Most pastors and ministry leaders are looking for ways to cultivate transformation in their congregations, to move beyond “business as usual” and step deeper with God into loving and just forms of life together.
Yet, as most pastors also know, leading a congregation often feels more like navigating one problem after another than it does launching exciting new initiatives.
The counterintuitive way forward into transformative territory is facing problems and difficult issues head-on, rather than avoiding them or hoping they will fade away.
Complex social issues shaping your congregation are not distractions from the real work God is doing. Transformation begins when you address difficult issues as the real work where the Spirit of God is renewing life.
So where can we begin? There are several major social issues affecting congregational life today. Not only are they causing confusion, but they are also often hidden beneath the surface, shaping your congregational culture in ways you don’t realize. That’s why addressing these issues faithfully is necessary for moving into more whole, just, and loving forms of life together.
What Challenges Does the Church Face Today? 5 Contemporary Issues
1. Racism in the Church and Our World
Racism includes personal bias or prejudice of one person against another that trades on a socially constructed (and arbitrary) hierarchy of being that makes light-skinned (“white”) people superior to darker-skinned (“black” or “brown”) people.
This destructive assumption is often called “white supremacy.” But it’s more than personal; it’s institutional and social. Entire social systems have been built to advantage “white” people and disadvantage “brown” or “black” people. BIPOC people have been, and continue to be, directly and indirectly harmed in body, mind, and spirit by singular acts of racism and shaped by it.
At its foundation, racism is idolatry; it denies the image of God in all persons. It is destructive and dehumanizing foremost to the victims but also to those who benefit from its lie. It is fueled by ungodly power dynamics, where power is hoarded by a few to control and dominate others (a.k.a. colonialism).
Racism has a long and dark legacy, especially in the West. Almost every aspect of social life (economics, voting, housing, jobs, education, etc.) has been, and continues to be, affected by the sin of racism in complex and often subtle ways. The church is no exception to this legacy.
Not only were many predominantly white denominations explicit perpetrators of racialized theology and supporters of systems that oppressed and disadvantaged BIPOC people historically, as MLK Jr. said, Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated hour of the week. Although leaders may not be perpetuating personal bias in the pulpit, they can unwittingly center exclusively white/Euro-centric forms of theology and worship that leave BIPOC people and their experiences of God and life on the margins.
Racism, white supremacy, and colonialism often show up in our congregations hidden inside other forms of idolatry like individualism and consumerism. Individualism centers the self over others, isolating me from responsibility to share in the joys and pains of others. Consumerism turns creation and people into objects for my use; again, denying the image of God in others and the reality of creation as a gift.
2. Sexism and Patriarchy
Like racism, sexism includes personal prejudice where individual persons harm other persons, this time on the basis of a socially constructed hierarchy that makes one biological sex superior to the other sex.
Historically, sexism has manifested predominantly as men being advantaged while women are disadvantaged, harmed, and marginalized. Also like racism, sexism is infused in the institutions and systems that characterize our lives. When the institutions and systems are designed to center biological men in advantage and power over women, this is called patriarchy.
Again, the church has a long, dark history with sexism and patriarchy. While few church leaders today would explicitly condone overt sexism, many church traditions continue to explicitly operate with a structure in which women are made subordinate to men. Not only have women been marginalized, but these structures also often nurture cultures where abuse is rampant (more below). In patriarchal environments, women are often assumed to be a dangerous temptation to men. Their bodies are strictly policed in ways that men’s bodies are not.
The problem of patriarchy is not simply about holding an anthropology that teaches women and men are different. Even in church traditions that do not promote a distinction in roles or clergy offices based on biological sex, the congregational culture can still be male-centric and leave women feeling marginalized, without agency to live into their calling.
This is why we must be careful not to assume that just because a congregation is “egalitarian” does not mean there are male-centric assumptions and structures that marginalize women. Patriarchy often hides inside a “leadership culture” characterized by top-down, command-and-control decision making, zero-sum power games, rationalist modes of thinking, and an aversion to vulnerability.
