The Church has seen major transformation in 2,000 years, but its tradition runs deep. Whether it is a medieval cathedral or a storefront congregation meeting in a Nairobi slum, it is still a place of coming together every Sunday morning to worship, fellowship, give, encourage, and pray. Like the early Church, it is an ecclesia—a group “called out” to testify to God’s presence in the world, sometimes in the midst of threat and insecurity.
The Church has been, and must be, a place of both pastoral care and a place of prophetic witness. These two tracks of religious expression have dominated the history of Christianity. Coming together to worship brings comfort and discipleship to the soul, but it also challenges the believer to create a faithful presence in the broader culture in which it exists. The Church is to be a catalyst for change.
TWO T R A C K S : PA S TO R A L C A R E A N D P R O P H E T I C W I T N E S S
The first track (pastoral care) suggests the church must be a safe place: a place where we go knowing that we will be cared for and loved; a place that strengthens our minds, hearts, and souls. We look forward to the worship experience and the gathering of believers, because it is a “retreat” that allows us to reflect on the meaning of life and what that life might mean to others. It should be a place that informs, inspires, and comforts.
Then there is that other track (prophetic witness), fueled by history’s prophets and change agents, where the Church becomes a catalyst for challenging us to be transformational in our living, our ethics, and our practice of faith. It dares to suggest that we are a community that calls into question the values, norms, and behaviors of the culture. We have seen this aspect of the Church in the abolition of slavery, human-trafficking, substance abuse, and juvenile justice reform, to name a few. In other words, the Church uses its prophetic witness in efforts to protect and redeem those who do not have a strong voice in our society.
While most churches excel at comfort and care, many churches struggle with how to adequately use our prophetic voice as the people of God. Our dilemma as pastors and leaders in local congregations is that in a world that has become so polarized around politics and cultural norms, what is the pastor to say on a Sunday morning about the issues of the day? Should we be silent? Should we be selective and only speak where there is agreement in our congregations? Should we only speak to those issues that affect us personally?
Just like those in the early Church, who often disagreed on how to confront the values and politics of the Roman Empire, today’s churches wrestle with the balance between being places that are welcome to all while still offering an instructive and prophetic voice. Ours is a 2,000-year-old dilemma.
What can We Do?
The Church must always seek to create a “faithful presence” in the community it serves. As the “light of the world” and a “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14), congregations can prayerfully engage with issues facing our world.
here are a few suggestions:
1. Form study groups in your congregation around issues that affect your local community. Addressing issues from climate change and the environment to high crime rates, study groups can explore biblical, Christ-centered, approaches and present their findings to the congregation.
2. Never allow a position on a political or social issue to become an excuse to exclude someone. Emphasize that you are a people of inclusion and a people of the via media—the “middle way.” This means that we can recognize and validate differences of opinion, but challenge anyone who defines another’s faith by mere political orientation.
3. As a pastor, inform yourself on all sides of an issue. You may hear opinions that send you up the wall, and you may find solidarity with individuals who validate or agree with your political views, but strive to remain curious and current.
4. Invite diverse speakers into your congregation. Create a climate of hospitality where outsiders are welcome, and let them express their views on topics. Seek understanding, which begins with listening.
5. Discuss approaches with your board and get consistent input as you move into this arena of engagement. This increases “buy in” among the leaders and the members of the congregation.
6. On all issues, be transparent and communicate in a spirit of honesty to build trust and confidence in your ministry.
As followers of Jesus, we are a diverse people whose differences can be even more acute among the faithful. We should not fear these differences but should allow them to sharpen our own positions, anchored in compassion and grace. We are an assembly, an ecclesia, that cannot ignore the issues of our day. We can’t put our heads in the sand, praying these critical issues never touch our congregation. That is naïve and dangerous.
As we approach “hot topics” within and outside the church, we should communicate with a spirit of grace, forgiveness, and tolerance. We are a called-out community that boldly proclaims the love of Jesus. The closer we are to that truth, the closer we are to the One who is the way, the truth, and the light.
JAMES E. COPPLE has a Master of Divinity degree and doctoral work in the history of education and Christianity. He has published in the fields of substance abuse prevention, treatment, crime prevention, education and global HIV/AIDS and has worked on diverse political campaigns. Copple lives in Washington, DC and owns his own government relations and grant writing firm.