Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks often of his religion—but he tailors it to fit his politics, and it focuses on works over faith
Two Sundays before American voters elected Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States, many American churchgoers marked the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
In some churches, Christians clutched hymnals and sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” belting out Martin Luther’s rousing lyrics: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also—the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still: His kingdom is forever.”
It was a fitting way to begin a week consumed by news of temporal leaders in earthly kingdoms.
Those new leaders matter, and Trump’s election has substantial implications for the future of the United States. But in considering what the presidential election means for evangelical Christians, another important question arises: What does it not mean?
Will religious liberty remain under assault? It’s likely, but Christ-centered believers won’t exercise their religious faith less and won’t stop proclaiming Biblical doctrines.
Will the most vulnerable members of society continue to face danger? Almost certainly, but Christians won’t stop defending those lives, regardless of political leaders.
Will racial divides continue? Yes, but Christian churches can model true brotherly affection, even in the simplest of ways.
Indeed, before, during, and after the most tumultuous presidential campaign in modern American history, many evangelicals pursued gospel-centered efforts that transcend politics. And many will continue, even if the work is uncomfortable, unpopular, or unseen.
Just before the election, I spent 48 hours in Greenville, S.C., one American town where a variety of Christians quietly demonstrate those efforts. Their work isn’t flashy, but it’s faithful, and it mirrors similar church-centered efforts all over the country.
‘It’s like an underground railroad that’s alive and well, and it’s everywhere. There are people helping people to freedom.’ —Hubbard
Such efforts may face political pressures, but no president or government policy will save or destroy them. Here’s a glimpse into a tiny slice of the kind of Christ-centered good works that offer encouragement—and examples—for the next season of American life.
AT 8:30 ON SUNDAY MORNING in downtown Greenville, most streets are quiet as early risers file into the first worship service at Second Presbyterian Church (PCA).
Morning light filters through stained-glass windows, as the choir sings an opening prayer in the traditional service:
“God of grace and God of glory, on Thy people pour Thy power. Crown Thine ancient Church’s story; bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”
The morning sermon by assistant pastor Chad Bailey only mentioned the election once. During an exposition of the New Testament church’s growth through suffering and persecution, Bailey reminded the congregation: “Christ is still ruling and reigning no matter who is elected. … That makes a difference in how we think and speak and spend our lives. … We live and die unto the Lord.”
A mile and a half away, churchgoers heard a similar message later that morning from Pastor Stacey Mills of Mountain View Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation founded in 1908.
In some ways, the nearby churches seem worlds apart. While modern condos flank Second Presbyterian, lower-income homes and shuttered textile mills surround Mountain View.
But inside the nearly 100-year-old building, Mills helps his congregation think Biblically about suffering and trials: “You learn how to be grounded. You learn how to walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he said in a rising cadence. “Why? Because I’ve found that on my worst day He is still with me,” Mills said to loud “Amens” from the packed congregation.
“We ought to be able to have joy in the presence of trouble.”
The African-American community in Greenville knows about trials and troubles.
‘You have to have the relationship before you have anything else. Unless there are personal connections … you just live in separate worlds.’ —Phillips
When church members constructed the current building in the 1920s, they carried buckets of change they collected to deposit into a church bank account. They hauled bricks to the site by hand. During the era of segregation, the community was self-sustaining, as it found itself cut off from services the local white population enjoyed.
But desegregation slowly came, as Jesse Jackson (a Greenville native) and other civil rights activists marched to desegregate libraries and lunch counters.
Greenville avoided much of the worst violence that marked other civil rights demonstrations, but desegregation brought its own challenges. Mills says many black business owners near the church closed up when local residents began choosing from a wider range of businesses in town.
The community declined in coming decades, particularly as local textile mills closed and blue-collar jobs dried up. These days, many in the community still struggle. And they still remain separate, at least socially, in many ways.
That began changing a few years ago, when an unexpected friendship developed between the ministers at Second Presbyterian and Mountain View. Through mutual contacts, Mills met Rick Phillips, senior minister at Second Presbyterian. They became friends, and they started an annual tradition: The two congregations, black and white, become one gathering for sunrise services on Easter mornings. After outdoor worship, they share breakfast together.
It’s a simple step, but it’s brought other traditions: The youth groups cooperate on occasional service projects, repairing homes for the elderly in both congregations. Mills has preached at Second; Phillips has spoken at a forum at Mountain View.
For Phillips, these are simple, gospel-centered ways to push back against social separations between blacks and whites in the city. “You have to have the relationship before you have anything else,” he said. “Unless there are personal connections … you just live in separate worlds.”
Phillips acknowledges the simple steps haven’t changed the racial landscape of Greenville, but he hopes they’re a small way to form bonds between Christians who might not otherwise interact.
Mills says he’s appreciated the friendship as well and says other ministers from different racial and denominational backgrounds in Greenville have begun meeting monthly to discuss the racial tensions the country has faced in painful ways over the last year.
He says it’s helpful for both groups to hear the experiences that have shaped their communities, and he thinks churches should lead their cities, even in small ways: “We are the keepers of the treasures that have been given to us by our Father.”
This summer, Phillips served on a Presbyterian Church in America denominational committee that helped approve an overture apologizing for racism in the denomination’s history. “This is Christian love in action,” he says. “Why would we not want to say we are appalled these things happened and we’re sorry for that? Why would we not repudiate them publicly?”
