How Should the Church Respond to this New Era?: A Leadership Blog

How should the Church respond to the culture change personified and possibly foreshadowed by the US election? Although this emerges as fresh and powerful, the question has occupied Christian ethicists for centuries: What is the role of the church in the public realm?

The current rapidly changing social, economic and political landscape requires a multi-dimensional response from the Church. The focus will vary depending upon the arena in which the church operates. Congregations possess a different type of power and responsibility than regional or national bodies.

Historically, as a rough rule of thumb, there have been nine ways in which the church has engaged the public realm.

1. The Church as Lifeboat

I pray it will not be the case, but there have been and continue to be occasions when the church does need to serve as a lifeboat/sanctuary/safe house for particular groups, unjustly targeted and whose lives are threatened. At various dire times in history, the church has been part of networks that allow people to move to safety.

2. The Church as a/the Means to Christianize the Social Order

The great missionary call of the late 19th century, “to civilize and Christianize”, has largely fallen out of favour. Some sectors of the Christian family continue to adhere to this mandate but most mainline denominations, aware of the massive injury done to indigenous populations and minority groups in the church’s name, have moved this goal off the table.

3. The Church as the Conscience of the Nation

The temptation to serve as the conscience of the nation is great since a good rant skewering the opposition can result in a great momentary, chocolate-like high, flush with a sense of (self) righteousness. However, this response provokes a number of theological and ethical questions, including: What is truth? How is it known? What authority is granted to those who “see through the glass darkly?” The temptation often proves irresistible to paint those disagreeing as “them,” and thus to foster the sense of divisiveness and polarization upon which current extremes on the “left” and “right” feed.

4. The Church as an Agent of Social Service

Since its inception, the church has been an agent of social service. When the loaves and fishes were divided and circulated, when goods and services were exchanged in the early house churches through to the current proliferation of food banks and thrift shops housed in church facilities, the church has understood a core component of its mandate as providing bread for the hungry and a cup of water for the thirsty. As the numbers continue to reveal the immoral skewing of income levels, it is unlikely that our social context will change so dramatically that this agency will be removed from the church. In fact, it may increase.

5. The Church as a Supporter of Causes or Projects of Liberation

The Church as a Supporter of Projects of Liberation gained visibility, in recent years, with the Theology of Liberation movement, typified by the work of Gustavo Gutierrez (Peru) and Leonardo Buff (Brazil). The phrase “preferential option for the poor” gained widespread currency among many mainline denominations. The United Church of Canada often spoke with great clarity about freedoms in lands far away. Now the focus must shift back.

Freedom, or liberation, resists efforts to isolate, stereotype and marginalize groups like First Nations, the followers of Islam, immigrants, people of colour or those of various sexual orientations.

Freedom does not equal licence for one group but involves the balance of freedom, justice, equality and order for all.

6. The Church as Enabler of Dispersed Ministry

Christians are found in every socio-economic level and position in society. These are well situated to think and act as dispersed agents or, to use the image attributed to Jesus, “salt.” The church has a significant and urgent obligation for faith formation and to provide a safe place where discernment and difficult conversations can occur. This may require leaders to learn the art of hosting tough conversations in a way that promotes respect and the assurance of safety. Agents of God’s Way need training and support.

7. The Church as a Communal Sign of Transformation

At its best, many of the monastic movements were not simply flights from the evils of the surrounding society but efforts to be communal signs of that which God dreams. The formation of alternate communities of belief and practice will be a prime role of the church. This goes beyond a limp raising of the “inclusiveness” flag to the formation of communities where learning, dialogue, transformation, and comfort can occur. Undoubtedly the early Roman Empire viewed the formation of Christian communities as terrorist cells which threatened the peace and security of the empire. The early communities saw the world differently, held different values and beliefs about what was worthy of worship and were formed with different practices.

In the coming years, congregations will have to go beyond establishing the feel-good atmosphere of friends reconnecting very week to the hard work of loving, supporting and understanding those who disagree. Those of us old enough to remember the gnashing of teeth that accompanied the discussions surrounding sexuality in The United Church of Canada during 1988 recall the scars leaders carry from this ministry. But the language of the Kingdom/Community of God is not meant just to be a promise but a mandate for the present.

