I’ve been conducting studies on U.S. clergy and congregations since 2017 to research attitudes about ministry, social issues, and preaching and how they’re changing over time. In a survey of congregants in ten Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations in 2019, 52% of respondents said they knew of people leaving their church because of disagreements about social issues. When we asked that question of ten United Methodist Church congregations in 2020, 42% said they saw this happening in their own churches. What are clergy observing? In our 2021 survey of nearly two thousand U.S. clergy, 25% said that their congregation was more divided than it was before the 2020 election. 48% said that their community was more divided.
If you are a member of a congregation or serve one as a pastor, these statistics might resonate with what you’ve observed in your own church over the past few years. The last decade has been filled with stressful factors that put enormous strain on relationships within congregations. According to Lisa Cressman, founder of Backstory Preaching which networks with thousands of preachers, when congregations are stressed, they are more “brittle,” meaning that they are emotionally fragile and less receptive to being transformed by the gospel. “A brittle congregation is highly stressed,” she writes. “The people are anxious, they rarely laugh, and they are probably exhibiting symptoms of grief, including anger, lashing out, withdrawing, isolating, waxing nostalgic, circling the wagons, overreacting, bargaining, making much ado about nothing, targeting you or another leader (or a problem) as the problem, and/or displaying passive-aggressive behaviors.”[i]
Do you recognize any of these signs of “brittleness” in your congregation? Even the healthiest, strongest churches have been subjected to an onslaught of external factors over the last several years that can lead to increased brittleness. These factors include the devastation of the Covid-19 global pandemic, increasing political polarization, the emergence of conspiracy theories and disinformation, as well as violence and social unrest. Add to that the growing boldness of white Christian nationalism, and it’s no wonder that both clergy and congregations are hesitant to address any social issue that might exacerbate pre-existing tensions in their churches.
At the same time, the majority of congregants in our surveys indicated that they do look to their church for biblical and theological guidance about social issues. 76% of DOC respondents said preachers should address contemporary issues “because Jesus and the Bible speak about social issues.” And 85% of UMC respondents agreed that the church should encourage dialogue and discussion about social issues from a faith perspective.
So, if you and your congregation do want to talk about social issues in the midst of this divisive time, what are ways you can build bridges and maintain healthy relationships? To answer that question, I’ll share with you some things I’ve learned through my work with the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research foundation that focuses on helping citizens be better at democracy.
1) Articulate boundaries for civil behavior along with reminders that maintaining trust and respect is paramount. Remember, while we accept all people, we don’t accept all behaviors. In the church, those things that work toward the common good of loving God and loving neighbor take precedence over an individual’s right to say whatever they want, however they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want.
2) Encourage the sharing of stories to humanize the difficult issues with which we are grappling. If we hear someone share an opinion we don’t agree with, we can ask, “Can you tell me about how you came to think this way? Is there a story that can help me understand where you’re coming from?”
3) Listen deeply and reflectively. Some people are familiar with the practice of “reflective listening” where you paraphrase what you’ve heard from the person to make sure you are understanding what they’re saying. Listening to understand instead of planning a rebuttal takes restraint and genuine curiosity and openness toward the humanity of the other person.
4) Move beyond negative generalizations and stereotypes about the side with which we disagree. One way to try to find common ground is by listening for the values that are informing another’s opinions, even if we disagree with their position. So, we might say something like, “It sounds like fairness is important to you” when a person expresses their opinion that some action by another person, or by a company, or by the government is cheating in some way. By naming the underlying value, you’ll show that you recognize the person’s ideals and affirm their good intentions.
5) Point out how God is working – even within the complexity of our most difficult issues – to bring about new life and renewed hope. One advantage we have as church folk is theological language. We can take a step back from our human grapplings and failings and wonder together where God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit is calling us in our next steps. Sometimes it may not even be a next step, but just the next good question in our process of discernment.
Of course, there may be times when a congregation’s brittleness makes preaching or church-wide discussions about social issues too risky. If that is the case, it may be best to start by having these conversations in small groups of individuals who have high levels of trust. Challenging discussions about faith and contemporary issues that start as small seeds in good soil may eventually yield a fruitful harvest!
[i] Lisa Cressman, The Gospel People Don't Want to Hear: Preaching Challenging Messages (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), 52-53.