“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:21-48 (NIV)
Trust is a complex matter. It is not easily given nor easily earned in a country like The United States of America. In fact, trust seems to have diminished in family relationships, communal relationships, and institutional relationships. Having written a book for the church on trust, and working on a trust and trauma project, I have been surprised by how people seem to trust what their little pocket hand-held computers tell them more than a person sitting across the table from them. Now, I get it – each context is different and unique. But our world is moving at the speed of light and what we thought we understood about trust is shifting just as fast. We are told to trust the data, trust our leaders, trust what we see on TV or hear from others, and many of us are skeptical. We don’t trust the narratives that are out there and sometimes we make the narratives worse because we just don’t trust anyone.
Last week I was at a gathering of ministry leaders who were listening, learning, and engaging with one another and with a lead researcher from the Barna Group, Daniel Copeland. He was challenging us to think about the narratives we’ve been hearing and the narratives we have been telling ourselves and others about the state of religion in America and more specifically, the state of the Christian church. If you are like many of my colleagues in ministry, you have probably heard it said that the Christian church in America is dying. You have also probably heard it said that mainline denominations are irrelevant, impractical, and in many cases unnecessary for the world today. And you may, like me, have expressed these phrases to a few people in similar ministry circles a time or two. But what Copeland shared surprised me and challenged me, when he helped us dig further into the data.
Although the numbers of the Christian church in America appear to be in decline when measured against the whole population in the United States, the data showed a larger number of people who call themselves Christian compared to ten years ago. Even though percentages were declining, the number of people had increased. Barna also discovered in their research in spring of 2023 that, “The number of adults involved in small groups has jumped from 12% to 20% since 1994.” (https://www.barna.com/research/barnas-annual-review-of-significant-religious-findings-offers-encouragement-and-challenges/)
What Copeland tried to remind us of is that even though we are a nation that “trusts data,” sometimes we have to remember that the narrative we tell about the data is just as important as the data itself.
Jesus was a storyteller who not only took the “data” around Him into consideration as he shared His wisdom, but He also took into consideration the human heart and our frailties as well as our strengths. I love looking at Matthew 5 where we find both the “beatitudes” and these additional instructions for life in verses 21-48. Jesus does a masterful job of busting myths that people had repeatedly held on to in their everyday living and turning them towards a more complex and Divine narrative that moved them beyond just “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” (Matt 5:43) He says anybody can do that, but what does it mean to really “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44) He invites those who have declared themselves as religiously devout followers of the God of Israel to consider a different way of thinking and a different way of being. He changes the human narrative that has been driving people away from one another and into their tribes, their sects, and their comfortable communities of likeness into a place that is less comfortable, more challenging, and maybe even dangerous. “Love your enemies?” “Pray for those who persecute you?” This was against the norm and continues to be against the norm in our world today.
We would rather trust things we learn from a small screen than trust people we encounter on our streets, in our neighborhoods, or in our churches. We would rather trust complete strangers who are benefitting from us consuming their information than take time to discover who are the real people we have labeled “enemy,” or “persecutor.” Jesus was the one who asked us to trust Him as He navigated leadership in this world. And even as His disciples put their full trust in God, they still ended up persecuted and eventually martyred. But their example gave us a new narrative to our purpose and what it means to live in this world. It taught us how to live in peace and love one another, even if others didn’t agree.
Our world desperately needs to be reminded of the new narrative Christ gave us as He walked with us, teaching us how to flip the script. We need to find leaders who are willing to be trust-worthy, loving, kind, and gracious “perfect, like our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) through the example of Jesus. AND we need to be the kind of leaders who are trust-worthy, loving, kind, and gracious, being “perfect, … as our heavenly Father is perfect,” too!
I wonder what it will take to build trust in our communities across such divisive differences.
I wonder if we will be able to shift the narrative together as we move into another election season.
What do you wonder about as we seek to be faithful trust-worthy ministry leaders today?
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