I’ve been a registered independent voter since I turned eighteen. I have prided myself on the fact that I vote based on the candidate and not the party. However, when I look back at the elections I have participated in, I’ve voted for the same party nearly every time.
The only thing independent about me is my voter registration card.
And I’m not alone.
Meet the Press in July highlighted this phenomenon: “The largest political party in the United States is no longer a party at all.… 45% of Americans now identify as independent according to our latest polling. That compares to just 27% who call themselves Democrats and 20% who say they are Republicans.” Given our current political atmosphere, it is no surprise that the American people are rebelling against the dichotomized political system. What is surprising is that just over 10% of these voters are true independents, voting on both sides of party lines.
Why an increase in these faux independents? The answer to this question could be of great importance to the Church. Chuck Todd gets right to heart of it with his assessment:
“Even if [voters] agree with the left or agree with the right, they don’t like to belong to those two parties right now.”
It is the difference between belief and belonging. Many independent voters believe in the central ideals of a certain party but are unwilling to belong. The reasons for resistance to belonging vary.
Wearied by War
Chris Cilizza in the same show observed, “Even if you identify with the principles of one party or the other… you don’t like the tactics of either party.” The constant battle between red and blue is exhausting, and the American people are the casualties. Certainly the rise in faux independents illuminates this fatigue. Many folks agree with the central ideal of a party but are unwilling to be pitted against the other half of the country.
Likewise, the American Church has grown weary from the culture wars. Our people are tired of being pitted against their neighbors whose lifestyles differ from them. It has become harder and harder to love our neighbors as more and more faith leaders spend their energy and resources finding the next “enemy” of Christianity. Many Christians are ready to beat our swords into plowshares.
I believe the culture war is the greatest barrier to church growth in the American church. Potential followers of Christ are unwilling to be associated with the closed-minded and bigoted reputation of the church. We have plenty to work on within our churches, instead of trying (and failing) to be the moral police of our changing society.
The increase of independents also shows an increase in individualism in our culture. In a culture that glorifies free thought, it is no surprise that Americans do not want to be told how to vote. We want to make important decisions on our own. We want the wise counsel of others, but we do not want to commit blindly to another’s will.
We see this in the American church too. New followers are unwilling to commit fully to a church’s ideals.
I first began to notice this phenomenon as King Street Church began. Our initial community that we assembled was a group of a dozen folks in very different stages of their faith journey. We had committed Christians, Christians with colossal doubts, and folks that wanted to be clear that they were not Christian. Every week we talked about faith and Christianity. Every voice was valued.
I was surprised that these folks were interested in my views as a Methodist. I would even flip open my UMC Book of Discipline. They appreciated these insights and found value in Methodist theology. I was surprised at the warm response I got from bringing up these traditional elements. I thought millennials hated traditional denominations. After all, the only growing denominational churches I knew hid their affiliations deep in their websites.
I realized that it was less an issue of the label of a denomination and more an issue of commitment. Folks that are wrestling with faith do not want to be labeled with a certain group, especially if that group can be perceived as bigoted or hateful. Denominational churches do not need to hide our affiliations; we simply need to be more patient with people new to the faith.
The Need for a New Form of Church
In our changing culture, people need a much longer time to wrestle with a commitment to following Christ. Bill Hull calls this the “come and see” stage of discipleship, where Jesus introduces himself and his ways to his disciples without pressure.
The call to come and die comes much later.
We must create forms of church for people to encounter Christ, to wrestle with faith, to count the costs of following him. A large sanctuary full of the faithful is not conducive to this stage of discipleship. We need new forms of church that are void of pressure that respect other beliefs, yet show that following Christ is the only way to experience true life.
For my friends at King Street Church, attending a traditional church feels like committing to everything that church stands for. They feel like attending a church means they have to agree with everything the preacher says, which is often not possible for them.
It feels like registering for a political party.
However, in fresh expressions of church, people new to the faith can begin to get to know Christ. When sitting around a table at the pub or around the coffee table at someone’s home, people are free to explore what it looks like to be a follower of Christ. There is not a pressure to agree blindly with the people on stage, but an invitation to explore in the context of holy community. These fresh expressions have the potential to become mature expressions of church.
Unknowingly, we’ve built a wall around the Church. Even our most open-minded churches have created an atmosphere of “you’re in or you’re out.” The doubters and the unconvinced among us are labeled “lukewarm.” Those we’ve labeled “lukewarm,” could simply be counting the cost.
Perhaps the very ones who have complained of watered down Christianity have been watering it down themselves by expecting people to be able to convert quickly. Committing to carrying a cross should not be an easy decision. We as a church must be patient with the ‘Religious Independents’ among us, creating safe spaces for them to grow, trusting in the slow work of God.
Photo Credit Steven Deopolo
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog Faithful Community at www.faithfulcommunity.com