This is NOT the Church you are Looking for (but it may be the one you need)

The scene was the first in Star Wars: A New Hope to show Obi-Wan Kenobi exhibiting his strange, even magical, talents. Luke, Obi-Wan, and their droids are stopped as they enter the Mos Eisley Spaceport by several stormtroopers looking for those selfsame droids. Momentarily, it appears as if their adventure will end before it really even begins.

But that was not to be the case. Displaying a simple talent that would be equally useful in parenting and traffic stops, Obi-Wan states, “These are not the droids you’re looking for” which causes the trooper to respond, “These are not the droids we’re looking for.”

Crisis averted. If only the world worked so easily.

These days, you don’t have to go too far to find someone’s opinion about what you should be looking for in the church.

  • To some, a church should be Bible-based; to others, it should welcome questions and open minds.
  • To some, a church should embrace contemporary music and instruments; to others, it should herald hymns and tradition.
  • To some, a church should represent the diversity of the community surrounding it; to others, it should offer a refuge from a world with differing values.

But let me suggest that there is one truly important measure by which we should rate the church. It is something I’d like to call a church’s empathy quotient. Before I explain what that means, let me name some assumptions.

My first assumption is that we agree that the church is called to proclaim the Gospel and to welcome disciples of all nations, people who will follow Jesus’ commandments (Matt. 28.18-20). Second, we understand that these commandments are primarily concerned with our ability to properly love God, and one another. As Jesus puts it:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Third, while we are sometimes inclined to separate our love of God as a task distinct from loving our neighbor, we know that the faith we receive allows us to do no such thing. Fourth and final, we acknowledge that disciples are nor called primarily for some otherworldly purpose but to make a difference in this world that we share today.

Loving our neighbor requires us to know them

But how is it that we come to truly love our neighbor? A quick glance at the daily news provides us the scoop that this is no easy task. Angry divisions over politics and opinions fill our public discourse, and tragic conflicts regularly leave families homeless, hungry, and worse. If there was a Jedi mind trick to entrance us towards this task of loving each other, the world might indeed be better off. In fact, this is more or less the failure of the Law that St. Paul alludes to in Romans (Chapter 8). But absent such an entrancement, the church is left with the law of love and its servant, empathy.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” When we lack empathy, we are more likely to be narcissistic, lack self-awareness, and exploit and abuse others we encounter. It is impossible to truly love another without having empathy. Without it, we are (at best) loving something we are projecting upon the other, which is simply another way we love ourselves.

While many activities might be developed to encourage empathy, it’s not the type of thing that requires a new expensive program or an exotic mission trip to another country. To build empathy we actually need to slow down and go deeper; we can’t do that when we are always doing more.

Instead of more programming, empathy primarily demands our intention. In the context of a faith community, it requires a theology that can find value in it, and leadership that is willing to model it. For example, where a presentation of facts during a traditional sermon might elicit sympathy (which is at best a loving first step),

empathy is more likely to be fostered in preaching that is conversational; messages that invite people to encounter and consider another’s perspective from their shoes. In the clip to the right, Brené Brown masterfully explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.

To develop empathy for another, we need to listen, place share, and role play what it would be like to be the other. For some churches this may mean a shift from low-committment volunteer opportunities toward ones that ask more of people, requiring them to develop healthy relationships with those who are served.

We also need to nurture the emotional intelligence, and spiritual maturity, necessary to be self-critical, suppress quick judgment, and be properly emotional. Some churches are finding space to do this with purposeful small groups just as some Christians are finding this is the (re)discovery of contemplative spiritual practices.

Practicing empathy in the church is important because without it we are incapable of being the loving disciples we are called to be.

If the church’s primary responsibility is to love as Jesus does, how well the church equips people to empathize with others is a metric worth measuring. In a world where good deeds are too often commoditized to build one’s status as an altruist, or even as a ‘successful’ ministry, the church needs to focus as much upon the proverbial tree as it does the quantifiable fruit it might produce. The Christ Jesus Paul describes to the Philippians (2.5-8) is a model, where incarnation is wrapped up in becoming no greater than the other. Contrast that to the overly righteous windbags who fill some pulpits today.

[easy-tweet tweet=”To build empathy we need to slow down and go deeper. Faster & more are the enemy.” user=”afterchurchj”]Now it is important to note that empathy is not the same as agreement. You may indeed hold deep differences with someone while still seeking to understand and appreciate why it is that they believe what they do, and how it is that came to see things so. Empathy is required in such cases because loving transformation demands that we know that which we seek to shape. At the very least, empathy is likely to reduce the tension and anger that can erupt when values conflict.