Back at Mountain View, the Sunday morning sermon wasn’t about race, but church members nodded in agreement as Mills encouraged them to be driven by faith in Christ, not by anxiety and tension.
“I have a problem when we preach fear and never talk about hope,” he declared. “I have a problem when we tell people how to be afraid, but never tell them how to live in joy.”
SEVERAL MILES AWAY, in the nearby town of Taylors, some members of North Hills Community Church have learned to overcome a different kind of fear.
In 2011, Pastor Peter Hubbard began a preaching series about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality.
He turned the series into a book—Love Into Light—encouraging churches to maintain the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is sinful, but that the gospel of Christ offers forgiveness and restoration—just as it does for any other sin.
When Hubbard began preaching about homosexual temptation, the pastor says, the response stunned him: “People came out of the shadows.”
Several churchgoers sought help for unwanted same-sex attractions, and Hubbard says the church has assisted dozens seeking help. The church responded with what the pastor calls an “air war and ground war.”
He kept teaching and preaching about Biblical sexuality (air war), and he encouraged those struggling sexually to be transparent in counseling, small groups, and Christian friendships (ground war).
These days, there’s no specialized support group for same-sex attraction. Instead, there’s a network of small groups of ordinary Christians growing in Christ and battling a wide range of sins.
Though circumstances can be complicated, helping a fellow sinner doesn’t require a counseling degree, says Hubbard. And while many outside resources can be helpful, churches don’t need to default automatically to outside ministries to help others with a gospel approach to sexual sin.
That was a relief for James Smith, who began attending North Hills around the time Hubbard started preaching on homosexuality.
Smith (whose name is changed to protect his job in the public sphere) says he struggled with same-sex attraction since puberty. He grew up in a Christian home and never told his parents about struggles that morphed into an addiction to pornography.
When Smith realized the Apostle Paul’s words “such were some of you” (in 1 Corinthians 6:11) applied to a range of sins, including homosexuality, he felt relieved: “I realized there had to be more people like me in the church to make that verse true.”
Smith eventually told fellow church member Ryan Berg (now a counselor at the church) and says the healthy Christian friendship was a critical step toward learning how to battle homosexual temptation.
Transparency in his small group was key as well, and Smith eventually found he had a different attraction: He began dating a young woman in the church who “answered me with grace.” The young couple became engaged, and after lots of Christian conversation and discipleship, they married in 2013. The couple has two small children.
Smith says that doesn’t mean his same-sex attractions are gone completely, but like other temptations, he says, he’s seen huge progress in the diminishing of those desires: “It’s a process of ongoing discipleship.”
That discipleship has been critical, and he says the most important thing a church can do is create an atmosphere where sinners can be open about their struggles with other sinners who see their own need for God’s grace.
“I don’t want someone to just sweep my sin under the rug,” he says. “I want help with it.”
Hubbard knows offering that help may become more complicated in the years ahead, as the culture increasingly condemns those who love their neighbors by holding out the Biblical teaching that God created people in His image, male and female.
That teaching may draw real costs in the future, but Hubbard says Christians should contemplate the Biblical example of “joyfully accepting the plundering of your goods” for the sake of the gospel. “Are we ready for that?” he asks. “That’s not just putting up with it. That’s saying, ‘You can have my stuff because Jesus is better.’”
Many other churches are still teaching a Biblical doctrine of sexuality and identity in Christ, and organizations like Restored Hope Network and Living Out offer helpful, Biblical resources for churches and for those dealing with temptation.
Hubbard says it’s encouraging work that’s often done quietly and effectively. “It’s like an underground railroad that’s alive and well, and it’s everywhere,” he says. “There are people helping people to freedom.”
IN OTHER PARTS OF THE GREENVILLE REGION, churches and Christian ministries are helping some of the most vulnerable populations in the city.
Local churches partner with the Christian aid agency World Relief to help refugees resettling in the area, offering assistance with furnishing apartments, filling out job applications, and learning English.
Some church members visit elderly patients in nursing homes and conduct worship services for those who can’t get out—perhaps one of the most unsung ministries of local churches in a country where the elderly population is expected to grow to 19 percent of the population by 2030.
Local pregnancy resource centers encourage women and girls facing unplanned pregnancies to carry their children to term, and they offer help for young moms and their babies.
For children born with disabilities, a local Christian school offers specialized education with a Biblical focus. On a recent day at Hidden Treasure Christian School, teachers in brightly decorated rooms worked individually with children with conditions such as Down syndrome, autism, and other cognitive and physical delays. In one class, an 11-year-old boy was excited at his progress in learning to read.
In another part of the school, a spacious classroom serves men and women with significant disabilities. Now age 31, one woman has been coming to the school since she was 6 years old.
On a bright fall morning, she was smiling and friendly as a teacher worked with two young men tracing numbers on a worksheet. Teachers also help older students continue to develop basic skills such as making simple lunches or setting a table.
South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley visited the school in June to sign the state’s 20-week abortion ban, surrounding herself with children often targeted for abortion because of their disabilities. In doing so, she was highlighting the value of their lives.
That’s something Christians can continue doing for the vulnerable, whether political elections offer strides or setbacks. Indeed, the children at Hidden Treasure have spent the last couple of months learning about the Old Testament prophet Daniel and what it means to have “an excellent spirit”—just like Daniel, whatever the political situation of the day.