Politics is a dangerous detour for the church

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It’s time for Christians to reevaluate their relationship to the state.

I’ve had countless opportunities to sit down with small groups of pastors — one or two or five or 10 at a time, from all denominational backgrounds and theological persuasions, often with their spouses — and I’ve listened to their stories. I ask them how they were called into the ministry, what challenges they face, and how they think God wants to use them going forward. Many of their stories are inspirational. Many blessed churches dot the landscape.

Christian Nation billboard featuring Dr. Robert Jeffress that can be seen while driving northbound on the Dallas North Tollway near the Lemon exit in Dallas on June 7.(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

For many other pastors, though, their tone changes as the conversations deepen. I share with them some of the difficulties and discouragements my wife, Carol, and I have faced over the years. Then they share their own experiences, slowly and hesitantly at first but then, as their defenses weaken, in torrents. Defeats, frustrations, personal challenges, family strains. Often tears flow. The most common, and most crushing, are the accounts of feeling as if they have failed and let God down. They try to drum up more faith and persevere; but it’s tough sledding when you’re just “doing church.” And too many feel like they want to quit.

A recent Gallup poll found that for the first time since they started polling in the 1930s, the number of Americans who describe themselves as affiliated with a church, synagogue, or mosque has fallen below 50%. Actual church attendance is even lower. According to one recent survey, only about a third of Americans attended services every (or almost every) week; more than 50% say they attended “seldom” or “never.”

Christians are leaving American churches in droves, and leaders are losing heart and leaving the ministry, so something is obviously wrong, and we must be open to changing course. Every so often we need to take a step back and ask ourselves, “Are our fundamentals right?” Are we doing things God’s way? All the technology, mood lighting, and great sound systems won’t help us if we’re not building according to God’s plan.

There are many tempting detours from the fundamentals of the faith, including the detours of tradition or the latest trends or even secular culture. But one of the most subtle distractions leading ministers and churches off track today is the political detour.

Without question, Christians are called to be a light to the world, and undoubtedly some of the church’s finest hours have featured humble, dedicated Christians serving the poor, raising up the downtrodden, and working for justice. But only God’s spirit can change the human heart. Institutional and governmental changes alone will never produce love and unity among people.

The danger of politics is that we become seduced by the very structures and political forces we feel we must change. Church leaders sometimes form coalitions with high-ranking politicians, and by doing so, they can easily drift away from fundamentals of the faith. Cynical politicians value those leaders not because of an interest in Christ but because they feel that ministers will deliver the “evangelical vote” in some way or another.

The tragedy is that whole segments of the church then become identified with a political party. And this is never good. When our faith is identified with a political party, we lose our ability to get a hearing for the gospel because of the acrimony inherent in politics. Not only do we fail to change these political institutions, but they end up injecting us with the intolerance and venom that have characterized politics for millennia. The church thus becomes entangled with the affairs of this world, damaging our witness and hindering our work for God’s kingdom.

There is no record of the early apostles trying to improve the politics of the Roman Empire or any province within it. God is not interested in building up or promoting a specific country. He’s intent on building his church. Jesus declared that his followers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Democrats or liberals or progressives aren’t the salt. Republicans or conservatives or libertarians aren’t the light. Our orders are not to curry favor with kings or presidents but to carry the message of Christ to everyone.

Perhaps this political detour is contributing to declining attendance in American churches. On the one hand, we see people leaving churches because churches have lost their spiritual calling and power. Their services resemble a shallow religious show with little spiritual food. On the other hand, we see faithful leaders growing discouraged and worn down. From what? Could it be from beating their heads against a wall as they build revolving-door churches where people come and go every few years?

We need humility to face the possibility that we might be on the wrong path. Maybe what we’re building isn’t what Jesus had in mind for his church. For those who are open to changing course, now is the time to return to the fundamentals: preaching the Gospel in the power of the Spirit, humbly uniting in prayer, encouraging one another to persevere in our spiritual callings, and keeping our eyes on eternity.

Jim Cymbala is pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle and author of several books, including Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. This was adapted for The Dallas Morning News from his new book, Fan the Flame: Let Jesus Renew Your Calling and Revive Your Church.

This column is part of our ongoing Opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find the full series here.

Source: Dallas News