WILMORE, KENTUCKY—I have mostly been unplugged from the news and social media for over a week now during my summer residency at Asbury Theological Seminary. However, I thought that this weekend’s events needed comment.
Because of the global nature of my job and the fact that I don’t pastor a local church in North America, I typically avoid commenting on American cultural and political issues. It is important—in fact, vital—for American pastors to engage these topics with wisdom, but this blog is written for pastors and leaders from every nation. I only engage American issues when they have global implications or unique global parallels.
There is much that could be said about the tragic events in Charlottesville this past weekend. We could talk about racism in America (and in the American church); we could talk about the need for multiethnic churches; or we could talk about the centrality of the gospel in racial reconciliation. Back in May, I wrote a series of blogs that addressed these very issues, which are linked in the previous sentence.
So instead of covering that ground again, I want to focus on communication: How we as church leaders should talk, preach, and even tweet about ethnic tension and racial reconciliation in our local contexts—whether we are addressing white nationalism in America, racial tension in southern Africa, or anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.
I am deeply troubled by both the events in Charlottesville and the ugly public discourse surrounding these events. I don’t expect CNN, NPR, or non-Christian bloggers and Instagrammers to get this right, but I do expect more from church leaders.
If we want to honor God, build up the church, and work for the common good, here’s how I think we should communicate (and encourage our emerging leaders to communicate):
1. Be clear about the issue. Now is not the time to be vague. Now is not the time to negotiate your parishioners’ political inclinations. We do not represent a news organization. We do not represent a political party that needs to worry about reelection. So please do not make a vacuous condemnation of “all hate, violence, and bigotry.” Be clear about what is really at stake. Paul was clear in his very public rebuke of Peter that his actions toward the Gentile believers were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). We should make it abundantly clear that all race-based nationalism, in this case white nationalism, is not only culturally problematic, but antithetical to the gospel.
2. Be clear about the audience. Audience matters. How we address these issues from the pulpit should be different than how we address these issues on social media. Different audiences call for different strategies. Before we say or post anything, we should think about how different groups of people might receive the words we are trying to communicate. While this point is certainly in tension with the point above (about clarity), these ideals are not mutually exclusive. As leaders who are called to speak the truth in love, we should know that there will always be people in our audience who will find the truth offensive. But if we are thoughtful about audience, we will lower the risk of unnecessary friendly fire and potential miscommunication.
3. Be clear about the real enemy. Though it is easy to imagine those five hundred torch-toting white supremacists as the enemy, they aren’t the real enemy. Neither is David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump, or the alt-right. If we ourselves are not clear on the real enemy, we will inevitably demonize (and dehumanize) people and once again deny the power of the gospel. As Russell Moore so eloquently argues, we need to spend our energy “opposing demons, not demonizing opponents.” For our struggle is not against “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This does not mean that we don’t hold people (especially leaders) to account for their sin. But it does mean is that we should see every human opponent not as an enemy to be defeated but as people to be won over.
Remember that we too were once enemies of God, without hope. But instead of coming to defeat us, Jesus came into the world to redeem us and entrust to us that same ministry of reconciliation. For two great examples of what this looks like in practice, check out this blog from Pastor Adam Mabry of Aletheia Boston and this video from Pastor Brett Fuller of Grace Covenant Church in Virginia.