Reflecting on How Church Leaders Forget What the World "Outside" is Like*
One theme in this work at Faith in Public Life that keeps popping up is the incredible disconnect between faith leaders and people of faith. This struck me most strongly at a Brookings Institute panel event, "Religious Activism and the Debate over Immigration Reform," in which Jim Wallis opened and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, an Evangelical and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, and Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, participated. The place was full, and people seemed to really respond to them, but the audience was full of media-types and staff of faith-based organizations. My problem with this group of people was that every single one of them used the biblical imperative to welcome the stranger as the reason behind why they support comprehensive immigration reform.
While I don't disagree with such a statement theologically, I had heard a presentation just a few day before by Dr. Robert Jones on a study (PDF)on religion, values, and immigration. He found that this language of welcoming the stranger is not as effective in religious communities as these leaders seem to think. Language that focuses on family values (keeping families together) and human dignity reach people much more. He says this is for two reasons: biblical illiteracy and a conflict with our cultural imperative to "not talk to strangers."
Messaging is incredibly important for faith leaders. We are to be able to reach out to congregants, but so often what we think we are communicating is not the same as what speaks to people. Here, we had four influential leaders who were unaware that what they preached did not touch people in the way they thought it did. There is a huge disconnect. So many of these leaders are stuck in academic or intellectual or bureaucratic church worlds such that they are clueless to messaging that really reaches people outside of those worlds. And it is those people, the people on the outside, to whom we are to minister.
Now I do not mean to say that there is a pew-pulpit divide over whether or not Christians support comprehensive immigration reform. Faith in Public Life has published two fact checking blog posts specifically dispelling misconceptions that faith leaders support reform but everyone else just wants more troops on the border spread by Fox News types. The disconnect that I am talking about is different because it is a disconnect that is often fostered in seminary and church bureaucracy, separating churchy folk from those working "outside."
This disconnect is so important for me to remember as I continue my studies and the ordination process, continue through to parish ministry. As a pastor, I want to know what messaging touches people most. I want to know how to educate people, as well, but, as a member of a bureaucratic mainline church, I must work to keep myself from getting lost in this disconnect. At Faith in Public Life, we do that first of all by reading the news, to learn what is going on in the world. But Faith in Public Life is also concerned with effecting change and so we learn how to communicate ideas to educate people and get them excited for change as well. We reach out and stay in touch with what is happening outside of our own little church worlds.
*This summer I am a Beatitudes Fellow at Faith in Public Life. The Beatitudes Society is a progressive Christian resource center for and network of faith leaders that offers seminarians like me internships at key national social change organizations. Faith in Public Life is one of those organizations, focusing on "advancing faith in the public square as a positive and unifying force for justice, compassion and the common good," a lot of which is in making the progressive faith voice audible in the media. I believe God has called me to parish ministry, yet I felt strongly that I needed non-profit experience if I want to be an effective pastor working for a just world. I have not been disappointed with this decision.