3. Christian Nationalism
Wound up within racism and patriarchy is Christian nationalism, which is another kind of idolatry that has to do with ungodly power that is hoarded in order to dominate and control. When the desire for this power reaches for partisan political influence in the name of Jesus, collapsing together the structures of a particular nation-state with the kingdom of God, that is the ideology of Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism should not be confused with a practical theological vision for political activism or with any one instance of Christians supporting a public policy associated with a particular party’s platform—right, left, or centrist. Our congregations are seduced by the ideology of Christian nationalism when patriotic or nationalist identity takes priority over Jesus’ call to identify with, care for, and welcome strangers, outsiders, or foreigners. The core of Christian nationalism is “xenophobia”—fear of those who are not like “us.”
Some signs of Christian nationalism in our congregations are obvious, like when we support political candidates or policies that we know contradict the teachings of Jesus in order to guarantee that Christians (from our tribe) can remain in the center of public influence. But it also hides in our allergies to those who are not like “us,” in our inability to hold non-coercive space with those who are different, and in our refusal to speak prophetically to injustice, and in our attempts to remain supposedly neutral in the face of injustice.
4. Gender and Sexual Diversity
Issues related to gender identity and LGBTQ+ rights continue to come into the foreground for churches as well as society more broadly. No longer can church leaders simply sidestep complex questions around human sexuality, hoping that merely teaching the “right” answers or avoiding controversial questions will somehow cause the issue to fade into the background.
Even in congregations that teach more “traditional” sexual ethics, leaders must reckon with the reality that there are people under their care who struggle with gender dysphoria or who find liberation in the idea that the gender binary (male OR female) is actually more of a spectrum or that gender is (at least partly) socially constructed.
There are also people whose sexual attractions do not map cleanly onto heterosexual norms. Great harm can and has been done when churches cultivate a hostile, shame-infused environment, where people wrestling with questions about their sexuality and bodies do not feel safe to be honest.
Regardless of a church’s theology, heterosexual identity can become a tool of domination used to make enemies and turn people into “others.” Frameworks for what it means to be “male” or “female” might be less about how to be fully human in Jesus, and more of particular cultural norms baptized as Christian. All of these conversations reveal assumptions in our congregation about what it means to follow Jesus with our bodies, but many of those assumptions might have nothing to do with Jesus.
5. Religious Trauma and Spiritual Abuse
The issues above have both personal and structural components. They involve the ways individuals attempt to dominate, control, or coerce other individuals, but also the way congregations can become systems of domination, where idolatry is part of the “water” in which everyone swims and is formed.
Each of these issues is also fundamentally about people and the way idolatry destroys our humanity, not merely abstract doctrinal problems. That means these issues often produce trauma and abuse in our congregations.
For a deeper dive into spiritual abuse, listen to the interview with Wade Mullen on the Gravity Podcast about how to decode the hidden tactics of abusive systems and people.
More Challenges Facing the Church Today
After reading through just a brief overview of those heavy issues, you might be feeling overwhelmed. In fact, that’s another big problem in our churches. Pastors are experiencing burnout, anxiety, and depression and leaving ministry at rapid rates.
Many leaders I know feel completely depleted and hopeless after a long season of dealing with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some denominations in the United States, church membership is dwindling. The horizon doesn’t look bright from the perspective of many leaders.
The good news is that God is already working in the midst of these issues, bringing newness and transformation. There are practical ways leaders can address these issues head-on in ways that better illuminate what’s going on in your congregation and avail you to more just and loving forms of life together.
The bottom line is that these issues are not problems to be solved, but opportunities to get under the hood of congregational life and join God’s re-creating work.
How to Talk About Issues Facing the Church
Understand Your Local Context
“God meets us in our messy reality” is an important axiom that guides how we understand discipleship at Gravity Leadership, and this axiom is also crucial for addressing difficult issues in our congregations.
Meeting with God in our messy congregation begins with curiosity about the habits of thinking, talking, and acting that make up our particular congregation. You cannot truly understand how particular issues are uniquely shaping your congregation or how God meets you in the midst until you sink down into all the messy particulars. Understanding your context is the first step.
When I say messy, I mean that there is often a gap between a church’s ideal vision for itself and the reality of life that actually constitutes beliefs and behaviors in real time. This gap between vision and practice is not necessarily a problem.
