Christianity’s Problem Is Not Lack of Political Involvement
by Bill Barnwell
My previous column "Our Hope is in the Gospel, Not Politics and Government," evoked a large response from readers. A few dissenters wanted to know exactly what my solution was for Christians who are failing to have a substantial impact on their culture. The issue on a whole is complex and to adequately address it requires much more space than can be given here. Two destructive pillars, however, are seriously hampering Christian influence on a whole. Those pillars are laziness and mediocrity. If our ultimate hope is in the gospel, then the gospel carriers need a strong jolt to refresh their lazy and lukewarm faith.
Let’s be frank, Christians are becoming increasingly irrelevant in society. Congregations continue to shrink. Negative perceptions of Christians are on the rise. Society continues its drift away from Christian values. Yet where do many Christians turn to find their solution to this mess? They turn to the government and its coercive bondage instead of to Christ and His liberating freedom.
Too many Christians believe that if only we can replace the "wrong" politicians with the "right" ones, we will be able to legislate our way into becoming a holy and pure nation. As I pointed out in my previous column, this method has produced little if any fruit. How then can the Christian have a meaningful impact on society?
While Christians have devoted much work to political activism, whether they know it or not they are attempting easy solutions for complex problems. While some truly believe government coercion is the sure way to bring about desired change, others simply just don’t want to deal with the tougher issues. Those tougher issues require reaching people’s hearts and minds and doing the things Scripture actually tells Christians that they should do (following the Great Commission, meeting human needs, being a vibrant church, etc.). I will argue that the reasons many Christians don’t make these efforts is (partly) because they are too lazy to do so and have settled for mediocrity instead of greatness.
The Lazy Church of Today
Christians are jumping the gun. They think they can change people’s votes before changing their hearts. Perhaps it is because the latter requires too much work. I’ve worked political campaigns. I’ve sat on Right to Life boards. I even was a campaign manager for a successful city council campaign in Michigan’s third largest city back in 1999. I know how much time and work political activism requires.
As a pastor, however, I also see how much more difficult - and important - it is to reach and transform peoples hearts and minds. This means more than changing their votes from Democratic to Republican. In short, it means taking the Great Commission seriously. Sadly, not many Christians do take it seriously these days.
I wonder how many politically charged Christians put the same amount of zeal into their efforts to "witness" to nonbelievers that they do into their efforts to campaign for a particular politician. I also wonder how many Christians period take evangelism seriously today. From my several years in ministry and being involved in different churches, the answer is "not many." It’s much easier to prattle off about politicians than it is to engage in real Christian service - which is the job of all believers.
It’s also much easier just to do nothing, which is a great bulk of what Christians do. The most productive thing many Christians do is keep a pew warm for an hour and a half every Sunday (or once or twice a month). A common saying in church circles is that "Fifteen percent of the people do eighty-five percent of the work." I’ve never attempted to empirically measure the truth of that statement, but my experience tells me it’s not all that far off.
How do Christians think they are going to make a difference in society when they can’t even perform the basic tasks that keep their churches healthy and productive? Ask anyone in ministerial leadership, it’s usually the same people who volunteer and get involved in every major and minor initiative facing the church. The churches that don’t reflect this laziness and have a strong percentage of lay member involvement are the churches that are growing and reaching people. But involvement takes effort, and that’s something most Christians aren’t willing to give.
Asking many Christians for help, time, or tithes is like pulling teeth in a church. I often wonder what the Church would look like if the 85% of uninvolved Christians decided to become as devoted and caring as the 15% of involved Christians. The result would probably be a Church that took evangelism seriously, a Church that could meet social needs (and did not toss that responsibility to the government), and a Church that reflected the love and attitude of Christ instead of the ho-hum and indifferent attitude it has today. I think a Church like that could accomplish far more than the modern day politicized Christian Right could ever imagine.
Another most peculiar reason for Christian laziness and inactivity is the current fascination with the "end-times." When one pastor was talking to a Christian woman about the need to have a greater impact on society, she replied to him - and I’m not joking - "Well if we do that then Jesus is not going to come back for us!" Since this individual believed that Jesus would only return when the world had gone to Hades in a handbasket, it made little sense to try and actually improve society and make a difference in life.
With this line of reasoning, it’s actually more desirable for Christians to be lazy and do nothing since Jesus will only come when the world is sufficiently screwed up enough. Thus horrible things like war, poverty, destruction, etc., are actually not so bad since these problems will usher in Jesus’ return. Even if it turns out that this interpretation of the "end-times" is correct, doesn’t it make sense for the Church to have as much influence as it can before all these calamities strike? It does, but again, it’s easier just to sit back and do nothing.
