A “turn out the base” church?

For all the billions of dollars and all of the negative TV advertisements that dominated the conduct of the recent American election, it’s not clear that any of it made much difference. TV advertisements are supposed to change people’s minds. But it’s becoming clear that the election just past was not about changing people’s minds: it was about getting people who already agree with you to vote.

That, at least, seems to be the most common explanation for Obama’s victory. His campaign “micro-targeted” people they thought would be sympathetic to them, worked aggressively to ensure they were registered, and then watched as the votes rolled in.

For anyone who has ever been part of an organization in the midst of disagreement and argument, this is a seductive prospect: I don’t need to win this argument because people already really agree with me; I just need to get them to stand up and be counted. The focus shifts from changing people’s minds to drumming up support among those who already agree. Changing minds and winning the argument is challenging work. Believing that everyone already agrees with you and all you have to do is turn them out is not.

The results of this line of thinking are clear for all to see: for instance, the half-serious calls for some states in the U.S. to secede. To which some Obama voters have responded, “Go ahead!” There is little thought that perhaps this is an opportunity here to engage in conversation, change minds, and move forward together.

What’s worrisome is when this same dynamic creeps into the church. People on all sides of theological arguments appear to believe that engaging in conversation with folks on other sides of the argument isn’t really necessary anymore. Instead, we focus on creating churches full of people who already agree with us and who can be reliably counted on to support us in our side of the argument.

The thing is, when we do this, we’re not really being the church. Just this evening at evening prayer, the New Testament reading (in the Church of England Common Worship lectionary) was from Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (vv. 23-24) That is, find the person you disagree with and work on reconciliation.

The church is the community of the baptized. The trouble is, there are no political prerequisites for baptism. (Grace doesn’t work well with prerequisites.) That means that by its very nature belonging to the church is going to bring us into contact with people who are different than us and whom we need to engage in conversation because we believe that we have something to learn from them and that our individual knowledge of God is insufficient.

I am sure that political strategists are already at work building a computer program that is even better than the Obama campaign’s was and that future elections will revolve more and more around turning out the base and less and less around engaging in conversation about the future.

I just hope the church doesn’t end up like that too.

A Spirituality of Mission

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

You’re off “helping the poor” somewhere—soup kitchen, homeless shelter, outdoor church ministry, wherever. This is great. You’re participating in “mission,” which has become the buzziest buzzword in the church in recent years.

But the focus has become the actual task at hand: making the sandwiches to feed the people at the outdoor church, cutting the carrots to make the soup. Somehow, the focus on the people you were supposed to be working with has been lost, subsumed beneath the never-ending mountain of need you’re encountering.

I know this feeling well—extremely well, as a matter of fact. When I was a missionary in South Africa, it was easy to let the tasks at hand overwhelm the reality that what mattered was building relationships with the people in the community where I worked. Since I’ve been back in the U.S., I’ve seen these same dynamics at play, like the time I helped a group make sandwiches for an outdoor church and then, when we arrived, watched as our group, myself included, handed out the sandwiches with utmost efficiency—and nary a word spoken to any of the people attending the church. Watching the situation I thought to myself, “Hmmm… something’s missing here.”

Mission is not a cost-free enterprise. It’s not something that we can fit into a little box—Sunday afternoon, 2 to 4, mission—and then go on with the rest of our life. It’s about an approach to life, one that demands that we engage with those who are different than us, whether they are just down the street or halfway across the world. It’s what Jesus did when he chatted with the woman at the well. It is, ultimately, what God in Christ did in the moment of the Incarnation, coming to we who were “far off” and engaging with us. Difference exists in this world (and we are ever more aware of it as our world is drawn closer and closer together). Mission is what happens when we encounter it in a Christ-like way.

And it’s all kind of scary and unsettling. It’s much nicer to have all the answers—to know exactly how many sandwiches we need or how many gallons of soup—than to have none but strike up a conversation and see where it leads. But if we want the Gospel to unsettle the world, it must first unsettle us.

One thing that is missing, then, from the church’s conversation about mission is what might be called a “spirituality of mission.” I owe this phrase to the work of Gustavo Gutierrez, who has written of the need for a “spirituality of liberation” to go along with his theology of liberation. His question is how to get people who are poor and oppressed to see that liberation can begin with them, in spite of the years of oppression.

How do we become the people who can overcome our fear and reach out to those who are different than us? We do that by cultivating our relationship with God in Christ, the one whose most frequent teaching was “fear not,” and who modeled exactly what the fearlessness looks like and exactly where it can lead.

What gives you the spiritual resources to continue to engage in God’s mission in the world?