By Daniel Darling
We’re living in one of the most divisive years in American history, with a raging pandemic, racial tension and a contentious election.
When I talk to pastors, they’re grieved at the way brothers and sisters in Christ are so divided—grieved at the way people are talking to each other and about each other. So how do pastors lead people through this season?
I can’t say authoritatively how every pastor should lead in their own context, but here are three broad principles:
1. Address the Moment
A temptation for pastors in this moment is to never mention politics or the moment we’re in.
The fear is that no matter what a pastor says, there will be opposition. This may be true, but as shepherds of God’s people we can’t afford to ignore what our people are talking about.
This doesn’t mean we have to rewrite our sermons every week to match Twitter timelines or cable news, but we should be ready to help people navigate politics as Christians.
This involves two things. First, we should address important issues where the Bible speaks: race, the sanctity of life, character, poverty, etc. Faithful Christians disagree on specific strategies and policy positions.
It’s not the pastor’s job to get in the weeds on marginal tax rates or the size of the social safety net, but should bring the Word of God to bear in a way that helps Christians live out their faith in our democracy.
Second, we need to guide people in navigating politics itself. It’s important we help people understand how to engage well in the public square, to make arguments—not enemies, to oppose evil, but love those with whom we disagree.
If we are to equip people to live on mission for God, we should equip them to approach politics in a redemptive way. We should do this by being both pastoral and prophetic.
A lifetime of faithful and present ministry helps us challenge people in ways that will help them think well.
2. Model What You Want to See
Our congregation will not only hear what we say, but will watch what we do. Pastors need to be wise about the way they engage on social media, including what we post and the way we use our words.
This doesn’t mean we should never speak out against injustice and on behalf of the vulnerable. We should, but we should remember that our words carry weight.
James 3 warns Christian leaders of the sober weight of their calling. The words pastors use can either edify or destroy, bring life or death.
What we do in moderation, those we lead will do in excess. How we engage gives a permission structure to those who follow us.
If pastors model civility and courage—speaking up but doing so in a way that recognizes the humanity of those with whom we disagree—it shows a different, more Christ-centered way of doing politics.
3. Commit to Unity
Lastly, we should recognize that a local body of believers might be unified on the essentials of the faith, but might land in different places on policy, politics, and politicians.
The temptation is for us to allow this moment to become ultimate, ripping apart friendships and tearing at the precious unity we share in Christ.
Unity doesn’t mean uniformity and it doesn’t preclude hard conversations.
But while politics is a useful vehicle for human flourishing in a fallen world, it’s a poor religion and when we replace our fervor for the gospel with fervor for politics, we have misplaced priorities.
Pastors should commit, both in their personal friendships and in the way they lead people, to refuse to break friendships with those who think differently.
We should work to be peacemakers, to hear people who disagree with us, and to loving our ideological foes.
As pastors, we can model this in how we speak and talk, how we engage online.
Unity isn’t accidental; it takes a work of the Spirit of God and intentionality by Christian leaders.
Too often we’re tempted to listen and act only within our tribe of like-minded people, but we should remember we’re shepherds not just to those who think like we do, but to those who think differently.
Ultimately, we point people not to the next election, but to that city whose builder and maker is God.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice president of communications for NRB, and teaching and discipleship pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including A Way with Words.