The Divided States of America

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from Church Revitalization
by Russell N. Small

A church should influence the wider culture around it. How the church engages the culture especially the political environment will differ among Christians. Many church members see very little difference between their political and their religious views, while others see them as separate. For many, it is the worldview provided to them by Christianity that enables them to make ethical judgments on a variety of issues. It is certainly true that political decisions are often related to one’s moral outlook. Christians need balance and thoughtfulness when thinking about how to address political turmoil that does not seem to abate. A pastor can be pulled into the conversation regarding Christianity and politics. Thoughtful cultural engagement can help, but unreflective engagement may be an obstacle to church revitalization.  

There are several justifiable ways for a Christian to engage the political moment. One’s approach to the church and politics is related to one’s vision of culture and the church’s witness to the wider world. First, a pastor can understand the church and the culture as separate. This pastor has written off culture as a place from which the church needs to distance itself; one must find solace in the believing community. According to this view, Christ is against culture and the church must carve out its existence within a hostile space. It is certainly true that Christians are to live out their identity as strangers and aliens in a foreign world. The church stands in opposition to the world and operates a kingdom that lives by certain principles that are foreign to the kingdoms of the world. The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. The idea that the church and culture are separate can be required to correct the desire to conform to the contemporary morality of the world. The negative side of this approach is that the church can becomes too isolated and lose its missionary spirit. Culture can perceive the church as an institution that is isolated from the world versus a community sent into the world to be salt and light.

Second, a pastor could believe that the church and politics operate in God’s world but do so in different spheres. For example, while the church is to be a community that welcomes all and is ready to forgive, the government stands ready to execute justice on those who bring disorder to society. These are two vastly contrasting functions, but they cooperate to fulfill God’s plan. The church is to live out its mission and the government is to live out its purposes, and even though these functions are vastly different they operate according to a larger divine plan. It is equally true to say that God uniquely uses his church to bring about his purposes in the world but is still working through all the affairs of humanity to bring the world to an appropriate end. This approach certainly realizes the distinct function of the church and the government. It can appreciate their unique roles and articulate what is and what is not the role of the church in the world. This approach, however, can limit cultural interaction because the function of the church in the world operates in a different realm than government.  

Third, a pastor could understand the church as having a prophetic role to the culture. Many different church communities have taken on the prophetic role to varying degrees. It is often raised by a minority group that is pointing out oppression and injustice in the wider culture—for example, historically black churches during the era of Jim Crow. But it has also been utilized in historically white churches. With the cultural shift to a less white, less Protestant America and with the legal acceptance of moral issues that are outside historic Christianity, the prophetic voice has been raised to recapture aspects of a previous era. These prophetic voices are moving in two different directions. In historically black churches, the prophetic voice continues to set forth a vision of equality that still needs to be achieved. In many historically white churches, the prophetic voice is still setting forth aspects of an era that needs to be recaptured. These competing prophetic voices can clearly be at odds with one another. It would take a skilled pastor to show that in one sense the Christian church in America needs to achieve certain moral standards that it has not achieved, while also pointing out that there are aspects of a previous era that need to be recaptured. This dialogue is full of conflict and highly emotional. As a pastor enters this dialogue, clarity of purpose and message will need to be considered to avoid misunderstanding.  

The prophetic voice has been positive throughout history. Without courageous pastors who are willing to take a moral stand, social change would be unlikely. However, the manner of social change is seen as top-down in this approach. The prophetic voice is typically seeking large-scale social change through changes in laws. This requires a close working relationship between pastors who seek change and politicians who can push legislation. This process, albeit necessary to affect the type of change that is being sought, comes with many obstacles. A pastor can quickly become compromised in such a political environment or give the appearance of compromise. Many pastors will attempt to communicate the necessity of compromise when operating in this sphere by appealing to the lesser evil. However, this creates a negative perception among some churchgoers who would prefer their pastor stay out of the fray. On the other hand, a pastor who is willing to enter this fray can also gain a large following. Yet the message of the gospel is interlaced with tactics for governmental reform. In the worst-case scenario, the ultimate belief in the transformative power of the gospel in the hearts of people can be replaced by the necessity of right legislation that will lead to a more Christian America.[1] There are clear points to make on all sides. A nation that has immoral laws will be influenced toward greater immorality. However, right laws will not change the heart of humanity, and the continual slide away from Judeo-Christian values reveals that even with the push of prophetic movements on all sides the sinfulness of the human heart and the need for radical transformation are still greatly needed.  

