Election Results, Evangelicals, and the Missing Link

Let me just say from the outset that I’m nobody to be trusted when it comes to politics. I watch almost no television news, I read very little political analysis on news websites, and my voting record is out of step with just about everybody I know. However, I, like most people, watched closely as the presidential election results came in on Tuesday, and I have my own set of opinions and emotions about the results. Having been bombarded with other peoples’ opinions and emotions on Facebook like many of you, I’ll leave mine out of this. (You’re welcome).

As I watched the tallies pop up on the state-by-state boards, I was very interested that in nearly all of the closely contested “battleground/swing states,” the county maps were predominantly tipping to Mitt Romney, but President Obama ended up winning almost all of the states anyway . . . because he won the major cities in each of them. As a theologian and armchair missiologist, that got me thinking, so I did some of my very own hack analysis. I went to Wikipedia’s page on US Cities by population, took the top 20 cities, and then looked at how the counties in which those cities are located voted.

What I found was that the counties of 17 out of the top 20 cities in the U.S. were colored blue for Obama. Only Phoenix, Jacksonville, and Ft. Worth are in counties that voted for Romney (note: Houston sits in a county that was an essential tie). Most people who have watched election coverage over the past several months are accustomed to seeing the national map, which looks mostly red in the middle of the country, and blue around the perimeter. Turns out that most states are red in the rural areas, and blue in the urban population centers.

While the television news shows are buzzing with the various versions of take-away messages about how women, Latinos, and African Americans voted, I’m very interested in thinking about the implications for the church. We have heard the drum beat of church decline statistics, and I think it’s pretty clear that the disconnect with the cities is one of the core factors in church decline. Cities are where cultural movements are born, where counter-cultural energy coalesces, where money flows, and where far-reaching political decisions are made. And let’s not kid ourselves by only implicating evangelicals here – while mainline Christians may be more in step with the politics of the cities, they’re still not substantially connecting with the cultures.

A number of proper missiologists and church planters have given attention to what a connection between mission and the city might look like, but this conversation has yet to take root in the broader evangelical and mainline church. I think that needs to change. In the aftermath of the presidential election, the Republican party will no doubt do much soul searching in order to identify how things went so badly with key demographic groups, and attempt to catalyze new strategies moving forward. In a similar way, I believe the church needs to take a hard look at the cities . . . but with a very important twist: rather than looking at the cities in order to attempt to evangelize them, get them into the church, and influence their politics, “we” need to look deeply into the cultures, politics, and movements of the cities and be evangelized by them. We need to only speak when asking questions, then listen, walk alongside, and be humble enough to be shaped by our cities. The getting people into our church bit comes later, after we’ve earned the right to be heard by understanding them and learning their language. The getting people into our church bit will come as a direct result of responding to peoples’ real needs, rather than just those we’ve assumed for them.

I don’t claim to have a master plan for understanding cities, but if we’re willing to listen and learn, we might have a shot at getting back on mission. I’d welcome your thoughts, pushback, and re-imaginations.

 

NOTE: For what it’s worth, I took the photo for this post the day before the election. On a trip to Pittsburgh, I was exploring the downtown area, and stumbled across a rally for the Obama campaign. The white head of hair next to the US flag (it’s hard to make out, I know) belongs to former President Bill Clinton. Though I’m a non-major-party voter, I decided to stick around and do some listening. Maybe this was me practicing what I preach a little.

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