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What Do We Do When Nobody is Listening?: Leading the Church in a Polarized Society

Jordan Tarwater reviews Robin W. Lovin's new book.

Robin W. Lovin
William B. Eerdmans, 176 pages | Published June 28, 2022

We are living through one of the most divisive seasons of our collective life in more than a generation. We have seen hyper-partisanship grind our political imagination to a halt. We have seen a resurgence of public White supremacy amidst the prophetic witness of the movement for Black lives. We have seen gun violence continue to permanently alter families and communities everywhere. We have lived through a global pandemic that continues to claim lives. We are polarized such that it can be hard to even imagine there is still yet a coherent “we” to speak of, even in the context of individual congregations.

If, like me, you’ve spent countless hours exegeting the shifting cultural landscape to better understand and give life to the ways the church can act as a force for meaningful action and witness – even in a historical moment when both functions feel diminished – you will find What Do We Do When Nobody Is Listening?: Leading the Church in a Polarized Society to be a readable companion. Noted Christian ethicist Robin W. Lovin expertly and patiently traces our recent past to argue that the church has been too willing to accept division to avoid conflict, and unfaithful to the Gospel imperative of compassionate truth-telling.

In contrast to the “polar alternatives” of left and right that are so entrenched in our public narrative, the church should place itself “in the moral void that a divided society tries to create.” By “taking up space” in that gap of moral exchange, the church can offer itself as a place that has not “relocated itself to one or the other of the poles” and instead is ready to serve as the “beginnings of that public moral discourse that seemed to have disappeared altogether.”

Lovin calls us to take up that charge by a practice of deep listening to the Word, to the world, and to the voices not currently being heard. This listening “jolts us out of our own doing and telling and relocates our egocentrism in a theocentric reality.” The church can embody the way in which “we approach the world when we are not trying to do something we already want to do or tell somebody what we already think” toward a future of greater unity.

Pastors and church leaders looking to reset the conversation and create a more productive place will find this useful, and the central thrust of this message speaks powerfully to my pastoral hopes for what the church should be. I can imagine readers who have experienced this polarization viscerally – not just in the abstraction of a well-reasoned argument but in the biting words of congregants, family and close friends – might wonder if the kind of listening and creating space that Lovin prescribes is really strong enough to make people take notice in a world of rapid tweets and cable news shouting.

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