Formation

A Risky Opportunity for Discipleship

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There’s a huge discipleship opportunity that’s just over a year away.

To take advantage of it, though, ministry leaders are going to have to go where most fear to tread. Before we get to the opportunity, let’s look to the recent past when many of us missed a similar chance to invite people to follow Jesus more closely.

2016

Three years ago, some of us were waking up to some complicated and, often ugly dynamics in our churches. As the presidential election heated up, we started to notice some of the assumptions and passions that had previously been more quietly held. But now, fueled by two polarizing candidates, Christians who gathered each Sunday to worship sometimes struggled to look each other in the eye.

While many white Christian groups supported the Republican candidate–evangelicals overwhelmingly so–the individual white Christians who didn’t often expressed their opposition strongly. The Democratic candidate also elicited similarly blunt responses from those on the other side of the partisan aisle.

Political arguments that seep into church are nothing new. American churches and denominations have split over the course of the nation’s history, and often the causes behind these divisions have been viewed through the lens of politics. But, in recent memory at least, 2016 felt different.

In the months preceding the election I spoke with pastor friends who were trying to understand what was happening in their churches. These are relatively nonpartisan leaders. In fact, they generally avoid anything that might sound too political. But in 2016, politics found them.

One friend shared how, early in the primaries, he joked with some colleagues about the unlikelihood of a President Trump. Later he was approached by a member of the church who’d overheard him and was upset by her pastor’s ambivalence about the candidate she strongly supported. Another friend recounted how, despite maintaining political neutrality throughout the campaign, a group of members left after the election. Their pastor’s silence led them to believe that their enthusiasm for the new president wouldn’t be welcomed at church. I’ve also heard from people of color, both friends and acquaintances, who also left their churches after the election. In their cases, the silence from their predominately white or multiracial congregations about the candidate who regularly demeaned people like themselves made them feel invisible and unwanted.

These churches and their leaders assumed that avoiding politics was the best way to keep the peace. By staying above the fray, these leaders hoped to avoid the disagreements and divisions that mar so much in public life. It didn’t work.

Not only did their studious disengagement not result in the kind of unity we desire for our congregations, but they also missed an opportunity to disciple those in their spiritual care. Imagine another kind of church that experienced the election very differently because their leaders and pastors were thrilled at the possibility of a Trump presidency. Rather than remaining quiet, they purposefully led their congregations toward understanding our current president as a great option, not just as American citizens but as Christians. Their preaching and teaching, how they explained the candidates’ divisive and destructive actions, what narratives about the nation’s history they chose to highlight–all of these were parts of a discipleship movement. With some exceptions, most of these pastors didn’t get up one morning and bluntly tell their people who to vote for. No, they discipled them.

2020

In a little over a year we’ll be closing in on the next presidential election. For those of us who missed the discipleship opportunity last time, we have a few months to get ready. Our goals will not be the same as those churches who purposefully discipled their members toward the Republican candidate. I’m guessing that most Missio Alliance readers will have a hard time ever feeling overly enthusiastic about any presidential candidate of any party. No, the point is not to disciple people into a partisan view of the world. It’s bigger than that, and so much better.

The aim of Christian discipleship is the kingdom of God. As Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, disciples of Jesus are with him “by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God.” We make disciples who are aimed away from the small partisan kingdoms of our nation by, in Willard’s words again, “ravishing them with a vision of life in the kingdom of the heavens in the fellowship of Jesus.”

If we are to take advantage of this discipleship opportunity, we must be clear: our goals are neither political quietism nor partisan allegiance. Instead, we are called to disciple people toward the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom in which Jesus alone is Lord, the culturally marginalized are elevated, and reconciliation across lines of segregation and division are prioritized as evidence of the gospel’s power.

Our goals are neither political quietism nor partisan allegiance. Instead, we are called to disciple people toward the kingdom of God. Click To Tweet

So, how might we take advantage of this occasion to disciple people toward the kingdom?

Four Discipleship Actions to Take Now

First, decide to speak up. If you’ve previously defaulted toward avoiding anything political, you’ll need to resolve to leave that behind.

Second, remember that this election cycle will disciple us whether or not we know it. As we scroll through social media feeds, tune into cable news, or scan the headlines our imaginations are being shaped by systems that thrive on anxiety and division. Choosing to look away from our dysfunctional politics only leaves our people to fend for themselves.

As we scroll through social media feeds, tune into cable news, or scan the headlines our imaginations are being shaped by systems that thrive on anxiety and division. Click To Tweet

Third, those of us in predominately white settings must remind our congregations of our place within the racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse body of Christ. Within a racialized nation, white people are constantly being led toward segregated echo chambers. We can easily forget that what sounds optimistic to us might be threatening to our neighbors of color. So, pastors and leaders can point to specific rhetoric, actions, or policies and remind our churches about how these could harm our family in Christ.

Finally, we can teach our people what many Christians have always known, that a presidential election is generally a choice between the lesser of two not-so-great options. White Christians have often missed this when we make our nation too similar to the kingdom of God. We have viewed elections as a powerful way to advance God’s purposes. But there are many others who’ve never been confused about the countless distinctions between our country and the kingdom. African-American Christians, for example, have historically known that whoever gets their vote for will not really have their best interests in mind. The vote is important not for how it can advance God’s kingdom but for how it might restrain, even a little, this world’s troubles.

The vote is important not for how it can advance God’s kingdom but for how it might restrain, even a little, this world’s troubles. Click To Tweet

We can take this last suggestion a step forward by helping our churches imagine what political options might be better–or, at least, less bad–for those Christians who’ve historically been marginalized by our political process. In this moment we can remember our solidarity with immigrant and refugee Christians and place their experiences in front of our communities. Considering their well-being and security can inform how we vote while also redirecting our imaginations toward the kingdom we share together.

It’s possible that in the aftermath of the 2020 election, our churches are more united, more connected with the diverse body of Christ, and more ravished by a vision of the reconciled kingdom of God. But in a nation where the political process relies on fear and division, none of this will just happen to us. We must choose to disciple. And we’ve got to start today.

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