It is interesting coming home into what feels like a highly charged political environment. Things feel very polarised both globally and nationally.
There is a strange sense of foreboding at the moment as it looks like America and North Korea are, day by day, inching closer to a cliff and at the same time, a vitriolic debate about same-sex marriage is dominating talk radio and social media.
Polarisation is not new, but it does feel like this is different. It feels like the whole nature and question of democracy is at stake at the moment.
One of the big differences between Australia and the U.S. is that the fragmentation here seems to be less about “Conservatives” vs. “Liberals” and more about an overall lack of trust in any institutions at all.
In America there is at least the illusion that things can be fixed when we defeat the enemy. In Australia the enemy is much less defined and so the societal fragmentation is much more obvious.
I was impressed by former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson who seemed to be a voice of reason in the midst of the highly charged debate. He clearly articulated that the big concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage but whether the country itself will hold together.
All of this the context in which I now find myself leading a church and needing to equip our people to live their faith.
What would you aim for if you were in my place?
I know that one of the things I will need to keep remembering myself is that whatever the immediate battle seems to be, it isn’t actually the main game.
Jesus didn’t come and teach an ideology, he came and demonstrated a completely new way of doing life and invited his followers to step into that life.
The Christian church is never at its best when we are fighting the battle of ideas. We are always at our best when we are living our faith in the nitty-gritty details of ordinary life.
That doesn’t mean that we should avoid social issues. Issues of Justice matter, but when we debate issues without seeing or respecting people, we do exactly the opposite of Jesus’s direct command to love our enemies, and we also misunderstand how the church is meant to work.
One of my heroes is William Wilberforce. He and his friends, the Clapham Sect, transformed England and ended slavery through persistent and clever political action. I doubt though that even William Wilberforce would be very effective in the current political climate.
William Wilberforce was able to draw together a national consensus because an Anglican preacher had stepped into a very fragmented country and pointed to a different way of life for the fifty years before the young politician began his career.
England was falling apart. There were very few trusted leaders and it seemed that corruption was rife. In 1738, Bishop Berkeley declared that religion and morality in Britain had collapsed “to a degree that was never before known in any Christian country.”
It was also in 1738 that a young preacher by the name of John Wesley attended a church service on May 24, that changed his life and ultimately would result in England changing to the point that Wilberforce could do what he did.
John Wesley came to know Jesus Christ in a way that deeply affected him, and he started to tell others. He also began to write and train others. Soon there were little groups meeting together all over England to pray, read the bible and explore how they could live their faith with integrity. Within a couple of decades, hundreds of thousands of people were part of these little groups and the whole country was changing.
Four decades ago, Lesslie Newbigin wrote:
For while there are occasions when it is proper for the church, through its synods and hierachies, to make pronouncements on public issues, it is much more important that all its lay members be prepared and equipped to think out the relationship of their faith to their secular work. Here is where the real missionary encounter takes place
John Wesley changed the world by doing exactly what Newbigin suggested, often in very practical ways. He was a prolific writer on all kinds of very practical subjects and he was continually encouraging people to in all kinds of ways. I love that at the age of 88, John Wesley actually wrote a letter to the much younger William Wilberforce, who was still in the early days of his campaign to abolish slavery, which basically said “Unless God is with you in this, you are going to fail, but we both know He is, so keep going.”
What I will be continually telling our church over the next years is that our job is to, like John Wesley, open our hearts and minds to the revolutionary Jewish carpenter who changes everything.
As we open ourselves to Him and His story, and together work out how to live our faith in the nitty-gritty details of life, then the world will actually change.
Social issues really do matter, however they are not the main challenge for the church. As we keep the main thing, the main thing, then issues will ultimately be addressed.