8. The Church as a Contributor to a Public Ethic/Theology

If theology and ethics were thought to be a luxury of those engaged in parlour games, those days are past. The need is urgent.

These disciplines are the lungs of the Church. The old days of drafting positions, writing letters and calling up political leaders on the phone to influence policy may be over but this only increases the importance of disciplined theological and ethical work. In fact, many of the other calls to the church - the formation of community, supporting movements of liberation, etc - depend upon this wrestling. And as the church seeks to leaven the public conversation it must be clear about what it wants to say, why and where lie the lines in the sand. Vague exhortations about justice and respect will not suffice.

9. The Church as Contributor to a Thin Consensus

Strategically the church and its leaders may, at times, be called upon to demonstrate public opposition. Such tactics as mass marches may no longer change policy but they serve another purpose: to remind people who hold an alternate vision that they are not alone. But the real work often takes place in coffee shops, church basements, or other places where partnerships are negotiated and tactics formulated. The church needs to be part of those conversations where it becomes clear about what it will work for and support during a particular period, a so-called thin consensus.

What does this mean for leaders?

Hard work - both intellectually, pastorally and within neighbourhoods.

Abandonment of the silo mentality. There is no longer the luxury of competition between congregations and leaders. The arrogance of “my way is the right way” has to be discarded. The work before the church is vast: lay education, the formation of lay leaders, the support and engagement of paid, accountable people, the hard, disciplined work of theological and ethical conversation, the formation of strategies (and not just slogans or abstract statements), and learning the effective use of developing communication vehicles, among others.

Such a list of ways in which the church has engaged the public realm can appear overwhelming. It does not need to be. It can simply be a guide so that leaders know when they are shifting gears, an assist to focus efforts. “OK, now we are doing this and this is my role in this type of engagement.”

Above all, the character of leaders will be on display. This means leaders display respect: if we do not want to be conveyed as cartoons, we cannot cast others as idiots, buffoons or caricatures. Leaders must dismantle the image the “opposition” wants to create that feeds a sense of polarization, exclusivity and privilege. And leaders must engage real people in real situations. The molding of alternate communities and the resistance to unjust forces is not a theoretical exercise.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8)

Leaders must dismantle the image that feeds a sense of polarization, exclusivity and privilege

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Recommended reading: https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/01/20/culturejam/

All images licenced under Creative Commons

Of these nine approaches which do you feel is the most urgent to engage?


  1. A further image, one which I have found far more compelling, is the church as companion on the journey. This is especially true when we encounter those with questions and yet do not have the tools and language to express their thoughts. We then become agents of clarification and reflection, offering what we know thinly of God, Jesus and love. It is a journey not for the faint. It demands all of what you suggest above. It is, in short, the ministry of pastoral care, not only to those within the community, but (and probably more so), beyond.

    1. Yes , in line with the contributor to public and a thin consensus we are moving from the “sage on the stage” to a “guide by the side”

      Thanks David

  2. Great post. Your take on “conscience of the nation” is more negative than mine though. I don’t think of it as saying how everyone who doesn’t agree with me is going straight to hell because I”m the authority and I know. I think of it as, someone has to stand up and say “This is wrong”, and if the church doesn’t do it, why should anyone else have the courage? In Nazi Germany the church lay down and let the Nazis murder 6 million people, without a word of objection, to our eternal shame. A church that allows injustice to pass without a word is no church. Whatever else we do, however else we must assist those damaged by the government rising all round us determined to let the poor and all those of the wrong gender or colour or language or religion or nationality be left homeless or unemployed or imprisoned or forced out of their homes and countries or allowed to die in the war zones they are trying to leave because we have locked our doors, or allowed to die in the streets of our own cities, we must also stand up and say “This is wrong. God calls us to aid the sick, the poor, the homeless, and welcome the stranger in our midst. This is our job as Christians. It’s our job as decent human beings.” Whatever else we do, we have to loudly and constantly stand up and witness. And that is being the conscience of the nation. If the church had done this under the Nazis, a lot of Christians would probably have been killed too; but perhaps the Holocaust could have been averted, or stopped much sooner. We didn’t. Let’s not fail in our duty again.

    1. I agree that we need to stand and witness. I’m just conscious I guess if our past so I’m more inclined to talk about a contribution to a public ethic.

      Thanks for engaging. ?

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