The Mediocre Church of Today
Another troubling aspect of Christianity today is its satisfaction with mediocrity. Let’s face it; Christians often have a deserved reputation for doing things less successfully than their secular counterparts. How many prominent Christian entrepreneurs, academics, artists, think-tanks, colleges, etc., are making a significant impact on society today? Chances are you can count them all on both of your hands.
A convenient way to avoid this reality is to wrap our failures and mediocrities up in spiritual language. When I’ve pointed this out to others in the past I’ve been charged with being "worldly." It’s very true that success in God’s eyes is different from success in the world’s eyes. But when it comes to the various affairs, pursuits, and endeavors of life, why shouldn’t Christians be succeeding in these various realms at a greater or at least same pace as their secular counterparts? If Christians are to do all things for "God’s glory," why is so much of their work mediocre?
Christians talk about how they can do "all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13) but most actually strive for very little. Churches today are dwindling in size and influence. The average Protestant congregation in America is 100 people or less. It’s true that it’s not "all about numbers" and that "bigger is not always better," but there’s a problem when a group of Christians are utterly incapable of reaching anyone in their community (many of these small churches are composed of "family clans" who make up a large percentage of the membership).
Protestants in particular are so caught up in mediocrity that they are fond of criticizing those who strive for greater things. There is a trend I’ve noticed where Christians are almost embittered at churches that are larger and more successful than their own. They figure if a church is large and has a receptive audience then it must be "liberal" or that there must be something else wrong with it. Hence, they congratulate and piously puff themselves up for their mediocrity and criticize those who are actually making a difference and impacting people. How convenient.
Yes, pious Christian, perhaps some of these churches are successful for the wrong reasons. Or perhaps you are just jealous of any Christian who does not follow your same lazy and mediocre model of Christianity. Maybe instead of criticizing these churches and Christians you should learn a little from them.
Instead of accomplishing and being all we can be, all too often we Christians settle for second best and underestimate both ourselves and the potential impact of the Church. Instead of facing our problems head on we excuse our lack of relevance with spiritual excuses. The Church is capable of so much more than it gives itself credit for. Christians ought to get off their lazy behinds and claim this power of God they so often talk about but so seldom display.
The Potential Church of Tomorrow
The Christian Right needs to clean up its own backyard before it thinks it can impose a political Messianic Superstate. Greater problems face the Church than not enough Christians voting. The fact that so many Christians are Biblically illiterate (including life-long attenders!) and care little for evangelism and discipleship are bigger concerns. The fact that so many Christians prefer laziness, inactivity, and mediocrity to excellence, success, and reaching their full potentials should be more alarming. The fact that the real outreach and ministry of Christianity is being largely neglected should make even the most politically zealous Christian pause.
You want results Christians? Then motivate your people to get off their lazy butts. Take a break from the potlucks, Vegas nights, church softball games, and just plain doing nothing and get involved in what Scripture actually requires of you. That means you must learn the Scriptures. Learn what it means to be a disciple. Learn what it takes to make disciples. Learn to love and care for people (yep, even those people who don’t watch Fox News!). Learn to reflect the character of Christ to other people. Take seriously the Great Commission. Cast off your laziness and mediocrity and exchange it for diligence and excellence.
I could add things like learning the value of being peacemakers instead of warmongers (Matt. 5:9) and teaching the importance of being industrious and hard-working (2 Thessalonians 3:10), but the above is a good starting point for Christians of any stripe and theological heritage who are concerned about being a positive influence in society. To those who have written to me and complained that I have seemingly discounted the merits of political activism, I say that your activism is meaningless and will continue to bear no fruit until the Church on a whole awakens from its spiritual slumber.
Christians have failed so frequently. The Church has disappointed so often. The good news, however, is that there is so much potential. This potential is not only for the universal Church, but for average and ordinary Christians everywhere. Who says we can’t become the kind of Christians the Bible calls us to be? Who says we can’t compete with the secular world in everything from academics, to business, to the arts, to whatever? The only reason the Church is as lackluster as it is now is because it has allowed itself to be. Yet this is not what we have to settle for. We are capable of much more.
Right now, Christians needs to get their focus off of coercive government, and onto being the kind of people that the Bible says we are to be. We’re so worried about everyone else that we’ve forgotten about ourselves. As a result we’ve gotten lazy and inefficient. Let’s straighten up our own house before we attempt to straighten up everyone else’s. Sure, it might take a little more effort than political activism, but I think it will be worth it. The question is do you?
July 13, 2004
Bill Barnwell [send him mail] is a pastor in Swartz Creek, Michigan, and a Master’s of ministry student at Bethel College.