Book Review: What Do We Do When Nobody Is Listening? Leading the Church in a Polarized Society by Robin W. Lovin

[1] As society grapples with growing polarization, one might ask: where is the church in this conversation? Robin W. Lovin, Professor Emeritus of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University addresses this question in his latest book, What Do We Do When Nobody is Listening? Leading the Church in a Polarized Society. His thesis is “if Christianity itself is not to be redefined in polarized terms, we must rediscover how the gospel teaches us to understand ourselves, our neighbors, and the purpose of politics” (4). For Lovin, this rediscovery points to the church’s role in listening.

[2] Lovin sketches the book into two distinct parts: polarization and listening. He does not find polarization as troubling as the concept is often portrayed. He argues that for democracy to flourish, then polarization is essential to the identities of different groups involved in the wider conversation (7, 21). Lovin notes the history of polarization in the United States as it has contributed to both social transformation and social fragmentation (11-16). Lovin’s primary concern with polarization is that when taken to extreme, it contributes to the decline of the concept that legitimate disagreements exist within a democratic environment (16-20).

[3] Churches are always adapting to differing cultural landscapes, and are not immune from political forces. Lovin points out that some churches adopt marketing strategies from big corporations, while others stick to their practices throughout demographic shifts (37-38). For Lovin, an important method of addressing polarization can be found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary model which was grounded in the “church taking up space” through formation.  Key components include living in community with others based on the understanding that God works through the ordinariness of life, defying government authorities who challenge the goodness that God created, and acknowledging God’s order to a chaotic world (39-47).

[4] Lovin critiques two positions of church engagement with the world — resistance and withdrawal.  He associates resistance primarily with evangelical circles that have used the concept of religious freedom to champion single issue campaigns and the wider culture wars (47-50). He is equally critical of religious isolation or withdrawal (50-54).

[5] Transitioning to the notion of penultimate goods, Lovin borrows from Bonhoeffer and expands on the theme for the rest of the book. Penultimate goods are the things that are present before the last, which is God who is ultimate (61). The role of the Christian and the church is to take seriously the penultimate goods (shelter, food, water, healthcare, etc.) while treating them in relation to God and each other (64-68).

[6] Lovin next turns to the role of formation, arguing that the church is crucial to the formation of deliberative dialogue, leading to deeper conversations around unity amidst division. He presents a model in which shared professions or vocations participate in navigating the polarizations in their community (74, 115-118).

[7] In the second part of the book, Lovin explores the concept of listening, in which the church “takes up space” by paying attention to the Word of God and to the world, including the voices of those who are often ignored by the majority. In Lovin’s theocentric model of listening, when we hear the Word, we are not simply hearing it and then going on about our day.  Instead, the Word transforms us for our daily lives.

[8] Lovin uses H. Richard Niebuhr’s “responsible self” when describing the role of citizens.  He expands that concept to include experiencing God in daily life (84) and employs the notion of the responsible self to include a circle of responsibility that includes “common tasks done in community,” (103-104).

[9] Using the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love, Lovin emphasizes that they apply to our relations both with one another and with God (87-88). Lovin cautions pastors not to reduce these virtues to mere phrases for self-improvement. (92).

[10] Lovin returns to Bonhoeffer’s concern with the penultimate, or the things before the last. To take the penultimate seriously, but not idolatrously, requires the church to listen to both the Word and the world (101) so that reconciliation within a polarized society becomes possible. When the church listens to the world it is called to hear different aspects of wider society and to spark dialogue within congregations. In a public square that often lacks moral vocabulary, formation in the church can help to fill that gap. When space is created for people to engage thoughtfully in their experiences, division and disagreement can breed deeper conversation.

[11] Penultimate politics involves the complex web of goods between persons, especially as communities are formed. This perspective sees politics expanding from the local level out, rather than beginning at the top.  It challenges consumerist practices that adopt identities outside of God. Lovin urges a penultimate politics that reframes our vocabulary and connects different communities as it takes a larger role in our conversations (125).

[12] In an overly polarized society listening becomes harder, especially with tough topics. People no longer listen to listen, instead they listen to respond without sitting with the words of another person. To return to listening as an art would bring more voices to the table and expand our circle of responsibility (133). When our circles expand, we become more ready to compromise and negotiate (142-144). Churches can take the lead in this initiative by establishing new areas of connection, building networks and leaning into the vastness of God’s creation (138-139).

[13] Lovin concludes by examining how the church can respond to a polarized society and “take up space” in a polarized field. First, he emphasizes peacemaking instead of resistance or withdrawal. He envisions a church that stands in the noise, remaining true to its convictions (144). Second, he sees a church that stresses inclusiveness by living out “all are welcome” through the formation of its congregational members and seeing God in all of creation. Third, Lovin urges elusiveness as essential to peacemaking: sticking in the middle and speaking to both sides. Finally, he stresses both effectiveness (putting words into action) and change (144-154).

[14] Lovin envisions a church witnessing to the world, taking up space in a divided society without adopting the division. “We will need a church that bears witness to the unity of the ultimate and takes up space by forming people who know how to listen to the Word, to the world, and to one another,” (154).

[15] This book is useful for young pastors and seminarians exploring best practices for approaching the polarization in their pews. Lovin weaves in hypothetical examples and tactfully addresses all sides of the poles.





Thomas Johnston

Thomas Johnston is a first-year Intern Pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas. He is also finishing his Master of Divinity degree at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Johnston serves as a steering committee member for Lutherans Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology, and frequent book reviewer for Currents in Theology and Mission.