What Do We Do When Nobody is Listening?: Leading the Church in a Polarized Society
Throughout my forty years as a parish pastor, the national election every four years never failed to produce anxiety in the congregational system. Reflecting back on a ministerial career and hoping that a new generation of Christian lay leaders can negotiate more wisely and sensitively the polarization of our times, I looked forward to the release in June 2022 of Robin W. Lovin’s book, What Do We Do When Nobody is Listening?
If you are looking for an easy, how to negotiate the land minds of the current political polarization, this book will be a disappointment. But if you are willing to do the hard work of reading deeply and listening carefully, this is a discerning book for how Christian leaders and churches can effectively thrive during this current time of national division.
This 154-page book contains one of the best analyses that I have read of how we got to the current national polarization which has also led to a great sorting out of churches into conservative and progressive, as well as the divisions of denominations. I could not help reading the book without reflecting on the splits in the Reformed Church and Christian Reformed Church is not so much about sexuality but is just as much about the current political and cultural polarization.
Lovin does not believe that our society is at the point of a complete crack-up over the current divides that bedevil us as a nation, or at least not yet. “But neither is the polarization we experience today simply a continuation of the usual politics of disagreement.” We have discovered that division runs through the whole society, and not just our politics. Universities, neighborhoods, and churches are all discovering that they live along the fault lines between progressive and conservative.
In the first third of the book, Lovin introduces the reader to basic democratic political theory and the current polarization impasse. Lovin draws on the political theory of John Rawls of “reasonable pluralism.” Individuals may have rich and detailed ideas about the human good, but in a pluralistic society, you make political decisions based on a “thin theory of the good,” because diverse people cannot have a complete agreement about what is good and just. Democracy will always inherently have disagreement about what is the nature of the good and also the resultant social, economic, and political policy. However, there are a number of factors that have exasperated the division in our society. Certainly, we can point to the proliferation of the internet and social media. Disagreements are less reasonable simply because the exchange is so brief. We reduce the issues down to a “bumper sticker,” or I might interject a red baseball cap or in my personal experience, a value sign hung from the church. But in a polarized society, nobody is listening, or a certain statement leads to categorizing people without giving much thought or attention.
Lovin’s analysis in this section is deep and requires careful attentive reading. After reading parts of it a second or even third time, I believe that this first section of the book provides one of the most perceptive analyses of our deep societal divisions.
In the middle section of the book, Lovin draws on the riches of theology and the church tradition that have confronted similar societal brokenness in the past. The author introduces us to a succinct summary of the writings and teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he confronted the authoritarian rule of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer can be instructive for our time, while also recognizing that we are not in the same position as a society and as a church as confronting Hitler in the 1930s. Hitler seized complete control of all of society. A positive aspect of polarization is that all of society is not controlled by one person, one tribe, or one all-encompassing idea.
Threatened by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer withdrew from society and developed a seminary for the confessing church. It was important to withdraw and to create a community of Bible reading, prayer, and the practice of faith for everyday living in order to withstand the Nazi ideology. It is at this point that Lovin introduces an important concept drawn from Bonhoeffer — “The church is to take up space.” The mere existence of an alternative community for Bonhoeffer meant that “the church takes up space.”
Lovin suggests that Bonhoeffer’s phrase “The church is to take up space,” is being worked out today in two broad streams of the Christian tradition as the church confronts secularization and marginalization. One movement, expressed by the Christian right, uses conservative politics for faith to find space in the broader culture. The refusal to perform a gay wedding or to bake cakes for such a wedding, may not persuade the broader culture, but it is a way to mark resistance. The main purpose of resistance is not to persuade or to have better legislation but to take up space through resistance.
At this point, I have some questions: Is this really the conservative or traditional religious person’s desire, merely to take up space? Or isn’t the ultimate goal of this movement to control the culture using various means of power without necessarily persuading the culture? It may be that many in the culture and society are listening, but they don’t like what they hear!
A second broad movement is a strategy of witness and withdrawal which has appealed to many theologians in mainline denominations. When many congregations’ numbers are down, the important thing is to witness to the word with a rejection of easy discipleship. The purpose is to create communities with alternative language which the culture may not understand. But the church “takes up space” to stand apart from the world and to measure the community of faith by an entirely separate set of standards. It seems to me that Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s much-discussed book of a few decades ago, Resident Aliens, is a prime example of this second stream of church and culture. I do believe that Lovin’s desire for the church to stand in the middle and to function as a bridge builder fits more with a Reformed approach to influencing culture than the model presented in Resident Aliens.
In the last third of the book, Lovin calls on the church to reorient by listening to the word and to the world. And then the church in the name of Jesus in these polarized times must particularly listen to those who have been forgotten by our society. Lovin’s discussion with a chapter devoted to each topic is worth reflection, meditation, and specific action.
The last nine pages of the book provide extremely helpful broad directions for lay and pastoral leadership of congregations that I hope Lovin will further develop in future writings. He encourages the church in the midst of polarization to take up space in a different way than the two previous options sketched above and to be a bridge for people, both in the church and society. A brief summary of Lovin’s own words is worth quoting:
“The church locates itself in the moral void that a divided society tries to create between its polar alternatives. The church announces to the world that this space is not empty. What the divided society will find there, taking up space, is not only the church, which was supposed to have relocated itself to one or the other side of the poles but the beginnings of that public moral discourse that seemed to have disappeared altogether.” (p. 75)
Particularly in these polarizing times, the church should be an inclusive community where all are welcome. Second, something I found particularly intriguing from recent pastoral experience–the church should be elusive. So often when we put up value signs or declare something using certain language, we only increase the polarization. We should transcend the language of the various political tribes by being elusive. Jesus transcended the political labels of his day and so should we.
Third, the church is to be effective. The local church is uniquely positioned knowing its community to bridge divides and to carry out specific actions that transcend the current poles that divide society. I think for example of the fine work that Hope Church and First United Methodist Church are doing in Holland, MI in the area of housing. Or the current direction of Third Reformed Church mentoring at a local African-American school academy. And finally, Lovin suggests that when we listen to the Word and the world in the midst of polarization, it will bring positive change that we cannot currently predict. Polarization is a remarkably predictable way for the various political sides and actors to continue business as usual, but the church that “takes up space” can be effective and bear witness to the unity of Christ that “holds all things together.” With thoughtful and prayerful digesting of the last nine pages, Christian leaders will be able to find a compass and guide to negotiate our current polarized divide, even if it is concrete and limited.
I am left wondering for a pastor or a Christian church, is there a time for “a Bonhoeffer moment” when we cannot stay in the middle and be elusive? When is that time and in what ways will we speak and act out the faith? And maybe with Jesus working in our midst, there will always be conflict in the local congregation and denominational life, a sign that Jesus is indeed present. As a pastor who strived throughout nearly forty years of parish ministry to invite people of various political perspectives into the body of Christ but found it difficult to navigate the political poles within congregational life, particularly in the past few years, Lovin’s book is a welcomed contribution for church leaders who must minister during the present divisive times.