All churches have a gap. If leaders want to address difficult issues, then they must have the courage to understand the gap. At the beginning, leaders must resist the urge to prescribe the “right” answer or solution and rather seek to describe what is happening and why.
Listen and Learn
Understanding your local context does not primarily consist of reading books about culture or staying updated on the latest church statistics (although there is a place for that). It begins by listening to your people and learning from them how they experience difficult issues, how they see your congregation, and what motivates their thinking and acting.
Again, this requires holding space for the life of your community to be revealed as it is rather than how it ought to be. The good news is that listening is not merely procedural. Listening can be sacred work in your congregation. When people are heard with empathetic ears, it catalyzes God’s work in their hearts and prepares the soil for transformation to take root and grow congregation-wide.
Speak the Truth
As you listen, patterns and themes might emerge. Those patterns and themes will begin to tell a story about how difficult issues shape your congregation, in either constructive or destructive ways.
When a difficult truth becomes clear (e.g. maybe some women in your congregation feel marginalized and wounded by recent teaching on gender roles), don’t settle for a false peace (see Jeremiah 6:14). Name what you are noticing, holding it before God’s Spirit and before your congregation.
As you begin to name the themes and patterns that emerge, begin a dialogue about the story they tell about who your community is in practice, about your points of struggle and pain, and also about how God might be bringing renewal into the future.
The end goal is not endless dialogue, but action, particularly the kinds of embodied practices your church can do to lean into the new life God is making available. This is where transformation begins to really take root.
Taking concrete steps forward is not meant merely to be corrective, as if the goal is fixing problems. The goal of action is aligning your congregational “system” with a fresh vision for flourishing God’s kingdom and loving neighbors.
How Gravity Congregational Transformation Can Help
You can get started addressing difficult issues right away by listening, naming the truth, and experimenting with concrete action steps. The reality is that there are always social forces and difficult issues bubbling beneath the surface in your congregation and shaping your people, whether or not you tend to those issues.
God is already disrupting and renewing your congregation. The question is, will you pay attention or stick with business as usual?
You’ll also find that you can only get so far on your own. Digging into this work is best done as a collaborative process, aided by people who can bring an outside perspective and a bit of focused attention.
This is where Gravity Congregational Transformation can help. We come alongside your congregation and craft a custom research project that helps reveal hidden dynamics and gain a more clear understanding of what’s happening in your particular context. We also help you craft a plan to step into transformative new practices.
Here’s a deeper look at our process:
We begin with an Initial Evaluation where we find a “focus question” that will guide the research phase. Then, in the research phase, we execute the research in your congregation. The research plan looks a bit different in each congregation, but plans usually include things like a mix of church-wide surveys, qualitative interviews, and field work.
After the research phase is complete, we compile a report that highlights the themes that emerged. We begin to tell a story, grounded in the “data,” that gets at your original focus question.
The report will also make provocative observations about what’s happening and how God is inviting you to respond. This phase is a dialogue. Over several hours, we meet with you to discuss the report, to ask questions, and begin dreaming about what God is doing.
In the final phase, we gather with you and a larger group of leaders in your congregation for a discernment session. In the discernment session, we lead the group in some “contemplative brainstorming” on the basis of the findings of the report.
We are cultivating fresh imagination for what it means to be faithful in your context. The goal is arriving at a handful of practical “experiments”—concrete responses to what God is disrupting and renewing.
The entire process usually takes about one month.
Contact Seth if you’re ready to jump-in or have questions about what the process could look like in your congregation.
What If My Church Is Already in Crisis?
Sometimes churches are in crisis. There could be serious conflict or even concern about toxic or abusive systems related to racism, sexism, religious trauma, or any variation of the issues addressed above. It’s important to reach out for third party help if your church is in crisis.
There are great organizations and ministry interventions that work with churches in crisis. Working with Gravity Congregational Transformation, which is not designed to do crisis intervention or conflict resolution, will be even more fruitful after making a journey back to baseline health.If you’re not sure where you are, we’d be happy to help you discern that in a consultation call, and then make recommendations based on your situation if it seems like partnering with a different organization first would be most helpful.
Very good article