Jackass by Association


Being a pastor in a denominational church has great benefits. It also offers unique opportunities for jackassery. My favorite thing about our denomination right now is pastoral cohorts that Ryan and I are a part of. A few times each year we’ve been flying across the country to join other pastors in our denomination for training, encouragement, and support. These times have been rich and ministry-shaping.

But it struck me on one of our trips that in order to meet with these pastors, we were driving past hundreds of churches in our immediate area, then flying over thousands upon thousands more. We have a connection with a handful of pastors across the country through our denomination. And that’s great.

But I wonder: Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?

“Does it make sense that we partner with churches who share a doctrinal statement rather than churches that share a mission field?”

I’m not talking about smoothing over real differences or pretending like theology doesn’t matter. The mission of the church I’m part of will be very different than the mission of a church that worships Zeus, for example. Differences make partnership difficult. And partnership can only happen if each party avoids selling out what they’re passionately committed to.

But associating only with churches in my denomination, I’m skipping over several churches whose doctrinal statements are virtually identical to mine. To the unchurched, our churches would be indistinguishable except perhaps for the size of the congregation.

I don’t have a great answer for this, but I’d love to see churches join together around a common mission and “mission field” to AT LEAST the same degree we partner with denominations, associations, and coalitions.

I actually feel blessed in this area right now. I meet monthly with a few of my counterparts in nearby churches. Ryan does the same. We share ideas, problems, and resources. We pray for each other. Our churches aren’t doing a ton of events together, but it’s clear we’re on the same team, clear that we’re rooting for each other.

To be clear, I’m NOT saying that denominations or associations are bad. I find real benefit in ours. I’m NOT saying that individual churches shouldn’t be distinct. Each church must pursue its unique calling. I’m also NOT arguing against valuing doctrinal agreement. I wish we had more. And here’s the big one: I’m NOT saying I have any of this figured out.

What I AM saying is that prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence. Choosing to work with people who formulate their theology exactly as we do rather than with people who are actively loving the same people we are seems wrong. It seems like a jackass move.

“Prioritizing an association over a mission is dangerous. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it compromises the purpose of the Church’s existence.”

It’s easy to get along with people who think like you do. It’s easy to be “unified” when your only contact is gathering to talk about the things you already agree on. It’s not bad, but it’s not full-fledged unity. It’s not an all-out pursuit of the mission. At least, not if that’s all it is.

It’s often harder to love someone living in your town than someone across the country. But which matters more? Should I feel accomplished because I’m able to love the pastor in Texas who believes what I believe, teaches the way I teach, and reads all the same books I read? That’s easy. How much better to love the pastor down the street who has different emphases, different style, but is trying to bless the same neighborhood I’m trying to bless? (When I type it out, it all seems so obvious. Should I be embarrassed to be writing this like it’s some kind of realization? Has it been obvious to everyone but me this entire time?)

It’s not the associations that makes us jackasses. It’s the tendency to hide in echo chambers rather than partnering with the people who are around us. I’m not going to stop learning from and encouraging people from around the world. But I want to keep doing the same with people around the block.

Political Healing Before the Votes Are Cast or Counted


I don’t care who you vote for. I have no intention of trying to persuade you regarding party affiliation, ideal candidates, or which issues are worth a single-issue approach to voting. But I’m going to begin posting about politics for a bit here because I think we need it desperately. I need it. We are prone to be political jackasses. This coming election has already been ugly, and it’s going to get worse. If we’re going to survive this election and its aftermath with our souls intact, we’re going to have to start NOW to work toward political healing. We’re going to have to de-escalate the partisanship and the spiritual-political bullying. We’ll need to set our hearts on something other than party politics. Because politics matters way less and way more than we currently think.

“If we’re going to survive this election and its aftermath with our souls intact, we’re going to have to start NOW to work toward political healing.”

We’ve got to go deeper than misguided questions like “How would Jesus vote?” That’s too myopic, it carries too many previous assumptions. I think a better question would be “How would Jesus have us engage with the project of our common life together?”

In this and the following posts, I want to interact with James K. A. Smith’s book Awaiting the King. Here’s how he frames the importance of a nuanced Christian engagement in politics:

“The church is not a soul-rescue depot that leaves us to muddle through the regrettable earthly burden of ‘politics’ in the meantime; the church is a body politic that invites us to imagine how politics could be otherwise. And we are sent from worship to be Christ’s image-bearers to and for our neighbors, which includes the ongoing creaturely stewardship and responsibility to order the social world in ways that are conducive to flourishing but particularly attentive to the vulnerable—the widows, orphans, and strangers in our midst” (16).

Our Christian engagement in politics is not about aligning with a party we consider to be more Christian, or a candidate that we consider to be more Christian, or a policy or platform that we consider most important. It’s bigger and more important than any of that.

We have a Christian responsibility to engage politics because it’s a facet of our common life together. Politics is one aspect of our needed realization that we do not live isolated lives. It’s easy for us to acknowledge that the concept of Church is important because it binds us to other people, it keeps us from unhealthy individualism. The same is true of society as a whole. We share a common life. It’s not just about an “I” and the preferences that accompany that “I.” It’s a “we,” so we must work toward the flourishing of that “we.”

This makes politics difficult in precisely the same way that public schooling is difficult. Public schools are often criticized for having lower test scores compared to private schools. But what we often miss in this assessment is that private schools choose which students they’ll accept; public schools take every student. So their test scores reflect honor students and English language learners who are taking standardized tests presented in a language they don’t yet know well. Public school, by definition, must work for the good of everyone. Which is a blessing and a curse. In many ways it’s better to make education individualized in the way a homeschool parent is able to do. In other ways, there’s an inherent good in making sure that every student has access to education.

This is how politics works also. Which is why our partisanship becomes so ugly. We want our interests represented and we want that to be good enough for everyone. But thinking of our common life together must push us to acknowledge that I’m not the only stake holder here. My opinions and needs matter, but so do those of the people around me. This is also why government can’t be run just like a business, or simply like a business. It has to care for all citizens, not just the ones that can be profitably catered to.

Our country is worse off if we all demand our special interests. We need to recover a sense of the common good. Of rooting for each other to flourish. Of being able to acknowledge the good that’s worth fighting for in the other person’s camp. Is it hard to imagine that our camp, that the people who think exactly like we do, might be overlooking some things that another camp sees more clearly and fights for more aggressively?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote with passion. I’m not saying you shouldn’t back a candidate. But I am calling all of us to zoom out a bit. How can we, as followers of the true King, work toward human flourishing in our common life together? Perhaps you’ve asked and answered that question already, and that’s why you’re set on voting as you intend to, why you post the things you post on social media, why you engage in the battles you engage in. But I ask you not to assume that your politics are in order, or that any political party is worthy of your allegiance. Let’s take a cue from Jamie Smith and see ourselves as “sent from worship to be Christ’s image-bearers to and for our neighbors.” If that sounds worthwhile, join me in the weeks ahead while I muse on some of the ways politics shape us, and the ways we can express our allegiance to Jesus by engaging in the political side of our common life together. I promise not to tell you how to vote, I just want us all to fight the inner political jackass.