October 7, 2008
Urban Exile: Suburban vs. Urban Church Politics
Does our setting influence our politics more than our doctrine?
by David Swanson
As on any other Tuesday, my wife and I hosted our weekly small group on Election Day of 2004. A quick scan of the TV stations after the Bible study showed that we'd have to wait until the next day to learn the results. "Just pray that John Kerry doesn't win," said one of the members on his way out that November night. Over early morning coffee a few weeks later another church friend expressed his relief that George Bush would serve a second term as president.
More recently, after a pizza dinner with some volunteers from church, someone asked where Barak Obama's home was. Soon a small caravan was driving through Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood to see the house of what many of these volunteers hoped would be the next president. A few weeks later I watched one of our worship leaders tactfully cover her Obama t-shirt with a jacket before our Sunday service began.
What happened between 2004 and the current election season to account for this shift in the political sensibilities of our community? Maybe the political priorities of some folks have changed. Maybe churchgoers feel taken for granted by the "Grand Old Party." Or perhaps Americans, including those within the Evangelical tradition, are just ready for change.
Or maybe not. What changed was that between these two elections we moved from an established suburban church to a 6-year old-church plant in Chicago. And that, as they say, has made all the difference.
Allow me to generalize for a moment. The mostly-White suburban church I came from is filled with people who think government ought to reflect the "small town values" we've heard so much about from the McCain/Palin ticket. These folks avidly defend the rights of the unborn along with a traditional view of marriage, and generally believe the Iraq war was a necessary evil. In contrast, my ethnically diverse urban congregation is made up of those who believe the government should seek justice for the poor and marginalized in our city. Healthcare for the uninsured, increased spending for public schools, and environmental equity are the issues that lead people to wear their Obama t-shirts to church.
There are also important similarities. Salvation by grace through faith and regular Gospel proclamation are clear theological priorities for both churches. Corporate worship in both is a contemporary mix of new praise songs and old hymns. Both care admirably for the practical needs of the homeless men and women in their neighborhoods.
Despite their theological compatibility, more than just the 25 miles between their sanctuaries separate these two churches. While employed by the suburban church, a member told me she was nervous to admit her liberal leanings to her friends. "I'm afraid they'll question my Christianity," she said, only partly kidding. In my urban church it's more likely a church member will privately confess he's a closet Republican. These two congregations seem to prove congressman Tip O'Neill's point that that "all politics is local." The unique issues and values attached to America's small towns, suburbs, and cities significantly influence a local congregation's political undercurrents. The addition of race and class differences only enlarges these divergent ideologies.
Given the political plurality among theologically similar churches, I have to wonder why some Christian leaders talk as if there is only one way to engage politically. When a candidate is endorsed as the right person for the job, are not entire groups of Christians ignored? When it is said that one of the candidates will uphold and protect "Christian values," should we not ask whose Christian values are being protected? When claims are made that a presidential candidate is "God's man" for the job, does it not follow that Christians who vote differently are at best misguided and at worst outside of God's plan? Do some of us actually have enough confidence in our knowledge of God's will to risk alienating our politically diverse Christian family with these types of claims? Not me; I lack that type of confidence.
Scot McKnight recently wrote on this blog that our hope is not in the political process but "in the gospel of God that creates a kind of people that extends God's gospel to the world." Alongside this bold hope must stand a chastened humility. Our political assertions ought to be made in concert with our diverse Christian family, which is full of brothers and sisters who often sees the world very differently than we do. In the weeks before November 4, I will be asking myself the following questions in an attempt to reflect God's love for the entire Church.
? Would a person of any political persuasion feel welcome in our church?
? Does our teaching and community life reflect both the local values of our neighborhood and the global ethics of the Church?
? Is our church regularly reminded that our hope is in Christ and that our solidarity is with the diverse people of God's Kingdom?
As the election punditry reaches a fever pitch, we have the opportunity to demonstrate hope and humility to a nation that has lately known too little of either.
There are plenty of Christian leaders speaking loudly on God's behalf this election season. I hope others of us will listen carefully to those whose politics may seem odd but whose devotion to Jesus should be very familiar.