Into a world marked increasingly be deep divisions, Christianity speaks a message of reconciliation.
As church planter, pastor, editor, radio host, author, dean and Billy Graham distinguished chair for church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College, Ed Stetzer brings a wide perspective to the sharp rise of polarity creating chaos within the church, nation and world. Calling it “a crisis for our Christian witness,” Stetzer shares some thoughts from his new book Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst (Tyndale).
If Jesus Googled “age of outrage,” it would point to the time we live in. It’s everywhere in our culture. Everyone is outraged and the divisions are deep. In many ways, Christians are on the receiving end of that division—but sometimes they are creating more outrage and deeper divisions with their own actions. Ultimately, I wanted to write a book looking for a way through this, helping Christians think differently and engage more wisely.
We are in a season of increasing polarization. You see it politically. The middle is shaded away. You used to have some conservative Democrats and some liberal Republicans, but that’s not the case anymore. The moderate—the middle—has disappeared. We are experiencing a multifaceted crisis of incivility.
I was part of a conversation a few years ago with some congressmen and senators. They invited in some liberal and conservative leaders, and I was sitting down with heads of mainline denominations. We put out what we called the Better Angels’ Statement: “Seek to model civility, lead by example by modeling civil discourse.” Well, that was 2012 and that didn’t go anywhere. Things have gotten so much worse. I think about that time and it feels like we were trying to hold back an ocean of division crashing onto the shore of our culture. A lot of people have lost their lives to outrage and are losing their ability to relate to other people. People are being discipled by their cable news stations. They’re being shaped by their social media feeds, producing more and more waves of division.
The time we are in right now is a crisis for our Christian witness. If we don’t address it, the nation can be divided. The church has ended up in the midst of it, not only being recipients but also participating and contributing to the division. The end results affect the work of Christ and the gospel with its message of reconciliation.
There are many things to be angry about. The Bible speaks of a righteous anger, which reflects the kind of anger we see in God. These are issues of justice, brokenness, racial tension—things that God is not pleased with. The first challenge we face is to determine if the things we are angry about are actually the things God is angry about. Often, they are not.
The first illustration in the book examines a huge controversy that erupted after someone tweeted about a Bible in Costco—“Hey, there’s a fiction label on the Bible.” It ended up going viral and Christians were up in arms about a conspiracy to reduce the Bible to fiction. Turned out, some kid who worked there mislabeled one Bible, and Christians were calling for boycotts. That kind of thing happens a lot and it really undermines our witness because we’re supposed to be people of the truth. When we buy into fake news and lies without doing our research, obviously there are pretty big credibility problems.
The rise of social media has greatly accelerated the polarization of our culture. Social media is an echo chamber. Research shows that people routinely unfollow or “mute” others who disagree with them. The end result? You only listen to people who agree with you and are just like you. You care much more about reinforcing your beliefs than searching for truth.
A New York Times article revealed that Russian bots creating fake news often targeted Christians. Christians were eager to interact with these kinds of reports—and share them. They escalated the outrage so that it got to more people’s eyeballs. In the end, we live in alternative realities focused only on the escalation of anger.
There will always be part of me that wants to be driven by another agenda and wants to get upset. We can be easily outraged when we engage with an outraged culture. So don’t just consume social media, for instance, but invest your time and attention wisely. With social media, you have to realize that it’s the job of tens of thousands of people to get you to consume. A lot of times, they do it by making you feel threatened. When you consume the outrage put before you, you’re going to end up outraged. So take a different way.
If we’re calling people to a relationship with Christ, we need to be in relationship with them. Relationship means building bridges, not burning them. If you’re posting on social media that Democrats are idiots or Republicans are crazy over and over again, blocking or unfriending those who see things differently, you are burning bridges and erecting walls with people whose greatest need is a relationship with Christ.
Christians are a people of the truth, no question. Our Savior says he literally is the truth. If there were ever a people who should be driven by the truth and away from falsehoods, it should be Christians. Yet I see Christians posting conspiracy theories and obvious lies, saying: “Well, you never know, it might be true.” In our post-Christian culture, Christians need to be taught discipleship and discernment in their digital engagement.
You don’t argue a person to the truth, especially the truth of the gospel. Argument is rarely a path for persuasion. You can’t argue with people and reach people at the same time. I serve at the Billy Graham Center. I’m deeply concerned that Christ’s love be known to those who don’t know him and that they might respond to grace in faith. At the same time, I’m seeing a whole lot of Christians who want to go to war. But going to war and going to witness are mutually exclusive.
There is clear evidence that disembodied discourse emboldens people to say things they would not normally say. Social media powerfully vents outrage because it gives us permission to say outrageous things. Newer technologies, such as AI and virtual reality, will further disembody our relationships.
Christians should seek to persuade, winsomely engage, ready to give an answer for the hope we have. In 1 Peter we read we are to do this with gentleness and respect. There are means of engagement and ways that lead to persuasion without escalating division.
Is it more important to win the argument rather than the soul? I learned long ago that the person is more important than the point. It doesn’t mean we devalue truth but rather we express it in loving ways.
