“What are we to do with the Kim Davis problem?”
This wasn’t my question. But for the young mom whose church-going father drew me in, this was a crucial issue. His daughter loves our church, even if she’s not here very often. Geography, work, and life make it difficult for her to be here on Sundays. But at least she likes our church.
Her friends, by contrast, have mostly given up on church. Let’s be clear that these aren’t perfect people. They have some rough edges. They’ve had a few disappointing experiences and made some mistakes in life. Rather than finding understanding or forgiveness in church, they feel judged. Their feelings toward Jesus or even toward Christianity aren’t negative. But church repulses them.
To them, Kim Davis represents this church. It’s all an oversimplification, of course, but it’s a well-known perception. In the minds of the young mom’s friends and many other young adults across our country, this is the church they know: harsh, judgmental, and hypocritical. Real or imagined, this is their experience of church. They consider themselves to be believing people, but they want nothing to do with a church full of negative, critical Christians.
“So Jason, could you please jump in and fix this?”
Kim Davis is a complicated person. I can’t judge her convictions, nor do I wish to comment on the demons that may haunt her. If anything, I wish she hadn’t claimed to be acting under God’s authority. But she has her beliefs, and she’s trying to live by them. It’s her life and her choices. With regard to her impact on other people, the courts and the legal system will do what they do.
In my mind, the swirl of events surrounding Kim Davis reveal the general sickness of the North American church. We are diseased. Church is in decline. Our society is changing. We don’t know how to fix it. We don’t understand our role or how to act in these changing times.
Sadly, most church leaders and faithful Christians pick only one of two paths. Both have the unintended consequence of worsening our sickness. In other words, they are the wrong treatments. They are not cures. They’re like taking Carter’s liver pills for colon cancer or drinking red wine for an artery that’s already 95% blocked. These remedies won’t work.
The first (wrong) option is to get angry and launch counterattacks. Many Christians feel it their duty to confront a society run amok. They believe it’s the church’s responsibility to fight for the reestablishment of a Christian society that they think we once had.
There are several central flaws with this approach. Perhaps the single most important problem is that it misunderstands the ministry of Jesus. It fails to grasp the work of God as revealed throughout Scripture. The message of Jesus wasn’t confrontational (except toward the religious elite); it was invitational. This is God’s MO. God initiates and invites people into relationship. Sure, there is work to do, and there are responsibilities to keep. But the starting point is always one of God’s open invitation.
The second (wrong) option is to withdraw and retreat. Some are embarrassed by the rantings and ravings of their fellow Christians. Others are worried about the world. They feel powerless in the face of a declining church and cantankerous Christians. They simply want to live their days quietly in the peace of either their small circle of believing friends or their inward-focused, personal spirituality.
Again, there are key defects in this behavior. The biggest problem in withdrawal is that it relegates religion to the “private sector.” This mindset buys into a public/private compartmentalization of life that consigns religion to something that has no effect beyond the reassuring words of comfort spoken to our own hearts. It’s the legacy of Richard Niebuhr’s chaplaincy approach to a Christendom society that turned a blind eye to horrific moral failure while saying, “But we’re not bad people.”
Both reactions have the unintended effect of widening the divide between society and God. In the first place, the gap grows wider when the people of God give up their role of priest and instead start acting as judge. And in the second instance, Christians are unable to make an impact on the world because they just want to run away and hide.
What is the proper approach of today’s church? The only chance is for us as Christians to go deeper into our identity and mission. We must rediscover and practice the invitational and welcoming love of our God. This requires a recommitment to God and to being the people of God.
The Kim Davis problem reveals just how challenging this is. Some champion the cause of Kim Davis, seizing upon it as a chance to launch their aggressive counterattack against an immoral society. Others flee the scene, wanting nothing to do with any of these conversations, just wanting to live their lives in peace and quiet.
The first group contains the people our young mom’s friends are scared of. Their ranting and raging cause more and more people to flee the church. The second group contains the young adults who are choosing to abandon ship and flee. Both are improper responses to the challenges of our day and time. Both groups are forfeiting any chance of partnering with God to do something meaningful in this world.
How do we stop pulling in opposite directions long enough to return to the only possible cure? When will we figure out that the church is a gold mine designed to reveal the loving and compassionate heart of God to a hurting world? When will we stop running toward a fight or fleeing conflict and instead seriously engage our calling to be disciples of Jesus—denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him?
The Kim Davis problem is very real. Our instinctive reactions make it worse. But if we return to a clearer understanding of our Christian calling, we might discover something amazing: we can’t fix it. But in our humility, God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.