Fourth, a pastor can take a more local, incremental approach to the transformation of culture. The prophetic-voice tradition primarily seeks top-down change, whereas a transformative approach seeks bottom-up, inside-out transformation. Working within the context of a missional church to seek transformation of its members along with the transformation of the culture around it is the primary objective. A transformative approach first takes very seriously the transformation of those within the church. Merely being a Christian does not mean that one’s life is transformed into the thoughts, feeling, and behaviors of Jesus. Christianity places intentionality on formation within the community of faith. Jesus sends transformed Christians to missionally enter the community. While the gospel is uttermost, the Christian community seeks to bring goodness to all aspects of community life. Ideally, Christians should hold social good and gospel proclamation in close connection without the neglect of either. This approach is slower and does not promise as much as the top-down prophetic approach. Whereas the top-down prophetic approach can get a clear win through the overturning of a law or the passage of a piece of legislation, the transformative approach is slower and more incremental but potentially affects more change for the recipients of it than a top-down approach. This is a worthy method and creates good in the community where the church resides. It will still likely be criticized by some who state it does not do enough, fast enough, to stem the tide of secularism. Theoretically, however, if all evangelical churches were to take this approach for a consistent period, then cultural transformation would occur due to transformed hearts not mere legal pronouncement. The tension remains, as the ultimate goal for the Christian church is not to attempt to outlaw certain behaviors so that people cannot do them but to see people’s hearts change to such a degree that they desire to not do them.[2]  

In the social media age, the political discourse even among Christians has reached a fever pitch. Many of the arguments on social media are not rooted in clear thinking and Christian love but in heated emotional rhetoric. The current approach in our increasingly digital public square is not helping bring about wholeness and reconciliation. The role of emotion and the holding of certain virtues and worldviews affects the way a person makes religious and political decisions. An attempt to understand the deep world of emotion in rationality and the attempt to understand the axiomatic truths underneath the political rhetoric may not bring greater agreement initially but may bring about greater understanding.[3] This seems like a welcome next step.  

A necessity for all Christians whatever their approach to culture and politics is to remember the character qualities of Christian communication and behavior. There is never a time to be ungodly, and there is never a time to speak of others in a non-Christian way. The commands of Jesus that call us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) cannot justify name-calling and blatantly disrespectful speech or actions toward others.  

Last, a pastor who is attempting to pursue church revitalization will not have ample time to get into the fray of every political issue when the very existence of a local church is in jeopardy. A pastor will by necessity need to think about the care of the congregation, casting a vision for the church, and working diligently to see basic actions accomplished to move the church into a place of greater stability. A pastor attempting to change the world, before attending to the immediate needs of a dying church, may end up with a dead church and an increasingly secular world. There is a sense in church revitalization that if a pastor cannot convince a small band of Christians to live into the ideals of Christianity to make a church flourish, there is little chance the church will have the ability to address greater cultural ills. Many churches that decry the secularization of America fail to make even the smallest changes within their church to reach out to the next generation. 

[1] Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian
Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020),

[2] Amy Black, ed., Five Views on the Church and Politics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), and D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2008), 1–66.

[3] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics
and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2012).

This post is adapted from Church Revitalization by Russell N. Small. This title was released on April 11, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

There are more churches needing revitalization than there are leaders skilled for the work

Church Revitalization guides current and future leaders through the often-complex process of bringing a church to a place of vibrancy. This book demonstrates how the overarching goal of seeing people come to faith in Christ and develop into Christlikeness can and must inform the most foundational to the most fleeting aspects of revitalizing a struggling church.

Church Revitalization Strategist Rusty Small systematically walks readers through the many considerations of leading a church out of a decline. He helps identify the best approach for addressing what a particular church’s revitalization need may be:

    • Refresh — often most fitting after a difficult season in the church’s life
    • Renovate — needed when a decline has lasted five to ten years
    • Restore — appropriate for churches with generational patterns focused on survival
    • Replant — best for a church facing imminent closure

Few joys compare to seeing God’s life and power realized for the local church when believers begin to think and serve as Jesus did. Small will encourage pastors and church leaders engaged in this critical task.

If God is calling you to church revitalization, take and read!


About Author

Russell N. Small (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church revitalization strategist with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and lead pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Appomattox, VA, which he led through a revitalization more than a decade ago. He is also an associate professor at the Liberty University John W. Rawlings School of Divinity.

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