Christians feel that their identity is threatened. If people who strongly disagree with us come to power, it has an impact on our identity and freedom. I get that. But there’s a better way for us to re-establish our true identity—not a political identity. Our identity is who we are in Christ. I think of Ephesians 1 telling us “in him we have redemption because of the grace of God lavished upon us.” If God is lavishing his love upon us, we should be the most amazing people of grace—imagine what that identity could mean in our social engagement.
We think the opposite of love is hate, but we’ve moved beyond that in our culture. The opposite of love has become disgust. It’s a visceral disgust to the core of our being for another person. It actually causes us to want to harm or verbally destroy that person. As a Christian, my goal should not be to destroy someone’s argument, but to value each person as created in the image of God.
I want to be known primarily for what I’m for, not what I’m against. I have this beautiful truth that Jesus died on the cross in my place, for my sin. For some, the cross is a stumbling block. But when we look at the gospel—when we speak of it—we should always reflect the beauty of the truth. God is on a rescue mission, moving people from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son. It’s a beautiful kingdom, a beautiful reality. To speak winsomely to others who bear the image of God means that we creatively express the beauty of the gospel.
The theologian N.T. Wright says so many cool things. Here’s one. In his book Surprised by Hope, he writes there are sometimes collisions and sometimes collusions. We have talked about some of the collisions. Because of the outrage of our culture, Wright believes many Christians enter a collusion with entropy. People become convinced that the world is such a mess, there’s not much they can do about it, so it’s best just to protect themselves. They give up on doing something better or differently. I don’t think the gospel ever calls us to retreat from mission. That’s the flipside to outrage, and it’s just as damaging.
Because the odds seem so against our mission, we are tempted to give into the idea nothing can be done. But think of the people of Israel when they were in exile. God said to them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). God called them to work for the welfare of the pagan city. Don’t give in to the collusion of entropy that believes there is nothing we can do. There’s still the child who needs tutoring. There’s still the racial tension that needs reconciled. There’s still the person who doesn’t know Christ—there’s still the gospel to be shared.
We must never forget that each person is a bearer of the image of God. I can’t dismiss or scorn people made in the image of God. I can’t look on them in disgust. Understanding how people are ultimately made—in God’s image—shapes how you engage them. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.
The kingdom of God is where Jesus sets all things right. I’ve read the end of the book. I know Jesus wins. Until that time, I am to be an ambassador and a tool of God’s kingdom work here, which brings a greater sense of making the world more like Jesus desires it to be. As a citizen of this kingdom, I care about human suffering, justice and reconciliation.
Through God’s grace and power, I desire to be empathetic, humble, image bearing and sacrificial. Those are four qualities of effective witness. People who love in these ways tend to see other people through the lens of empathy. They understand the mess and hurt of the world, and that everyone needs Jesus. They would rather be humble than hostile; they are not driven by tribalism, but by engaging others. They see each person as made in the image of God, endowed with intrinsic worth and dignity, even the ones who consistently despise them. They see boldly into systemic injustice and make ongoing sacrifices to participate in God’s redemption.
There’s the idea that a Christian is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. True. But if we perceive ourselves to have been lost but now we’re found and all those other people out there are still lost, it can actually undermine one critical aspect of the gospel. I was saved by the power of the gospel, yes, but I still desperately need that power every day to continue to shape my life into his likeness. I still need bread. That changes how I see myself and how I see others.
Reconciliation is the church’s mission. First, there’s reconciliation between God and people. The world is filled with people who are in need of reconciliation with God through Christ. But Colossians talks about how God is reconciling the whole world to himself. We join in kingdom work seeking to bring reconciliation to each person and the entire world. Gospel witness involves sharing the good news with individuals, and it entails working for the flourishing of our communities in a broken world.
I know of several local churches sharing a beautiful witness to the love of Christ. There is one in Columbus, Ohio, doing great engagement in ministries to refugees at a time when the world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis in recorded history. There’s a church in Ferguson, Missouri, doing a great job leading conversations around racial reconciliation. There’s a church in Los Angeles on the battlegrounds of street gangs, bringing hope to the hopeless. I could go on and on.
We’ve got to wrestle with the values of the kingdom of God that teach us to live differently than the world. Jesus clearly teaches turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Those things make a difference. We should not want to be like the world. We should desire to walk in the power of the gospel.
A Christian worldview needs to be grace-shaped and mission-driven. Grace-shaped is a posture; mission-driven is a direction. Being grace-shaped, I’m going to live my life as one who’s been redeemed by the God of the universe, and I rest in the fullness of that grace. Mission-driven means I seek to live in mission. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” (John 20:21). He sent me, but he sent me as one who is both the object of his grace and now one who shares that grace with others.
If you don’t have any friends who disagree with you, you are putting yourself in danger. Have you built a relationship with someone from a different political party, a different race, different ethnicity, different views on major issues in our culture? If the answer is no, how are you being an ambassador if all you’re doing is hanging around with other people who are in the same kingdom as you? The very definition of ambassador means you’re relating to people who are different and, in the case of the kingdom of God, not necessarily citizens. So find some friends who are different from you and realize the best way to build relationship with people is not online. It’s in person.
One of the greatest things the church can do is to acknowledge that true community happens with true feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars. Jesus did it in a way that almost seems strange to us today—like putting mud in an eye and feeling a touch from the hem of his garment. You have to be willing to reach out and touch people, emotionally and personally, to build real community.
Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.