Amy Butler, former pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City, reflects on how churches can faithfully address the issues of the day without turning every Sunday into a political rally. She says a church’s prophetic witness must be grounded in the gospel and flow authentically from a healthy lived experience of beloved community.
In today’s political climate, many are asking how the church can speak prophetically to the issues of the day while also being sensitive to diverse views. At Riverside Church, where the congregation is almost universally progressive, we must also ask the question, “How can we avoid turning church into a political rally every week?” It’s a key question for churches that are either very liberal or very conservative in political outlook.
Riverside Church has a reputation for speaking prophetically to the issues of the day. William Sloane Coffin, for example, was very active in the anti-nuclear movement, LGBTQ rights, and anti-apartheid advocacy. And James Forbes was very active in issues of racial reconciliation. The congregation expects me to say things that perhaps others cannot say and to use the pulpit to address conversations that the church has traditionally shied away from. But part of that task is pulling people back to the gospel. We need to be consistent, diligent, and disciplined in examining the words and teaching of Jesus to be sure our proclamation reflects the gospel and the Biblical witness.
Pulling people back to the gospel
In January 2017, for example, when President Trump signed his executive order on immigration, our response the next Sunday was to read every passage in the Bible addressing the issue of welcoming the stranger. It was a way of solidly grounding our political stance in the witness of scripture. Hearing those texts helped many in the congregation embrace their faith in new and fresh ways.
Many churchgoers on the progressive end of the spectrum tend to be a little embarrassed by the Bible and the way that American society has defined and expressed the Christian faith. So, a lot of people in our church that day experienced a powerful sense of relief and joy in discovering that the Bible is a resource that speaks to the issues of our day, rather than a source of embarrassment, and that you can be a person of faith and speak prophetically to these issues.
Concentrating your focus
Riverside has always been a gathering place for people of faith from all over this country and around the world, and that reach has expanded exponentially with the advent of social media. That January 2017 service was viewed over 2 million times by people around the world. We are coming to understand that our public platform is something we need to steward in faithful ways.
As a practical matter, no church can do everything. If you try to engage every issue, you are going to be really, really busy and probably not very effective. Keep your focus concentrated so that, when you do speak, what you say has impact.
A prophetic posture begins inside-out
When a congregation is healthy and faithfully living out the witness of beloved community, its prophetic proclamation will be most effective. When a congregation is rife with infighting or when church disputes show up on the front page of the local newspaper, the integrity of its public witness will suffer. The work of forming disciples and leading healthy community within the walls of your church is essential. While dealing with the church’s institutional health and administrative structures may not seem as important or sexy as engaging serious public issues, it is basic to the authenticity of your external proclamation.
Again, it comes back to the gospel. Does our proclamation reflect the fundamental teachings of Jesus to love God and love your neighbor? This needs to be our measuring stick.
- “Leading a Historic Congregation,” a Leading Ideas Talks Podcast episode featuring Amy Butler
- 4 Tips for Preaching on Politically Charged Topics by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
- 4 Opportunities for the Church in the Current Political Tension by Carey Nieuwhof