For many years, many churches have encouraged small groups of their members –from four to eight or ten people, sometimes organized by age, gender, or for married couples– to meet sometime other than Sunday morning for the purpose of sharing their faith and their lives. The “small group” movement has grown to millions and millions of participants, and some of these groups have been meeting for more than decade or longer.
Often participants agree to study a particular chapter from Scripture or read and discuss a book related to faith. Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, for example, was hugely popular as a study text for small groups. My friend Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust The Gospels is an excellent text for groups that want to dig into the reliability of Scripture in the age of the new atheists. Many of the books by Dr. Albert Mohler make for great texts for small groups that want superb material on important subjects.
What is missing from the materials for these groups is a small group study guide organized around a Christian’s obligations as a citizen in a democratic republic, obligations not just to pay taxes and vote, but also to think through the variety of important debates occurring every day in the country. Lots of Christians have lots of political views, and they range across the spectrum from left to right. Far more Christians are simply apolitical, and millions do not even bother to vote. It is rare indeed that Christians meet for the purpose of discussing the issues that confront the country’s leaders every day, and to do so with the intention not of winning an argument but of understanding how Christian belief ought to enter into the conversations about those issues.
Some great books have been written on the subject of Christians and politics, including one of the most important books of 2008, Render Unto Caesar, by Archbishop Charles Chaput, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Denver (and which just recently came out in paperback.) Lots of Christian authors touch on politics as part of broader treatments on how to live in our times, and many Christian authors from across the political spectrum from Jim Wallis to Chuck Colson have written extensively on “world view.”
Most of these books were not written with the specific and singular purpose of small group guide, however, and I was not satisfied with the offerings that do exist for small groups that wanted to tackle the subjects related to politics and government. My problem wasn’t the ideological leanings of one author or another, but that small group guides didn’t even ask the right questions or explore the foundations of an individual’s political identity and how that connects with and ought to be influenced by Christian faith. There’s a sequence of subjects that ought to accompany serious conversations about politics, a sequence that begins with first principles and the recognition of inherited political identities, and a course of study that doesn’t begin from ideology but rather from the teachings of Christ.
Though denunciations of the “Religious Right” are as common on the left as denunciations of the radical politics of some of the left leaning “mainline” denominations are on the right, many Christians have simply given up on the idea of a generalized Christian approach to politics. Many pastors and priests rarely if ever touch on political issues from the pulpit, and small groups rarely if ever dive into a study on the subject. For many devout and earnest Christians, politics is too ugly, bitter and brutal, and they would rather focus on missions or evangelization or one of many other important areas of church life and put politics in a corner with the other unpleasant jobs left to others.
I think this general retreat from thinking about a Christian’s obligation as a citizen in a free society is a terrible development for the country and for the world. It is also an abandonment of at least a big part of a Christian’s life. No part of life is divorced from faith in Christ, and thus politics and government ought very much to be on the minds of every Christian, and not just at election time. The command to “render unto Caesar” wasn’t just about taxes.
Thus this book. It is straightforward and not partisan, though I suspect some will disagree with that assessment. It is not an argument about how you should think and act on particular issues, but a series of short chapters that seek to set up weekly conversations on the most important topics in the public square, from preemptive war to immigration policy. It is written so that anyone with a high school education can read it, and the suggested approach to the weekly discussions builds on the model common to small groups across the land. I also wrote it with a two decades of experience in a variety of small groups, most of which were marked by hurried reading on the night before the group met. The chapters are thus short. The book anticipates 26 meetings.
As it is not intended to be read straight through, I don’t expect any comprehensive reviews any earlier than next spring, though I welcome any comments from any reader who belongs to a group that takes up the project. If there is an audience for this approach, I will follow with a second book on a second series of issues, but half a year seemed like commitment enough.
Please let me know if you start the project, and a little bit of background on your group and why you decided to dive in. We live in challenging times, and if even a handful of readers find this useful, it will have been well worth the effort.