A word from Tim Hill….
I recently heard about a presentation given by Dr. LaMar Vest on a subject he referred to as “Foundations and Future.” I requested to read the transcript and was intrigued by the content. I believe Dr. Vest has identified some very strong realities that are predominant in the world as well as the church interdenominationally.
Dr. Vest is among the most respective leaders in the Church of God. His global impact has earned him recognition and honor among numerous organizations including National Association of Evangelicals and the American Bible Society. I am honored to have him share his thoughts as my guest for this edition of “Let’s Talk About It.”
Recently, a pastor said to me, “I need to apologize to you.” I assured him I had no knowledge of any reason he needed to apologize. He explained, “Some 20 years ago at the end of a conference in which you were speaking, I asked you what you saw as the biggest problem facing the Church and the USA in the future?” He said, “Without hesitation, you responded tribalism.” He then told me that he said to a fellow minister following the conference; he felt I had given a very strange response (he may have used an even stronger word than strange). At least, he said that he didn’t understand what I meant. He then said, “But in the past few years I have seen the rise of tribalism in the USA at an alarming rate. Now I understand what you meant.”
What I share with you is not something new, but something I have been sharing for more than 20 years.
I use the English word “tribe” in its historical sense, which comes from the Latin word “tribus” and was tied to classical and biblical images. Tribalism, in its most basic meaning, is characterized by a strong sense of loyalty to a collective identity. The word “tribe” has taken on many forms in our culture: identity politics, cliques, polarization, partisanship and many others. Some characterize their denomination as a tribe.
In the truest sense, a denomination is a tribe of sorts. People are brought together in loyalty around shared beliefs and practices as a single people, united by agreed upon principles and goals. A church, like a nation, is in trouble when there are groups within the larger body who seek to fulfill their agenda through means not shared with the body at large.
A recent article in The Atlantic Magazine, entitled The Threat of Tribalism, states that “partisanship has turned Americans against one another, and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.” Further, a Christianity Today article states, “Recent splinters in evangelicalism arise more from tribal loyalties and political rhetoric than doctrinal differences.”
America itself is a tribe of sorts. The foundation of this nation was based on the belief that we were “one nation and our rights were given to us by our Creator.” America was created not by accident or force, but by reflection and choice. America has never been one nation ethnically or religiously, and even though it took a Revolutionary War and a Civil War, we have pledged our allegiance to the Constitution and rallied under one flag—that is until recent years.
It is doubtful that many would disagree that America is a divided nation. While it is true that America has been divided before, it is different today more than any of us have ever witnessed. America seems greater inclined than ever to tear itself apart at its seams. An increasing polarity of viewpoints permeates our culture. The question for many has shifted from how can we return to civility, to, can we ever co-exist with the radical ideology that is being propagated to today’s youth?
G.K. Chesterton, an English writer, wrote, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” He further stated, “That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence...we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...”
The Constitution once united a diverse country under a creed and a banner of ideas. However, polarization has turned Americans against one another—and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.
It is difficult with so many sub-cultures that have formed in America to consider any longer us as One Nation. America is a nation divided. Bitter debates viewed regularly on TV and social media have now moved to the family dinner table and to denominational conferences. Democrat vs. Republican, Conservatism vs. so-called Progressives, Capitalism vs. Socialism, supporters of terrorism vs. Jews, and the list goes on.
We have watched university and high school students defending the massacre of Israelis by the terrorist Hamas. The thought I have when watching these demonstrations is “these students are the future political, business, teachers and religious leaders of our nation. If they had been alive during the rise of Nazism during World War II, we would be speaking German or Japanese today.”
Rather than winning the majority to their causes, many of these groups, because of their radical agenda, are awakening an angry and exhausted majority who are upset with their tactics. Throughout history, tribalism dividing people into “us vs. them” categories, has contributed to divisions, fear, and mistrust.
Americans are witnessing growing anger and the acidic eagerness to fight. We should have expected this to happen in the secular world as we are witnessing last day prophecies being fulfilled. Unfortunately, the Church often does not lag very far behind in adopting patterns that are formed in culture. When we see the same things happening in the Church that replicate the culture, we should be greatly concerned, as was the Apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthian Church. Paul was deeply concerned about the “divisions” that were occurring in the Corinthian Church.
1 Corinthians 1:10-12 (J.B. Phillips NT)
10-12 Now I do beg you, my brothers, by all that Christ means to you, to speak with one voice, and not allow yourselves to be split up into parties. All together you should be achieving a unity in thought and judgment. For I know, from what some of Chloe’s people have told me that you are each making different claims—“I am one of Paul’s men,” says one; “I am one of Apollos’,” says another; or “I am one of Cephas’”; while someone else says, “I owe my faith to Christ alone.”
