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7 Steps to Healing Our Polarized Church

It’s never become clearer that we need love to heal us. Divisions abound and fear saturates too many of our relationships. What does the church have to do with this?

Well . . . if healing is going to come, it is going to come through the People of God—in the way of Jesus. We need this tangible love. This is why Jesus was sent into the world, and why we are sent into the world on His behalf. I hope this short study ‘Healing Our Polarized Church’ helps you walk on the pathway where enemy-love begins to transform you and others. I hope it sparks a movement in your soul, in your small group, and in your church. Let the healing begin!

Step 1: Facing Our Fears

What blocks most from addressing the fear in their lives? Probably that we don’t think of ourselves as afraid. The word fear seems too blunt to us, unless we’re talking about fear of snakes, spiders, or heights. When fear is not attached to concrete external objects, it’s hard to identify. Fear wants to dress itself up, posing itself as “concern,” so it has the power to place wedges between us and others. We see this in the first disciples of Jesus. “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop because he was not one of us” (Luke 9:49). They are triggered by someone who is not like them, not one of them, not part of their tribe. They are threatened and it turns a rogue demon-caster-outer into someone they fear. In the face of something foreign, their minds, their bodies, and their theology expelled rather than explored. They saw danger where there was none. Thank God Jesus was there to correct their guttural response. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said.

Step 2: Following the Way

In 1 John 4:18 we encounter this potent passage: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” The apostle John is laying out the war—Love and Fear are opposed to each other. They cannot coexist. Only love has the power to win the war against fear.

This probably sounds too flimsy as a real plan of action. Maybe your response to “love” being the solution is, “Oh, that’s all? Just love?” Love seems soft. When we look at what the New Testament has to say about love, it’s shocking how powerfully it is portrayed. At the end of the day, you’ve got “faith, hope, and love . . . but the most important thing is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). The apostle Paul is explicit: we have nothing, absolutely zilch if we do not have love. But what does this mean to us?

The very essence, the very being of God is love itself. God IS Love. Love is not merely one of God’s many moods. We find our definitions and contours of love by looking, no, staring at Jesus. If we do not, we will miss God, and tragically miss love. We need an awakening to the way of love, in Jesus. Our transformation as Jesus-followers has everything to do with tuning the dials of our eyes and ears to the way of love versus the way of fear.

God’s love is indiscriminate, loving the whole. This is perfect love. Love that is not selective, not choosy, not zeroed in on people we think we have something in common with. We pick and choose who will receive our kindness, our compassion, our warmth, our presence. We are to be known by love.

Step 3: Going Beyond the Poles

Polarization creates two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions. It is an external force that tells us we only have two options—“our side” or “their side.” We readily sort people into “Us” and “Them” based on the most arbitrary criteria. Of course, it’s not only Christians that do this. We see ourselves as members of all sorts of tribes—our families, political parties, race, gender, social organizations. Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior.

Polarization takes people that have something in common, emphasizes their differences, hardens their differences into disgust, and slowly turns disgust into blatant hatred for each other. Polarization starts early. As young ones, we see things simply. The world is divided into black and white, either/or. In our early development, we cannot comprehend tension, and it is something we try to eliminate. We like to live in a binary world where everyone is fundamentally “good” or “bad.” This polarized approach to relating with others can continue through adulthood, causing us to relate primarily in us vs. them categories.

Step 4: Moving Towards Affection

To love, or even like, your enemy seems to be impossible, even if the enemy is only a next-door neighbor making too much noise after 10 p.m. However, this is what Jesus was calling for in the Sermon on the Mount; a way of love that changes everything. I have deep affection for my wife, my kids, and my friends. But affection for enemies? Really? As much as I would like to assemble a list of caveats to excuse away enemy-love, Jesus doesn’t. Only Jesus takes our engagement with our enemies this far. This is how far the love of God extends to us—“while we were God’s enemies” Christ loved us. Jesus’ command to love our enemies matches His own love for enemies. Rather than attacking us with judgment or avoiding us through abandonment, God moves toward us with affection. Jesus is our picture of this practice.

Step 5: Breaking Open Space

Change does not come through pummeling people with facts, it will come through the risk of interpersonal affection, only this can break open space. God did not send an updated version of the Ten Commandments 2.0. Instead, God came in a physical, vulnerable, wound-able body. The truth of Christ is not a mere proposition; it is a “personed” event. Jesus feels the human experience. That is to say, the result of Christ’s empathy is feeling secure and safe coming nearer to God. Empathy is a link; it creates a connection between people that did not exist prior. In a polarized world where are wound-tight with angst, anger, and antagonism there is no space to talk, not space to be seen, no space to connect.

We break open space to connect through act of empathy. This is what Jesus did and is inviting us into. Perhaps it is not difference, but distance that breeds hostility and hate.

Step 6: Making Meals for Frenemies

Who doesn’t like to eat? I do, and I think Jesus did as well. Jesus sat at a table not as the handsome, well-groomed centerpiece of a Rembrandt painting, but as an accessible, warm-hearted, spiritual troublemaker, willing to share a potluck with a household of strangers. Jesus didn’t merely eat with objectionable people—outcasts and sinners—He ate with anyone, indiscriminately! The table companionship practiced by Jesus was redrawing all of society’s tribal maps. Jesus was disrupting the poles in His day at the table.

Recently I had decided to reach out to a “frenemy” in our neighborhood who had picked up some offenses towards me, discovering them through the detached medium of Facebook. As they arrived, the meal was not ready, so I asked if they wanted to help. Suddenly we are bumping into each other, cooking together, and sharing in the mess of flour, pasta, and onion peels. I sought to expand the “Us,” slowing down our urge to establish who is right and who is wrong. We must learn to be with our enemies, rather than being over them. As we sat down to eat together, things began to feel tenser. So, I asked them a question of compassionate curiosity: “How have I hurt you?” This question ushered in the possibility of healing. Being at  the Table, built a bridge between us

Step 7: Choosing Curiosity

Jesus, all-knowing God, Creator of the cosmos, who’s numbered every hair on our heads—asks questions, lots of them. More questions proceed from Jesus mouth than answers. Asking questions was central to Jesus work of befriending. Whether in a public gathering, in the presence of His enemies, or a private conversation with His closest friends, Jesus consistently used questions to open new possibilities. Jesus was not just looking for the swapping of information; He was seeking connection. Jesus seems to lack an agenda of gaining control in every conversation He finds Himself in. Believing Jesus already sees you, loves you, and affirms you frees you up to see others—to be interested in them. I’ve learned that being interested is much more enjoyable than my own attempts to appear interesting.


Moody press book coverDAN WHITE JR.coplanted Axiom, an International Christian Community in Syracuse, New York. He is also a strategist with the V3 Movement, coaching cohorts from around the country through a nine-month missional system. Dan is the author of Love over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, and Healing our Polarized World, Subterranean and coauthor of the award-winning The Church as Movement. He is married to Tonya, dad to Daniel and Ari, and can be found enjoying conversations at Salt City Coffee. Connect at danwhitejr.com.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ChristinLola

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