If we practice empathy, it will inevitably lead to the transformation of its practitioner as well. In Scripture, we see this modeled by Jesus when he encounters the Syrophoenician woman in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 7.25-30; Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus first ignores the request to heal the daughter of this woman because of her ethnicity but is brought around by her appeals for mercy. Similarly, the church that practices empathy will know its community well, and make meaningful changes, because its members listen.

Some churches (believe they) have all the answers…

Unfortunately, it must be said that not every church is truly focused on increasing their ability to love better. In contrast, a growing number conflate conviction, and unintentionally the love of self, with this basic commandment to love others. In such churches you’ll find:

  • communities that define a certain nationality, culture, or ethnicity as more ‘Christian’ than others.
  • a tendency to judge first, and understand later (if ever), those who are different.
  • a use of a particular scriptural hermenutic that reinforces the norms of the community and a posture of hostility toward other views that challenge it.
  • a confusion of charity for justice. Where charity is good, it is also easy and rarely requires deep understanding. Justice is never possible without knowledge of the other and understanding of root causes.
  • an inward focus that promotes identity at the expense of the neighbor’s perspective.

It is not surprising that some of these communities are quite successful as they embody, and reinforce, our narcissistic and individualistic tendencies under the pretense of doing the opposite. In a way, they give us cover to serve ourselves and insulate us from the shame we might otherwise feel.

This is why measuring a church’s creation of empathy, or empathy quotient, is so important.

By empathy quotient I mean to advocate for a simple metric. Does your investment of time in a church produce an increase in the amount of empathy you have for your neighbors, your community, and the world we share or does it reinforce your preferences, keep you comfortable, and make you feel good?

The efficiency of a church’s empathy quotient is less about numbers and more about direction and balance. When disciples in a church are encouraged to listen deeply to their unchurched neighbors, larger community, and world, they grow in empathy. When they are invited to grow inward as disciples, they develop communal identity and knowledge of shared values. In a healthy church, balance is struck between both types of necessary growth without one being sacrificed for the efficacy of the other.

A more excellent way…

A common critique of progressive churches is that they are unrooted and driven too much by the whims of culture, leaving them with much empathy (or sympathy) but little of distinctive value to offer. A correlative critique of conservative churches is that they are so obsessed with the values and dogmatic traditions of the past that they have too little empathy for those they are called to serve today.

While both critiques are overly reductive, they do point toward a path of corrective balance that any church might follow. As mentioned previously, empathy does not require us to agree with others but it does motivate us to seek to understand and appreciate diverse perspectives. As we can see with the example of Jesus, it can also open us up to new possibilities for ministry.

In this context of generating empathy, spiritual formation becomes a means of rooting ourselves so we can encounter and honestly engage with others while still bearing good fruit from the source of our faith. Without empathy as a goal, such practices devolve into reinforcing the legalism and perfectionism that sustain closed groups of like-minded individuals.

So what does a church look like when it is seeking to optimize its empathy quotient? In such churches you’ll find:

  • people who are comfortable moving in and out of different religious and secular groups. They will actively seek partnerships to improve the communities they live in; unapolegetic for their faith but not demanding special privilege.
  • listening is a strong value and it almost always precedes attempts to understand.
  • they are open to new ideas and ways to approach their scriptures and the wisdom traditions of others. Intellectual curiousity is encouraged and questions are seen as opportunity rather than threat.
  • justice is not confused with charity. Both have their appropriate place in the work of the church but it is understood that the former gets to the root of things and is likely to ask more from us than, and for, the other.
  • a balanced focus on discipleship that recognizes the need Christian identity but defines it in relation to engagement and service for the world.

When angry “Christian” voices demand that we build a wall to keep the illegals out, I wish God hadn’t given us so much freedom. When others casually pass judgment on what they declare a “lifestyle” without consideration for the people they presume, but don’t bother, to know, I wish Jesus just used a simple Jedi mind trick to get his disciples to fall in line.

But we do have freedom, and God allows us to make declarations based on fear as often as they are based in love. Still, if we want to be the church Jesus called out to disciple and transform the world for the better, developing and supporting practices that build empathy gives us the best chance to be healthy trees with limbs that bear much fruit to share.

The church whose love is rooted in empathy may not be the one the world is looking for, but it is the church the world needs.

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