Paul continues in this chapter to show how serious these divisions exist. He strongly rebukes the Corinthians because they are polarizing around certain leaders and forming factions in the church. This prompts Paul to ask, “Are you saying that Christ is divided?” These small groups obviously considered themselves to be the spiritual selected to reveal what was best for the whole Church.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 11:17-18 (NKJV)
17 “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.”
According to Acts 2:42-46, it was customary in the Early Church for believers to meet together for fellowship meals. The main purpose of these meals was to commemorate the Lord’s love for them by showing love to one another. It also seems that these meals were climaxed by observing the Lord’s Supper.
Paul offers no praise for the Corinthian Church. He suggested they are doing more harm than good when they meet together, because there were so many cliques or divisions in the church. What a sad commentary for any church. The word translated as “divisions” is from the Greek word scisma [skhis'-mah]—schism, a split or gap. To speak of disunity and division in the Church as though they are small things would be a serious mistake.
Sadly, when a church forms special interest groups that share only a very narrow unity while excluding the majority of the church body, contentious issues are framed as “us versus them”, rather than solving issues as a united body. I’m sure there is not a pastor who would consider this acceptable behavior for a local church, and it is dangerous if it happens in a denomination. We have no right to expect unbelievers to be drawn to the Good News when we do not serve together in unity. Division leads to polarization.
With all of the good that modern technology has brought to our culture, the internet and social media have also brought serious challenges. One such challenge is referred to as microtargeting. Microtargeting is targeting a specific online audience in order to influence a desired outcome.
While microtargeting has proven to be effective in government political campaigns, it creates a chilling effect on those not part of the microtargeting effort, and may well drive more and more people away from public debate. According to a recent in-depth analysis by the European Parliamentary Research Service, “It is possible that political microtargeting campaigns can determine the outcome of elections, in particular in winner-takes-all electoral systems”. (www.europarl.europa.eu › RegData › etudes)
In the past several decades, technology has seriously eroded the foundation of the unified group. The general belief that social media generates debate has recently been challenged by research which says, over all, “Social media has diminished rather than enhanced political participation.”
A recent article in Internet Policy Review states, “Political microtargeting causes double harm to voters: it may violate the rights of those who are targeted, but even more importantly, it may violate the right to information of those who are not targeted and therefore not aware of the political message that their fellow citizens are exposed to.” The article continues, "The reason this is so attractive for political people is that they can put walls around it so that only the target audience sees the message. That is really powerful and that is really dangerous." (https://policyreview.Info/articles/analysis/double-harm-voters-data-driven-micro-targeting-and-democratic-public-discourse)
The dangers of microtargeting have been singled out in many recent articles and reports. A few of them conclude:
Microtargeting supplants robust and wide-open debate, which is central to the preservation of any organization.
Micro targeting negatively impacts those who are exempted from participation from lack of technology or by not being part of the group.
is seen by many as manipulation rather than sharing the full range of debate, or in case of an election, not sharing the whole field of those eligible to serve.
Microtargeting builds a wall to selectively include and exclude.
(These are only a few of the observations compiled by those who have done extensive research.)
The issue is not disagreement. The issue is how to best solve problems and make positive change, which if done appropriately is healthy for any group. However, it must be done in the open. Polarization makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to engage with each other on the most contested issues of the Church. Polarization in any organization will be divisive.
Solving differences calls for civility and much prayer for the greater purpose. The Church in today’s world is facing enough problems without having to deal with a polarization that may seriously damage our mission.
Jesus Prayed in John 17:20-23 (NKJV)
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
Jesus prayed for our unity!
He has answered many of our prayers. Let us do our best to answer His prayer!
CONCENTRATE ON THE FUTURE
As we concentrate on the future, let us acknowledge and embrace the following key “Foundation and Future” factors and submit to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Tribalism is characterized by a strong sense of loyalty to a collective identity. Unity is of paramount importance to the Church.
A denomination is a tribe of sorts. People are brought together in loyalty around shared beliefs and practices as a single people united by agreed upon principles and goals.
Throughout history, tribes within tribes have divide people into “us vs. them” categories—contributing to divisions, fear, and mistrust. The Church must avoid this.
When we see the same things happening in the Church that replicate the culture, we should be greatly concerned, as was the Apostle Paul writing to the Corinthian Church.
Paul strongly rebuked the Corinthians because they were polarizing around certain leaders forming factions in the church. These small groups considered themselves to be the spiritual selected to reveal what was best for the whole Church.
When a church forms special-interest groups that share only a very narrow unity while excluding the majority of the church body, contentious issues are framed as “us vs. them,” rather than solving issues as a united body.
Microtargeting is targeting a specific audience in order to influence a desired outcome.
Churches and denominations that will overcome tribalism and microtargeting are those that believe there is a higher accountability—the judgment seat of Christ and the authority of Scripture.
The future of the Church is not about who wins or loses; it is about personal character, integrity, and commitment to the power of the Holy Spirit as we engage the Great Commission.
Dr. R. Lamar Vest