Most Christian social ethicists have been trained, and have trained others, in a tradition in which the most important thing the church does is to address public moral problems via declaration or action.
I am discovering as a pastor that the church has other ways it contributes to society that may be just as important. I will name three.
The church challenges people to be their very best selves.
As a pastor, I get the extraordinary privilege of preaching to a community gathered expectantly to listen for a word from God. My congregation may be somewhat progressive on many parameters, but it is not too progressive to have lost its reverence for Scripture or its desire to listen for words of challenge, direction, and exhortation from the pulpit.
As an ethicist, it comes naturally to me to season all of my preaching, even on doctrinal matters like the meaning of the cross or the work of the Holy Spirit, with moral exhortation. I believe that it is my obligation to offer such exhortation, not based on any moral perfection on my part but as an aspect of the pastoral office.
In turn, I find that most of my congregants share with me a theological vision in which human beings are sinners in need of moral challenge to become their very best selves, and that this effort is fundamental to being a Christian.
In any society, and perhaps especially in America 2017, any place where people gather purposely to be challenged to be more kind, more just, more self-controlled, more merciful, more forgiving, more peaceable, more loving, and so on, is doing something important. The church helps people seek higher ground in their lives. That's not a small thing.
The church counsels and comforts people in times of crisis.
Yesterday I did two funerals, and so far in pastoral ministry I am averaging one per month. I have made countless hospital visits. I have spoken with folks about the challenges they face with their children, or with life after divorce, or when facing infertility, or dealing with kids with drug problems, or unemployment.
I find that at least here in Decatur, Ga., people still do sometimes turn to the church, the Sunday school class, and the pastor for counsel and comfort in times of crisis.
I am thinking about a single mom in our congregation, now raising two children on her own and dealing with post-divorce messiness. She is plugging in as deeply as she can in our church, even though she is so busy — because she and her kids need community. I could name so many others for whom our congregation is their primary community and their emotional lifeline.
If churches are helping people weather crises, keep their emotions together, take good care of their kids, avoid making destructive decisions, and grieve their most painful losses, we are doing something important. It is important not just for the individuals involved, but also because every person who is able to be sustained by the church doesn't have to be rescued (or imprisoned, or treated) by some other institution of society. That's not a small thing.
The church preserves a space for a community that transcends political and ideological loyalties.
Everyone knows that America is becoming tribalized on every parameter one could name — political, ideological, economic, educational, religious, moral. We encounter each other across tribal lines as little as possible, and mainly in order to put the other tribe to rout.
Some churches, I know, merely reproduce existing tribes. But a lot of churches transcend them. Mainline and Catholic churches in most parts of our country are quite often communities that transcend our Fox News vs. CNN vs. MSNBC tribes, our red vs. blue vs. purple tribes, our Bernie vs. Hillary vs. Donald vs. Whoever tribes.
My congregation makes for a good example. Our political and ideological diversity is profound. It is a delicate task keeping us focused on the Jesus who unites us rather than everything that divides us. But it can be done.
By creating at least one space in society that transcends our current tribalisms, I think we are making a significant public contribution. Here is one place where Americans are choosing to remain in community over the long term with one another despite profound ideological and political differences.
It seems to me that any place where we choose to transcend our tribalism is a major contributor to a better future for this fractured country.
So here's to the humble local congregation, which makes a surprising public contribution through its everyday work. It's not "news." It is important nonetheless.