With the momentum of secular ideology in Western Culture, with its seemingly irresistible social force, and its harnessing of media power in aid of its cause, it is becoming increasingly difficult for conservative Christians to resist the temptation to mobilise and lobby. At the time of writing, Northern Ireland stands on the brink of having legislature imposed from Westminster which will facilitate abortion on demand and the introduction of same-sex marriage. The spectre of such radical social convulsions is sending a collective shiver through the Christian community, leading many to seek coalition and combined action in an effort to stem the tide. In this article I will argue that this is not only the wrong approach to place our trust in, but that it might in fact weaken the force and inherent logic of how God normally does his work in the world.
For the love of lobbying
Ours is an age of activism and social assembly against ideologies and philosophies which counter our own. The complexities of Brexit are being debated in parliament and on television, but popular movements are increasingly coalescing on social media and taking to the streets. There is a sense of confidence in the weight of numbers, the raised decibals that a shared voice can attain, and the prospect of disruption to those on the opposing side. People are marching to stop political moments happening, to combat climate change, and a host of other causes of varying worth. Online petitions attract huge amounts of signatories in hours, showing the shared mind that social media can foster or capture.
In this environment it is almost impossible for conservative Christians not to feel attracted, or even be seduced by this approach. Making our voice heard, engaging the public square, making what is believed or withstood visible to all seem to be a primary means of marketing our ideas, or moving against change.
There is, of course, room for this kind of activity. It is a good thing for like-minded Christians to be vocal about abortion and about biblical marriage, but this must not be where we rest our ultimate dependence, and it must not be our primary instrument of communication to our world. Marches, gatherings, large-scale prayer events all have their place, but only if they are viewed as a very minor part of how the gospel might be presented or defended. With the exception of prayer these are, ultimately, flesh and blood weapons pitched against spiritual forces, and a darkness which will not yield to the meagre lights of a thousand phone torches held aloft in solemn assembly. As will be outlined below, the weapons and tools to stand for Christ are already ours, and are more effective in the long run than the power of social media, or shared action.
The power of small and local
A merely surface reading of the New Testament reveals communities of believers who seem hopelessly outnumbered, effectively disenfranchised from the levers of political power. They are also ideally placed to subvert the order of authority, their surrounding power structures, and to manifest the glory of the gospel against the odds. The mechanism for this kind of resistance seems so foolish that it could have only be conceived by the transcendent wisdom of God: the local church.
We bypass this fact at our peril – that the clarity of the church’s message, the embodied nature of the gospel, the moral force of renewed hearts, and the counter cultural ethic of God’s new society are best articulated by the life of ordinary believers, gathered in local churches, loving God and neighbour. It is fine for other bodies to raise awareness, to encourage co-operation, but this is often a leapfrogging of this vital line of gospel outreach.
A measure of this might be to gauge the degree to which a mass prayer gathering affects the regular prayer life of local churches in future days. Thousands of people might gather to pray in common cause, but if that is realised against a backdrop of declining corporate prayer in local churches, then we must question its ultimate impact when the present challenge has passed. We might also ask if we are willing to weep hot tears together in our local meetings about our own sinfulness, about the moral vitiation of the gospel in our own lives, about our casual compromise with prosperity and celebrity, about how lightly we have held the glory of God, and about how selectively we have affirmed biblical inerrancy. If we are willing to gather nationally to pray about social issues, but not consistent in gathering locally to pray for increased reformation of the church and the salvation of souls, then we have betrayed a key metric of how deeply our concern runs.
The danger of a monotone message
The other danger in national lobby groups, or countrywide prayer gatherings is that it can give a lopsided view of our priorities as Christians and as churches. I believe in and will robustly argue for the biblical definition of marriage, and I abhor the thought of unborn life being sacrificed on the altar of modern individualism, but I believe those things within the context of a gospel which is much deeper and grander than mere social resistance. A march or a mass gathering might demonstrate the ‘what’ of my belief quite effectively, but it will almost certainly fail to articulate the ‘why’ of that belief, and will be utterly impotent to model the ‘how’ of what this means in terms of my loving gospel concern for neighbour and nation. These latter, and more central, issues can only be manifested by gospel community, not in social crowds, they can only be exhibited and realised in the authentic gathering of God’s people, under the authority of his whole counsel, and within the costly dynamic of living out our love in the concrete mundanity of daily and weekly existence.
National gatherings are beneficial, but they also run the risk of making our beliefs look like a bare legalism, or simply another lobby group among many. They may raise awareness, but they are limited in terms of how they embody and explain what we believe about God’s love for sinners, the category shattering nature of his grace, the boundary breaking community of the church as a gathered body of saved sinners, and the invitation not merely to conform to morals, but to commonly avail of Christ’s mercy.