Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What the church can learn from the presidential primary

Everything I say in what follows is probably wrong. Or at least alternative construals are possible, even likely.

Keep that in mind--you have been duly warned. This applies to everything that has ever been published here at Lutheran Confessions... nothing is beyond critique.

However, good luck getting any kind of disclaimer like this from a presidential candidate or a sitting president. If you want confessions, repentance, contrition, anything in that vein, you are better off reading this blog than watching a presidential primary debate or a SOTU. Even here, repentance is rare, because true repentance is rare, period, but it is uniquely rare in the rarefied air of national politics.

With that disclaimer firmly in place, let me suggest some things we as people of the church might learn from this long slow slog we call the Republican presidential primary (all of which applies, mutatis mutandis, to lessons we might learn from many other primaries past or future).

Doggéd persistence

At the first sniff of failure, it seems often the church I have lived in packs up its bags and moves on. If there aren't enough votes, if there isn't something like consensus, then it isn't worth the battle. Let the nay-sayers have their way. Heaven forbid anything should ever fail, at least by dint of our risk-taking.

However, look at these primary candidates. They aren't even yet running for the actual presidency, they are merely jockeying for a Republican party nomination, and they do not quit, even after three, or four, or five primaries have illustrated how unlikely their eventual nomination might be. They believe in themselves. They believe in their message. The people who support them do also (nowhere is this more true than in the Ron Paul campaign).

If 1/10th of our churches lived from this "hope and a prayer" mentality, we would live in a very different church. Maybe even if just 1 in 100 did.

How to fight

Fight hard, fight mean, attack the front runner, don't beat around the bush. Attack the one in front of you, but if the one nipping at your heels starts to catch up, turn around and bite, hard. Lest we think this doesn't apply at all in the church, go re-read Acts 20, Paul's final exhortation to the Ephesians before he sets his face towards Rome (the D.C. of his day)

Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you,  27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.  28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.  29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  30 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.  31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.
Okay, so the current political debates and the in-fighting between Paul and his "savage wolves" are not completely commensurable conversations. Nevertheless, we need to fight for what is good and true and faithful more often than we seem to be willing to.

Your resumé matters

Don't just tell us what you plan to do, what your vision is. Stop waxing eloquent over the vision statement or the five-year plan. Show us what you've done. Publish your tax records. Let us know how you voted. Similarly, when people chatter along about what the church they are a part of should do, or be like, remind them, and remind yourself, of this important political question, "What's your track record?" Stop saying, "We should really... our church should really..." Start saying, "I will... I have..."

And so does your vision

That being said, your vision for the future matters. Many people will actually overlook your past if your vision for the future is compelling. It helps if you are articulate, although not a requirement (see again Acts 20, where Paul talks all night and puts a young man to sleep, who then subsequently falls out of a third story window and dies, only to be raised by Paul). We want to know where you plan to take us. People flock to a church with a compelling vision for where it is going.

The election before the election is as important as the election

The primary can help shape the conversation that will ensue later (again, see what Ron Paul is up to). Even if you lose the vote, you might garner a win for your ideology or position. Get into the conversation. Shake things up. The conversations we have leading up to God-sized movements in the church are themselves already Spirit-inspired and important. Change happens before change.

Hair matters

'Nuf said.

Go door to door

Go door to door, county to county, not because that all by itself will work the magic, but because it will work some magic, and by getting out with people, you will learn who your constituency is. Hoofing it around the country, around the neighborhood, around your church, is as much about what you learn as it is about the message you are sharing. There is no shortcut. Get out there. And then stick to it, day after day after day after day after day after day.

Cater to the rich, message the middle class, ignore the poor

Unfortunately, I list this one last as a message the church writ large has already learned from the world, when in fact the church should be the prophetic voice call our nation and leaders and culture to account for their failure. We are utterly complicit in this problem. It is an unmitigated tragedy.

So really this is "what I wish the politicians would learn from the church." Politics in this election (and every election I can remember) is about messaging the middle class to comfort them with the knowledge that it really is all about them, while simultaneously protecting and catering to the rich (who fund the elections) and caring not a whit for the poor, many of whom don't vote and very few of whom contribute to political campaigns. This is also true of the church. A church built of the poor would struggle financially, and I remember a good teacher I had once saying, "The reason I remained a non-Christian for so long is because I grew up taking our family's laundry to the landromat, and I realized there was not one church in my community that targeted us, a family that takes their laundry to the laundry mat."

To quote Paul one last time in that amazing chapter of Acts,

33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing.  34 You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions.  35 In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 

* And yes, I really did find a photo, by Googling "church laundromat," of Mitt Romney doing his own laundry. No joke.

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