“The church thinks that young people will save the church, but actually young people want to save the world,” said Rev. Jeremy Smith, popular blogger. “If we can show them that young people can save the world through the church, then young people will gladly be a part of the church.”
Saving the world, even some small part of it, is risky business. It usually means speaking up about something others would rather keep quiet. Last month’s stirring movie Selma reminds me just how much was sacrificed to turn the tide of injustice toward justice. This month’s Black History Month reinforces the message.
Saving some small part of the world also means making ethical decisions about right and wrong: what you will stand for, and what you won’t.
So it begs the question: What is your church speaking up about? Or, what is your church known for?
If you answered: we are known for being friendly or we welcome anyone, then chances are what you’re really saying is “not much.” In that case, your church may have lost its voice. It may have laryngitis.
While laryngitis is mostly benign in humans, it’s usually indicative of a systemic problem in churches. I want to share with you what that problem is, three fears that drive the problem and three ways to transform the fear so that we can speak with a clear, strong voice.
Losing Our Native Tongue
The problem I see is that churches confuse ethics with politics. If it’s being discussed on the news or in Congress, then it must be politics. For many churches, that means the topic of conversation is now off limits. But that kind of self-censure limits our ability to speak our native tongue: the language of values, principles, and ideals, right and wrong, virtue and sin.
Meanwhile, we have left ethics to the politicians. While we claim laryngitis. Oops.
I’m not saying that re-claiming our voice is easy. It’s not. Whether we’re talking about chronic poverty, immigration, human trafficking, gays and transgendered people, economic injustice, or human impacts on the precious planet we call home the ethical issues before us are tough, tough, tough. Reclaiming its voice is the hardest thing a church will do. But it is also the most freeing. Because it causes us to truly depend on the grace of God, to walk in the footsteps of the great Hebrew Prophets, and to emulate Jesus himself.
While Adam Hamilton has done an excellent job addressing “Confronting the Controversies,” I’d like to address 3 fears that often get in the way of churches dealing with ethical issues:
- The fear of alienating people through controversy, or causing division, which in turn could mean losing financial givers.
- The fear of delving into politics, especially if it puts us on the wrong side of where our people are, either red or blue.
- The fear of losing a focus on the love of Christ, or straying too far from the spiritual.
Since I have dealt with fear #1 in a recent post, I’d like to focus on fears #2 and 3 here.
Fear of Politics: I understand the fear of delving into politics. That’s shaky ground and sure to turn off some people. The trouble is, the public arena is where ethical issues are often debated and outcomes determined. My suggestion is to bypass political parties and personalities while exploring the underlying ethical issues being debated. When we deal with hot issues from an ethical or biblical standpoint, we can put things on more neutral ground.
Speaking Tip #1: Dealing with ethics does not mean telling people how to vote, or even how to think. It does mean helping people explore the sources that can inform our thinking especially scripture, experience, tradition, and reason.
Fear of Straying from Christ: People want and need to be grounded in the love of Christ. Dealing with ethical issues actually aids this. I think of ethics as love of neighbor in action. Why would we leave that to career politicians?
Speaking Tip #2: Frame ethical matters in terms of love. This brings issues back into our territory and allows us to speak with authority and confidence.
The Power of Speech
While Martin Luther King Jr’s example has guided several generations of dreamers, a new incarnation has taken center stage recently, Pope Francis. In his brief tenure, he has managed to speak up on key issues facing the world from re-establishing good relations with Cuba, to living wages, to climate change. Is he dealing with the political? Or the ethical? I’d say its love of neighbor on a grand stage.
Speaking Tip #3: Not sure how to begin speaking up? In the style of the prophets, we can use our voices to ask: Who is hungry? Who is thirsty? Who is rich? Who is poor? Who is included? Who is excluded? Once those dynamics are identified, then we can approach it from the perspective of Jesus and his own ministry. WWJD?
Finally, be sure to immerse yourself in prayer and study. Let the still small voice guide you in reclaiming your own voice from the malaise of laryngitis. Who knows…it just might change the world.