By Nathan Brown — I have a strained relationship with the local church of which I am a member. There have been various factors, but a key moment was a sermon from the then-head elder of the church warning the congregation about “dangerous ideas” that were “creeping” into the church, specifically focusing on a project that I was working with at the time.
After experiencing a renewal of my own faith at events organized as part of this project, I had become part of the group organizing similar events in Australia, had spoken at some of those events and even helped publish1 a book in collaboration with project leaders. My support and contributions to this project were open and obvious. Now, together with my fellow church members, I was being warned in serious tones about the dangers and deceptions therein.
Of course, the earnest elder had watched some videos online, “researched” some websites and perhaps even purchased copies of various books addressing these dangers. Later, he would host one of these US-based authors on a speaking tour in Melbourne, so this author could repeat these warnings with still greater “expertise” and urgency. But the one simple thing this local church leader did not do was ask me about it, either before or since.
It would not have been difficult. He knows me. We used to politely greet each other at church and still occasionally in the main street of our small community. My office is directly across the street from the church building. Some of the material he was referencing even mentioned me as a minor contributor to this project. What would a simple question have cost him? Except perhaps the invalidation of his personal “project” and his projected sermon topic.
It was a pattern that was repeated among others of my friends in their local churches around that time and since, on a variety of matters and topics. It seems we are more inclined to believe something posted on social media, an online video or some conspiracy-mongering from the other side of the world than we are to have a conversation with someone who might answer our questions and concerns in our own communities and congregations.
And I have seen this pattern repeated amid the many and varied ideas around the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations. From my days at a university student, I have now been friends with several medical doctors for almost three decades. We went to school together, shared Pathfindering adventures, then shared accommodation during university days and studied together—and since then I have remained friends and followed their careers as they have worked through the arduous processes of becoming fully qualified, gaining specializations, and working terribly long hours. Some are leaders in their respective states’ medical and hospital systems.
They have been sources of good and reliable information as I have negotiated the pandemic personally, but also professionally as a writer and part of the management team at our church publishing house. But I have also had opportunities to listen to them as they have expressed their heartbreak, frustration and discouragement as conspiracy thinking and anti-vaccination sentiments have infected their church families, networks, and communities—including “people I really like and respect,” as one friend put it.
As health professionals working tirelessly to combat the traumatic disease effects of the pandemic, these attitudes have been an additional and profound challenge, to their work but also to their relationship with their faith. The resistance to the common practices of public health, together with the focus on individual “freedom” rather than community wellbeing, particularly among people of faith, “seems so counter to everything I was raised with and believe,” said a doctor–friend who regularly works with seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
In short, we need to listen more to the experts and experienced in their respective fields who are members of our faith communities. This is the model of church Paul championed: “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function . . . and we all belong to each other” (Romans 12:4, 5).2 I am not a doctor and prefer not to have to make sense of complex medical questions with my limited knowledge, which is why I appreciate being friends and fellow believers with some very good and smart people who are.
As a church, we need to give more space and attention to the professionals among us. In the right context and with sufficient politeness and notice, they will usually be willing to respond to genuine questions and concerns we might have. And as we listen, we might learn to trust them a little more. In turn, this will also be an opportunity to support them as they wrestle with difficult issues and work through hard experiences in their working lives.
Our world is complex, and it is a Christian imperative to be discerning. We are to “hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9b)—and this is more effective when we seek to do it together, particularly respecting those who have trained insights and expertise to offer. As such, it is remarkable—and lamentable—that we are more inclined to believe a YouTube “preacher” than someone we have worshiped with for years. Perhaps it is revelatory of the shallow relationships many of us have with our fellow church members, so maybe we need to begin with asking those questions and seeking to grow together, so that we not “just pretend to love others. Really love them” (Romans 12:9a).
This is also the safeguard against the false or pseudo-community we find online and in social media channels. Those who peddle the “secret information” that creates so much of this angst and tension, even in our church communities, are not our friends. Nor are the social-media algorithms that push them at us. For those so inclined to question and seek alternative “insights” no matter how speculative, it is surprising that their suspicion does not seem
to include their preferred information sources, “expert,” “preacher” or “ministry.” Some do it for influence, some for-profits and donations, some simply to cause mischief and sow division in our churches and societies.
For example, a recent study found that 19 of the 20 most-followed Christian pages on Facebook were run by Eastern European troll farms, spreading Christian-ish sounding content either for profit or to cause social tension.3 Similarly, the Center for Countering Digital Hate has found that two-thirds of the anti-vaccination content on social media comes from just 12 people, a group of “for-profit anti-vaxxers” dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen.” 4 None of these information sources are on our side, they are small groups of people trying to cause trouble and profit from it. Then their disinformation is shared and re-shared by all kinds of people and for all kinds of reasons, including various preachers who decorate the same information with a few misquoted Bible verses and so build their “ministry” followers and donations.
This is where we encounter real people, build real relationships, and humbly share how we seek to live well in our complex world. “Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!” (Romans 12:16).
My experience with the elder in my local church was contrasted by another experience with an elder in the church in which I grew up, where my mother is still a member and thus where I am an occasional visitor. Confronted by the same anti-project material that my local church elder was drawing upon, my hometown elder noticed my name and contacted me to make a time to talk when we next crossed paths. Because he knew me a little, he assumed that I would not be part of something that was trying to lead the church astray or tear it apart.
When we sat down, he had both books—and one I had helped published and the other warning of the “great deception”—and seemed to have spent some time with both. He seemed genuinely perplexed by the contradictions between the two, not merely arguing two sides of the same discussion but talking about two quite different things.
Based on his actual research, his genuine questions, and his concern to find a greater understanding, we had a good conversation. I don’t think I recruited him—after all, that’s not what I was trying to do—but I think I did answer some of his questions. We still have quite a few differences of perspective and even beliefs, but we prayed together that day and we have worked together on occasional projects since.
The complexities and confusion of our world constantly tempt us toward shortcuts and simple answers, part of which is the temptation to listening to a single view that fits and feeds our assumptions and fears. But our faith calls us to live and listen differently and together: “Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble and keep on praying” (Romans 12:10–12).
–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing near Melbourne, Australia. His Christmas devotional book Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth is great for seasonal reading and gifting. Email him at: [email protected]
1 For the One: Voices from the One Project (edited by Nathan Brown with Alex Bryan and Japhet De Oliveira): https://adventistbookcenter.com/for-the-one.html
2 Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.
4 “Pandemic Profiteers: The Business of Anti-vaxx”: https://www.counter-hate.com/_files/ugd/f4d9b9_13cbbbef105e459285ff21e94ec34157.pdf