Politics. Everyone’s favorite subject. Before I share with you a story about being a rookie pastor during last year’s election, let me share with you where I come from politically. I’m grew up in a conservative church and community in Pennsylvania . I moved to Nashville (buckle of the Bible belt) and received an education training me to become a pastor while seeing poverty and injustice in a whole new light. I was also exposed to the incompatibility of the Gospel and some popular American ideals. Then, I moved to the midwest, where, depending which county you live in will determine how many conservatives or liberals you are around. I own guns (for hunting, I do not carry), think our government should only spend what they receive through taxes (what’s a budget again?), cannot stand how corporations run the way they do (and don’t understand why they get tax breaks), don’t agree with abortion OR the death penalty, and so on and so on. I’m a mess politically, at least in the eyes of the current political system. I aim to keep it that way. I’m a millennial like that.
But this isn’t a post about my politics. This is about something better. I want to tell you a story about being a young pastor willing to talk about the most polarizing thing in our culture in my first year. There’s a few universal points of advice in your first year of being a pastor. Don’t change everything in your first year. Get to know people before going into hot topics. And lastly, NEVER talk about politics in your first year.
But, my first year of being a lead pastor, like Josiah (you know he’s the author of this awesome book that will be releasing soon), was 2016. I arrived at my church in August of 2016, the height of the political season for the most divisive election in my lifetime. As time went on and after a few conversations with some of my folks, it was obvious the angst of the political season was being brought to services on Sunday. Everyone knows what the election season was like last year and many of you probably felt that angst and stress in your own churches. But it felt different here.
You see, I live in Trumbull County in Ohio. It’s the Rust Belt (I’ve lived in two belts so far in my life), where industries have cut immense amount of jobs and factories have shut down. We are the center of the opioid epidemic, this year alone we’ve had 1,113 overdoses and 60 deaths. That’s a lot. When you travel across Warren, you see houses in disrepair, overgrown vacant lots, and discount value stores and restaurants rather than premium brands and sit down franchises. The political angst and anger was apparent, not just because of the signs in peoples’ yards, but you could sense it in every conversation. People were looking to change something in this election, because they were sick and tired of seeing declines in jobs, economy, and overall public welfare. And as November came, the election results proved it.
Our county has voted Democrat for president all the way back to 1960. 2016 was the first time our county voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 56 years, and even then it was still pretty close: 51.2% voting for Trump and 44.8% for Clinton. CNN even did a report on our county regarding the changing political climate. But that didn’t mean everyone was of one voice (after all, look at the numbers). And when a divisive cultural moment occurs, we all come to church with our own opinions, and hear things like, love one another, be of one mind, and be peacemakers. There’s a bit of a gap to bridge for folks when a 24 hour news cycle of pundits and opinions meets the unifying Gospel of Christ.
So I felt led to do a political series in the midst of this political climate. It was timely and it was important for folks to be knowledgable in how God dealt with earthly politics in history. So with a deep breath we jumped into the stories of Elisha the prophet. And guess what…
I’m totally kidding! But I did fear that people would leave if I went political, being the 30 year old first time lead pastor who only just arrived 2-3 months prior. But as I dove into the series, it was obvious that this series would make almost everyone with a political opinion uncomfortable. There wasn’t going to be a perspective in current American politics that scripture was going to agree completely. Which probably made me even more nervous. Just to give you some context to statements that would make people uncomfortable:
- No current political party completely represents the values of God’s kingdom.
- There is no Biblical mandate for voting.
- Voting the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil.
- God still reigns on high regardless of who becomes our elected officials.
I wasn’t saying these things to throw live grenades into the congregation to make people upset and uncomfortable. I wasn’t playing devil’s advocate. I didn’t do bad impersonations of any of the candidates, nor admonish their own moral flaws (though there were/are plenty). I didn’t hand out voting guides that appear to be non-partisan, when they actually are. I didn’t endorse a candidate. I wasn’t doing anything other than what I was taught to do as a pastor, understand and share the Biblical text in its context and share it’s meaning for our own context.
And you want to know what happened? No one yelled at me. I didn’t have anyone stick a political yard sign in my yard trying for me to “get in line”. No one walked out in the middle of the services. And no one left the church. What happened is what’s supposed to happen in the Body of Christ…
I began to have amazing conversations with folks about what was going on in our world. They were thought-provoking. They affected our hearts and walks with God positively. I had someone flat out disagree with me regarding some of the things said regarding voting. We talked it through and embraced one another as brothers in Christ. Even if there were disagreements, something was happening. We were conversing about the tough stuff of culture and life and loving each other while doing it.
We were living like first-century churches, intermixing people with incredibly different backgrounds and perspectives and coming together under one Lord, one baptism, one faith. Did we agree on everything? No! Neither did the first-century church. But they did recognize that living out our faith with each other united as the body of Christ is far more important than leaving conversations over a different perspective about the government. They saw the Kingdom of God to be far more important than leaders or politics of the government.
And this is something that the church HAS to do. If we are unable to talk about difficult things together in a loving and non-combative way, then where are people going to talk about the difficult things? As people defined by the love and truth of Jesus Christ, we find ways to talk about right relationship with each other and right living, than why wouldn’t we find ways to talk about politics? The church is not a place of lobbying worldly politics. It’s a people of a subversive ethic that is far greater than any political discourse the world has ever seen. And while that ethic is rather political, it is far above any politics we see in our earthly governments. That subversive ethic is love. We have to love each other when we converse. And when we do, we find out the church isn’t a top down organization of people, but rather a group of people ministering to each other, working out our faith with fear and trembling. I think that’s why Paul encouraged his churches so much in the first-century, because he understood that new problems were going to arise that weren’t fully fleshed out in his time. And we still have new problems among us, so let us work out our faith with fear and trembling.
Now, in the end, did our church all vote for the same candidates? No. And that isn’t necessary. What is necessary is we were leaning on God and His identity in the midst of differences. To keep relationships even in the midst of conflict. To offer forgiveness when we allow our differences to alter our relationships with others. To love each other, like Christ loves us.
Read Matt’s last post here.