Making Space for Middle Ground in a Polarized Culture

I recently came across an article by church consultant Susan Beaumont on making space for middle ground in our churches, something proving more difficult in the context of an extremely polarized national political culture. The presidential campaign was like nothing I’ve ever seen and the first few months of the Trump presidency has proved no different. It impacts us. I read the article the same week I was preparing for last month’s pastor’s forum “Political Differences at Bethany.”

A healthy congregation, says Beaumont, hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and often endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. “There is someone near me in perspective who connects me beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps.”
“When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves, and we lose our mediation zone.”

The result is we/they thinking. We focus on personalities rather than issues. In the distortion and exaggeration, we begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another. She then offers ten things leaders can do, including staying spiritual grounded, maintaining a sense of humor, and praying for one another.

One thing we can all do is number 6 on Beaumont’s list: “Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth.” This requires something in short supply in America these days: refusing to make assumptions about others’ motives. Before labeling another and categorizing them it’s helpful to ask for clarification of ideas and intent. Brothers and sisters in Christ give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Bethany Presbyterian Church has got to be one of the kindest congregations I know. We keep the center of our life together where it belongs, Jesus Christ. One of the pieces of our DNA code states “Bethany’s unity is centered on Christ, which allows for diverse and creative approaches to worship and Christian life together.” Yet even with our center secure, Bethany is not immune to American political shifts and turns.

I vote for a strong engagement with the apostle Paul’s almost ubiquitous exhortation to avoid questioning others’ motives but to rather focus on forgiveness, patience, forbearance (read “putting up with others”), compassion and kindness. Just skim Galatians 5, 1 Corinthians 11-13, Ephesians 4, Romans 12 and my favorite Colossians 3. The first century church had to work these muscles and so do we. This is what holiness is folks: being the body that is distinct and set apart from this age, exhibiting the new Reign of God. So as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves” with this new baptismal wardrobe. I’m pretty impressed already at Bethany with the fabric, style and fashion I see.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…” Colossians 3:12-13

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