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Allison Althoff
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March 25, 2009

A Church Without Issues

If you could pick one issue for the Christian church to represent, what would it be? Abortion or same-sex marriage? Environmental stewardship or poverty? Morality?

Some evangelicals are tossing this question around in light of the passing of the old guard: Jerry Falwell died last May, and many other prominent Christian leaders including Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye have retired or handed over the reins of their ministries. Earlier this month, James Dobson resigned as board chairman of Focus on the Family.

The mere mention of these men elicits either a warm smile or a cold shoulder because they all were vocal on some issue. For good or bad, their words have shaped the image of the Christian church in America - both the way we see ourselves, and the way non-Christians view us. As we await new representatives who will become spokespeople for the church, one thing is highly probable: We'll identify these leaders as proponents or opponents of some issue.

And which issue will that be? John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, told the Washington Times that evangelicals currently don't have an issue to rally around. "It used to be the pro-life movement, but I am not sure there is an issue now," he said. "The issue evangelicals key on is the gay movement, but they have lost that issue. There is no cause for a leader to emerge in now."

Say what? We don't have a "cause"?

My friend Brooke offered this profound response to Whitehead's words: "Shouldn't the cause for evangelicals forever and always be evangelism? I wonder if the fact that we have become a political constituency and force has caused us to lose sight of the main thing. I also wonder if the strong public moral stands that evangelicals have taken in the political arena have undermined our ability and effectiveness in presenting the gospel."

Brooke's words really got me thinking: Perhaps the church has wrongly defined itself as an organization that's only interested in backing particular political and social issues. Perhaps we instead need to be defined by the prime directive Jesus gave us: to make disciples.

Yet it appears the church has been losing disciples. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, released by Trinity College earlier this month, the number of Americans who identify as "Christian" has dropped 10 percent in the last two decades, from 86 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008. Mark Silk of Trinity College suggested one factor for this drop: "In the 1990s, it really sunk in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting ?religious right' connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way," he told CNN, noting the connection of Christian groups such as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family to the Republican Party.

There's tremendous danger in defining Christianity solely as a social justice group or a morality enforcement agency. If we end world hunger or make abortion illegal, we'll save lives. But if we lose the gospel message in the process, we'll lose souls.

I'm not suggesting that Christians completely give up political and social activism. Rather, we need to analyze our conversations. Ask yourself: How frequently am I sharing my faith? Do I tend to discuss political or social issues more often than spiritual matters? Could my neighbor or co-worker identify 10 things about me that have nothing to do with my political leanings?

There's a time and a place for us to be passionate about political and social issues. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, the late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis refused to moralize on the homosexual activity he'd witnessed in boarding school. Why? For one, he was sticking to the purpose of the book, which was to discuss his journey to faith. I deeply admire that Lewis kept his focus on evangelism, and suspect he received some criticism for it. Second, Lewis recognized that others were better equipped to discuss homosexuality, since he'd never personally struggled with it.

So here's my first radical proposal: Christians should reserve discussion about abortion and homosexuality solely for these situations: (1) if you're at the forefront of a campaign on one of these issues that involves petitioning the government; (2) if one of these issues comes up for a vote; (3) if someone who is struggling with one of these things asks for your help; or (4) if someone asks for your opinion. I'd add this caveat to the fourth situation: You shouldn't offer your opinion until you've researched the issue and can articulate your stance in a diplomatic manner.

My second radical proposal is associated with the first: Christians should focus on making disciples. Let's get our cause back in line with the one Christ gave the church. And let's demand that our church leaders focus on the same mission that our Founder gave us.

Related Tags: Homosexuality, Politics

Comments

AMEN, AMEN, AMEN. I work with women that struggle with drugs and alcohal. Because I have faced addiction myself and come out triumphant, ONLY through CHRIST, I am able to minister with authority. I have been there and I know where they have been. When we minister out of our morality we many times lose our empathy for the struggle that needs Christ like love demonstated before your words are even given a second thought. I love your radical proposal - lets go back to the gospel message of hope and redemption. There are more than enough people in this world willing to condemn. Let us be the Light that is willing to love unconditionally. Then and only then can we loving address issues that are really about obedience to God's laws, not morality. A person can live a moral life and yet not be saved "for we are not saved by works alone, BUT by Grace, so that no man can boast". Let us demostate Grace then we can really create disciples.

Well, I know this is old, but THANK YOU. Your radical proposal is exactly what I had come to for myself on homosexuality.

I mean, what on earth good does it do anybody if I am out there making statements about it? They get enough of those and as a rule those do nothing but make people angry and turn people off. In fact... well, the fact is, I would actually narrow it down more than you because I basically don't believe in Christian involvement in politics, Christians wielding power; I don't think that's Jesus' way, I think the personal way is always Jesus' way. Making disciples, as you said. What's likelier to change someone's heart: legislation, or face-to-face friendship & love? When did Jesus ever use government power to make people follow any of his teachings?

So I think the only person to whom the question "is sex with one's own gender ever okay?" is truly relevant is a person who has those desires and is trying to figure out what is right in God's eyes for him or her to do. And that is an absolutely gut-wrenching decision; we are talking about a person facing the possibility of never, ever having romance, sex, or the particular kind of intimacy these things offer. And not the way "single but looking" straight people don't have those things, but pretty much knowing they will never have those things. (I know miracles happen. But honestly? I also know the ex-gay thing sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. I also know there's a certain level of faith it would take to marry an ex-gay person because what if you both only thought it worked? And I know a gay man who has taken a vow of celibacy. Who is a deep man of God. And who is lonely. It's tough. It just is.) I have absolutely no right to speak into that person's life unless we are close enough & they have enough trust in me to actually ask for my advice.

Oh, man, all this stuff just came spilling out. There's more I could say. Please blog about this again... something about homosexuality, similar to this? Oh, I don't know. The truth is, I haven't talked about this in forever. I'm scared to talk about it, a lot of us are honestly, we've seen people be so evil to each other over this... and at the same time I (we?) long for a conversation about it that is good and non-flameworthy and Christian and loving, and that includes talking about how to actually honor the deep struggles of our gay friends. Well, so I put it out there, because I realize I am longing for it: do you think we are ready to have such a conversation yet? Maybe you could blog about that question...

So yeah. I just read the comments discussion on the other blog entry you have on homosexuality.

Maybe we're not ready.

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