind me of what my rights are, they fight for my rights, they remind me that I’m always right. My tribe and me can be a pretty contentious group. My church has the ability to encourage me to act right as an individual when enacting my individual rights. My church can contend for a faith that is not contentious. My church has the ability to reconcile what is continuous to me…I can see why some tribes would want to rule the church and other tribes would want to destroy the church now that I think about it.

  • In a sense, you are saying what I believe to be true.

    How one reads the Bible has everything to do with what kind of a person one is, and not the other way around. The Bible doesn’t make people good or bad.

  • On the one hand, it is sad that anyone even has to make the point that the church is relevant to our time. On the other hand, I sense that clergy and lay leaders across the land crave a positive word about what they are doing everyday. Thanks, David, for a positive and true word about what the church provides our people and our society. I would add that the church is one of the few places left where poor people and others of no or little means are able to find assistance and spiritual as well as physical support. The fact that society often ignores the church, or denigrates the church for its too frequent and too human faults, doesn’t change the fact that the church, when true to its calling, is on the front lines of God’s work in the world. Thanks be to God for all who serve in and through the church!

  • “Our political and ideological diversity is profound. It is a delicate task keeping us focused on the Jesus who unites us rather than everything that divides us.”

    I’m so grateful to see Dr. Gushee moving away from the highly partisan political stances that usually frame his religious writing, and back to a focus on Jesus, the One who transcends partisanship and “makes us one,” despite our deep divisions in many areas!

  • Here is where I disagree with you and I hope I can explain it in an understandable way. What you say about the Bible and bible readers I will agree in part.

    I don’t have a problem with regarding the Bible as the inspired word of God. To me what that means as much as anything is this, that the spirt that inspired the writing, he can read his own handwriting. Or he knows what he meant to say when he had someone else write down. If I want read my bible and find faults in Ben I can do that, and can probably find plenty with no “outside” help. If I read my bible to finds faults in myself, I can find plenty there too. Pride, envy, gluttony, slander, some of the other “big ones,” don’t you know, I find I struggle with these and others. Without “outside” help I don’t focus on my fixes I focus on yours. (That is where our differences are personal to me.) When I make progress in those areas I don’t claim the progress comes without help. To your point though, I don’t claim it happened because I read it in the Bible either. Maybe that’s clear as mud.

  • All of these contributions are based on a delusion that the Bible is the word of God and that Jesus was his only son. Reality can be harsh, but shared in community we can continue to support one another without living in a fantasy world.

  • A perfectly reasonable summation of the social gospel, which is an integral part of the whole Gospel, but it is only a part. It is the argument from the Book of James regarding, “Faith without works being dead.” Yet at the same time, the first message of the Gospel is Christ crucified in order to save us, deliver us, and reconcile us to His Father. This was not today’s message from Pastor Gushee, but that’s okay, it doesn’t hurt for Christians to be reminded of their responsibility to one another. Christ would have it so.

  • It’s true that James is for people after they become Christians rather than for evangelizing. But if you aren’t at least trying fulfill James’s call to action, can you really call yourself a Christian?

  • I have no difficulty with James’ call to action, I simply don’t want to see the call to faith lost in the equation.

  • You are aptly named for the famed Scottish philosopher, whose arguments I find suspect.

  • Yeah, Paul has things to say about the dangers of overbalancing both sides of the equation.

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