Church folks are just too political!” When people are asked why they have decided to leave the church, this has become an increasingly popular response. And, sadly, it is a particularly popular response for those in the 18-29 year old demographic. That we Christians have allowed ourselves to become too political and too partisan is a major contributor to the decline of the church. Partisanship and its corrosive effects are not such a new thing to the culture at large. However, more and more that cultural partisanship is gnawing away at the bonds that are supposed to hold churches together. Partisanship is not the only factor driving the decline in church participation, but it is a significant one. It is to that increasingly partisan and correspondingly hostile environment that our book Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide is committed.
As we observe, increasing partisanship runs precisely counter to Jesus’ own observation that his followers would be known by their love (John 13:35). How so? Partisan rancor has reached a fever pitch in our political process. Long serving politicians have resisted seeking re-election because the politics of “personal destruction” have become so prevalent. Potentially good candidates simply do not want to put their families through the gauntlet. Those who disagree with the “party line” are not just rational persons with a different perspective. Instead, more and more frequently, they are demonized for their disagreement. And, that partisanship that has become increasingly the norm in the culture is quickly becoming the norm within the church—if it hasn’t already. When we Christians demonize each other over our political commitments, when we can no longer engage in respectful and passionate disagreement, when we can no longer work alongside those who come to different political conclusions then partisanship has become destructive of the very unity followers of Jesus are called to exhibit. In all honesty, can we blame our youth when they turn their backs on that? Folks come to church to escape the hostility of the culture, and they simply find too much of it replicated when the go to church.
There are reasonable and, really, easy steps to take that can move us back from the partisan abyss. We can be much more cautious and not let political issues become divisive within the church. We can be more attentive to other perspectives, recognizing that Christians sisters and brothers can disagree on issues about which we are passionate. We can refocus energy away from disagreement to areas where we can make common cause. Differences in one area do not preclude partnership in another. We say that we can do this, but to do so requires us to resist the siren song of perceived political power—and remember, those who fell prey to the seductive power of the sirens often ended up in shipwreck.
Chuck Gutenson has served ten years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky and is a regular contributor to Sojourners and Huffington Post. Chuck is the author of three books, including Christians and the Common Good and, his most recent, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide