When the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to go online for an extended period of time, pastors and church leaders struggled to stay connected with the people at their churches. Despite tireless efforts involving daily livestreamed devotionals, online Zoom groups, and personal phone calls, when churches began holding in-person services again, many pastors looked out on the faces in the pews only to discover the congregation that returned was very much a different group of people than the congregation they last saw together in the early days of 2020.
Many of their old congregants had begun attending the church down the street, where Pastor So-and-So spoke to today’s political issues in a way that better aligned with their own view. And many of the new faces in the pews came from Pastor So-and-So’s church after discovering that he did not share some of their more deeply held policy stances.
The Big (Evangelical) Sort
In his 2009 work The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop explored the trend of Americans “sorting” themselves into homogeneous communities, moving only to places with the greatest ideological, cultural, and political alignment possible.
Bishop argued that this trend has been a contributing factor in the increased polarization the nation has been experiencing in recent decades, as not being relationally connected to those with opposing perspectives has led to the inability for many Americans to even have a frame of reference for the worldview of someone who lives even one city over from them.
While this trend was troubling at the time Bishop wrote his book, the pandemic accelerated it even more. Following shelter-in-place orders that catapulted remote and hybrid work into being the norm, many families have opted to move across city and even state lines to find a place where they could feel more politically and ideologically insulated.
Where I live in Southern California, I personally know several families who decided to leave “Commie California” for more conservative (and frankly much more affordable) cities across the American South.
Nevertheless, even while many Christians have not sold their homes and moved to new communities, they have done some re-sorting of their own. They have changed churches, carefully curated their social media newsfeeds, and developed close knit relationships almost exclusively with people who think just like them.
As a result, many people have grown increasingly intolerant of ideas with which they do not agree—even, and perhaps especially, when the person with whom they disagree is their pastor.
This has put pastors and church leaders in the unenviable position of trying to disciple their people, which involves sometimes speaking difficult truths against which they may bristle, but not speaking so strongly that they lose the opportunity to influence those people entirely because they change their membership over to Pastor So-and-So’s church.
Further, pastors and church communicators have needed to become more aware not only of what they explicitly say, but how their words could be interpreted to be in agreement or disagreement with whatever news cycle or social media trending topic may be the current object of outrage on a given week.
Even for leaders who don’t have a particular struggle with people-pleasing, this has increased their stress tremendously, as they may have found themselves spending more of their time putting out fires than working to advance the mission of their church.
Bridging the Partisan Divide
To be sure, there are cases in which some pastors have unwisely, and even unbiblically, equated their political opinions with the infallible word of God. We see them in the headlines often. But the reason we see those particular pastors in headlines is that they do not represent the norm of most pastors—that’s what makes them newsworthy.
For me, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the problem of overly partisan pastors is more pervasive than it really is, because I live within 10 miles of a megachurch whose pastor has for years used his platform as a political bully pulpit.
Perhaps you have done the same.
But by and large, most pastors are simply doing their level best to study the Bible, understand the needs of their people and the world around them, and speak life and truth into their communities. They may have political opinions, even strong ones. But they don’t have a partisan ax to grind, and they respect the pulpit and fear God enough not to take the consciences of their congregants captive.
If that is the case at your church, you do no favors for the mission of Jesus if you sharply criticize or threaten to leave every time your pastor says something with which you are not in 100 percent agreement.
So long as your pastor faithfully preaches the Bible, is loving, kind, patient, and temperate, is not contributing to or enabling a culture of abuse or impropriety, and generally appears to be someone who is seeking to follow Jesus, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. If he is not sinning or encouraging sin, he is a leader whose teaching is worth submitting to.
Disagreement as a Means of Sanctification
In short, you don’t need to agree with everything your pastor says. You don’t have to agree with his politics or the fact that he doesn’t champion the talking points you feel are most culturally relevant. You don’t have to agree with every leadership decision he makes. You don’t even have to agree with his interpretation of every biblical text, so long as he isn’t moving beyond Christian orthodoxy.
You don’t have to agree with everything he says or does, even if you feel strongly about it. In fact, sometimes, preachers and church leaders get it wrong. So do you. But if our only desire is that our church communities would be an exact match to our own cultures, ideas, and political stances, we have missed the point of the church.
Heaven will be a diverse place. It will be ethnically and culturally diverse. It will be politically diverse. It will even be theologically diverse. So should the church be. Such diversity stretches our faith, expands our ability to be empathetic, and increases our capacity for love.
When we refuse to stay and do the difficult work of exploring our differences of opinion, having candid and sometimes difficult conversations, and learning to remain in relationship with and in submission to leaders with whom we don’t always agree, we miss out on something fundamental to our spiritual growth.
We become more like Jesus when we love the people that he loves, even when those people are on the opposite side of the political aisle or see important issues of our day differently from us.
Our cultural and political points of agreement do not serve as the basis for our ability to live in Christian community with each other. Jesus does. And if you share love for Jesus in common with your pastor and your church, you don’t need to agree on everything to still be brothers and sisters.