In a widely read piece for The New York Times last year, conservative writer Nate Hochman chronicled a new trend: politically active conservatives who nevertheless eschew organized religion. “This campaign is also distinctly different from the culture wars of the late 20th century, and it reflects a broad shift in conservatism’s priorities and worldview. The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian.”
But followers of Jesus, while still involved in the conservative political project, should still be specifically Christian. While we may be co-belligerents with those who might agree with us on certain issues but don’t share our gospel commitments, we must be cautious to let the secularism of some become a catechizing influence.
There is a temptation, in our voting, our speaking to issues, our work for the common good, to see these necessary political arguments and debates as ultimate while growing bored with the rhythms and rituals of local church life. Posting an opinion, crafting public policy, or protesting seem more exhilarating than listening to a sermon or making a meal for a shut-in or volunteering at Vacation Bible School. The big national issues debated online sometimes seem more important or urgent.
These issues matter, but there can be no question where we believe the locus of God’s activity exists. It’s not the courtroom, the capital, or the classroom that Jesus promised would endure through the ages, but the church, whom he has purchased with his own blood.
It is in our humble weekly gatherings—in cathedrals and caves, storefronts and under steeples—where the Spirit chooses to most fully dwell and God chooses to act. It is the witness of the church, where ordinary sinners are regenerated through the power of the gospel, that most impacts the world.
John Stott once wrote:
The Christian life is not just our own private affair. If we have been born again into God’s family, not only has he become our Father but every other Christian believer in the world, whatever his nation or denomination, has become our brother or sister in Christ. But it is no good supposing that membership of the universal Church of Christ is enough; we must belong to some local branch of it. Every Christian’s place is in a local church, sharing in its worship, its fellowship, and its witness.
This isn’t to say that what we do on Sundays is all that matters. No, our weekly gatherings around the word and prayer and sacrament equips us for our lives in the world. But while our calling is always more than what we do within the four walls of our local church, it is never less. By prioritizing the assembling of ourselves together, we enter the week with a gospel-shaped view of what it is God would have us to do to in our families, our communities, and our country.
In fact, recent research by the group Neighborly Faith affirms this. Young evangelicals who attend church are more likely to lend their time and resources to charity and activism. They report that their pastors and small group leaders are the most important influences in their lives. This is healthy.
For those of us who are more politically engaged, our friendships with ordinary Christians in Sunday school and small groups helps bring needed balance and perspective. Most of our fellow believers are likely not as obsessed with every new controversy and every social media storm. Most are busy working, getting their kids to school, and serving God with the people of God around them. Most are not on Twitter. Tight-knit relationships in our local church provide accountability and discipline, formation and friendship that is essential for our life in the world. If we don’t prioritize local church life, our ethics will be shaped by pundits, politicians, and party. Our ethics will be molded to the prevailing social ethos.
Christians should be eager to engage the culture, to participate in the important debates that shape our country. Christians should write columns, run for office, start non-profits, and other activities that promote the common good. Yet we shouldn’t be naive to believe that we can “change the world” by disobeying God’s command to gather, to worship, to participate in the local assembly of believers (Hebrews 10:25). What our country most needs today is not more punditry, but more healthy, prophetic, evangelistic, spirit-filled local churches. As G.K. Chesterton eloquently said, “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.”
Originally appeared in World Magazine.