“Tribalism” has become somewhat of a buzzword in today’s culture. Small business owners frequently refer to customers as their tribe. Thought leaders who develop a strong following on YouTube often call these followers their tribe. Numerous politicians talk about their constituents as those in their tribe. Tribalism has seeped into almost every aspect of culture today.

Essentially, tribalism is “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.” However, it manifests itself in many different forms. Politically, there are tribes of Conservatives and Liberals. Culturally, there are tribes that revolve around issues of race, gender, and social justice issues.

Much of the time, tribalism is relatively harmless. It’s the guy who buys a Harley Davidson so he can hang with his buddies. It’s the young couple who joins the tiny house movement and find camaraderie with others who are more minimalistic in their thinking.

Christians are not exempt from tribalism. It’s everywhere. In years past, the boundaries of tribalism within the church were usually made up of denominational boundaries. Methodists ran with Methodists, Baptists with Baptists, and Presbyterians with…well you get the picture!

I’ll never forget the day I first came to understand the phrase, “Second degree of separation.” I was part of helping to organize a local prayer breakfast for pastors, and several of us were curious as to why one of the other churches refused to participate in a National Day of Prayer event. We came to realize that the reason they chose not to attend was because another church was also invited to be present. Consequently, since we invited this other church they decided to have no association with us. Second degree of separation.

Interestingly, over the past couple of years, I have noticed that those from my millennial generation seem to have shifted away from denominational tribalism and more towards issue driven tribalism. Social justice matters such as gender rights, racial matters, and humanitarian relief have become hot-button topics among my peers.

The question is not so much, “What is your dogma or belief?” Instead, it is “How do you feel about this issue?” How someone else responds to that question determines whether or not they fit into their tribe.

And in case you hadn’t noticed, tribalism is becoming increasingly louder with the megaphone of social media. But social media brings with it a unique challenge that humanity has never quite faced before. It is the challenge of being able to profile a person within a few simple clicks, without even having the opportunity to have a conversation with them.

I do this, and I hate it. I come across someone new. Maybe a popular speaker or author. I click on their social media page and within seconds I have mentally assessed whether they are “in my camp” or outside. I have prejudged a person without even having the opportunity to speak to them or ask a followup to why they hold the views that they do.

It gets worse. Not only do I tend to evaluate people based on what they have said, I naturally assume by their beliefs on one topic that they will hold X set of beliefs on another issue. While sometimes my prejudgements are confirmed, I have come to realize that often they have been highly inaccurate.

Now, there is a part of me that says tribalism is just silly. It’s insignificant. It will always exist and isn’t that big of deal. But through further reflection, I feel it is one of the greatest challenges Christians in Canadian and US cultures face today and it is something we must take seriously. 

What Tribalism Does

What does tribalism do that is so serious? Here are a couple of things:

1) Tribalism Draws a Line

By its very nature, tribalism separates. This is not always a negative. Movements like the great Reformation could be seen as a tribalistic uprising but they were also very important. Tribalism draws a line in the sand and says, “You are on that side and I am on this side.”

2) Tribalism Becomes Our Lens For Reality 

When we subscribe to a tribe, this often becomes our lens through which we see the world. Again, this can be good if we are right but it can be devastating if we are wrong.

3) Tribalism Tends to Become the Default 

When someone’s family and friends live within a tribalistic environment, it is tough to make decisions that are outside that tribe. You see this a lot in politics. In the US, you have some conservative Republicans who will not even entertain a discussion about any ban of any gun. They are true to their tribe regardless of the argument. On the flip side, many Democrats who want to position themselves as standing for life will not even entertain a ban on third-trimester abortions, regardless of the fact that the baby in the womb is able to feel pain. 

Tribalism encourages us to toe the party line. It discourages us from thinking objectively about issues because the consequences for doing so might be too great.

For the Kingdom

While tribalism within Christianity will always continue to exist to some degree, I believe the solution to the negative effects of tribalism is having a Kingdom perspective. It’s going back to God’s Word, without the filter of our current culture, and asking ourselves: What are the big Kingdom principles that I MUST get right?

There are certainly many things that could fit into this category. The gospel, loving God and loving others, and fulfilling the Great Commission would be among the nonnegotiables for me. But if you were to pin my back against a wall (hopefully not literally) and make me choose one word that separates what I view as Big Kingdom minded people and Small Kingdom minded people it would be this: faith.

I want to be around people who have great faith. Using the definition that my professor gave in college, true faith 1) Believes what God says, 2) Commits to do what God requires, and 3) Trusts and rests on God’s promises.

It’s people who demonstrate these three qualities in their life that I want to be around. I want to be close to people who love God’s Word, regardless if they fit into my box or not. I want to be around people who are obedient. People who are obeying Christ’s commands to go out into all the world and proclaim the gospel. I want to be around others who are actively raising up disciples. I want to be close to those people who have a peace about them in the midst of tremendous storms.

On the surface, this sounds easy. But it’s not. If we have grown up in the church, we cannot help but become accustomed to certain tribalistic ways of doing things. Here is what I have come to realize. It’s something that has bugged me to no end over the years. It’s the reality that some of the greatest men and women of God that I know do not fit my tribalistic box!

There have been numbers of times I have sat down with a pastor one on one or with a local group of Christians from another church. Whenever this happens, my tribalistic walls begin to pop up without invitation. “They’re different.” “Their doctrine is different than yours.” “Their lifestyle choices are not like yours.” “They might love Jesus…but if they only knew what you knew.”

But as I started to pay attention to this tribalistic voice inside of me, I came to the sober realization that it was not they who needed to change. It was me. 

Are We Tribalistic Or Kingdom Focused?

So, how do we know if we are more tribalistic or Kingdom focused? Here are some questions to ask:

  • Do I celebrate new people coming to faith in Christ in other Christ-centered churches just as much as if they came to faith inside the church I attend? 
  • Among the top five strongest Christians I respect in my life, are any of them from a different denominational or tribalistic persuasion?
  • In my prayers for God to send a spiritual revival to my community, would I be okay if he used a group different than mine to do it?
  • Do I evaluate a person’s spiritual maturity based on their faith in God or on the basis of whether or not they fit my tribal qualifications?
  • Are my decisions for attending the church I attend based on how that church glorifies God and spreads his name to the world or based on the name that is on the sign?

There will always be groups within Christianity. I’m not naively calling for some utopian dream world where every person from every tribe sees eye to eye on every issue (I guess we’ll have to wait until Heaven for that). I’m not saying denominations, organizations, or networks are wrong in any way. I consider myself to be a part of many healthy tribalistic communities.

There are times that tribalistic communities can actually be an effective tool to accomplish kingdom purposes. We just have to keep the order right. Kingdom and then tribalism and never in reverse.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:33

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