Embracing those with whom we disagree
It isn’t news to report that millennials are leaving organized religion in significant numbers. “Nones” are on the rise. Church leaders are right to be concerned. A decrease in church participation will not only have implications for congregations but for the social fabric as a whole.
One consequence: a decline in church attendance has implications for how we engage in politics. This was noted recently by Peter Beinart of The Atlantic. Beinart begins his important essay by noting the overall decline of religiosity among young Americans, particularly millennials. He points out how some theorists believed that a decline in religiosity would result in an increase in tolerance.
Beinart concedes that this may be true on some issues, but opines that overall secularism is “making America’s partisan clashes more brutal.” He writes, “As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.”
I recommend reading Beinart’s article in full. There are no easy solutions to the problems he identifies. The world is changing and the challenges before church leaders are immense, not only for evangelism, but in discipling our congregations concerning how best to navigate an increasingly contentious, and often vitriolic, national public discourse.
This is a challenge that must be faced. Rather than embracing partisanship, church leaders would be wise to identify aspects of Christianity that can help those of either political party listen to and embrace those with whom they disagree. Pastor Timothy Keller is right to say, “Tolerance isn't about not having beliefs. It's about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.” Therefore, a focus on common human dignity rooted in an understanding of our sharing in the divine image--how we can bear one another’s burdens, and neighbor love--may help those in our churches engage the world in a more Christ-like manner.
Furthermore, exploring afresh the social dimension of Christian faith may prove to be winsome and compelling. An increasing number of millennials do not adhere to a particular faith, but they have also lost trust in non-religious institutions. Churches that are actively seeking to listen to their neighbors and work toward shared solutions not only help those in need, they build public trust by creating space for the cultivation of common values and give witness to Christian virtues such like compassion, mercy, and service. Younger generations may have good reasons to be skeptical of Christians, but doing good in the community offers a counter-narrative.
Younger generations are aware of the divisions among us, whether they be racial, economic, religious, or political. Acknowledging these divisions evidences our willingness to face those realities. It also allows for those in your congregation to come together and explore solutions. This may not be easy, and sometimes it will be messy. Michael Wear’s book Reclaiming Hope offers one perspective on our present circumstances concerning how faith and politics intersect.
Beinart claims, “secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.” If that is true, we’ll need another way forward. Thankfully, Jesus still leads the way while calling to us over his shoulder, “Follow me!”