In what is expected to be the highest profile abortion-related case in decades, the Supreme Court is soon to release its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. For those desiring the details of the case, you can view the ERLC’s explainer and another summary from The Gospel Coalition. At the center of the dispute is Mississippi legislation that outlaws elective abortions at 15 weeks’ gestation, an overt challenge to the current abortion legal landscape informed by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This is the first major abortion-related case since the partisan balance of the court shifted to what conventional wisdom presumes is at least a 5-4 or even 6-3 majority aligned against Roe.
The unprecedented leak of Justice Alito’s first draft opinion confirmed that the stage is likely set for a Dobbs decision to significantly change the legal landscape for abortion policy, though we won’t know for sure until the actual decision is released. The policy wonks among us watch the court drama and political fallout closely. But those questions are not the most important for pastors and local churches. What if a court decision does actually make a significant change? What will change, if anything, for a local church and its approach to the abortion issue in its community? How can pastors and ministry leaders lead their churches well in pro-life ministry?
Here are a few suggestions to guide our intra-church chatter about Dobbs and this dramatic political moment:
1. Pray. “Sure, but how?” Corporate prayer in particular is an invaluable tool for discipling church members, even on civic issues. Regarding abortion, a church has a real opportunity to lift not only the governing activity in prayer but also to enunciate the redemptive message of the gospel for those who have participated in or are considering abortion.
The understandable temptation for any church engaging the abortion issue is to steer into one of two opposite ditches, either by emphasizing only the political and legislative issue, or by emphasizing the message of grace. The former misses the opportunity to draw in attendees (even members) to the healing message of Christ’s forgiveness and grace. The latter misses the opportunity to advance justice and love of neighbor as citizens participating in governing.
But churches can affirm both redemption and justice together, and corporate prayer is a perfect venue for doing so. Why? It’s a frequent, if small, opportunity to disciple consciences, over time, in the life of a church. Corporate prayer benefits from our attention to the presence of God, the use of biblical language, and a pastoral tone.
Praying about abortion includes opportunities to pray across a spectrum of church interests:
- The personal, within the church
- The personal, for neighbors and community
- The missional, for the community and the church’s role in it
- The missional, for the local pregnancy care center
- The government, for local and national policy, and our uniquely polarized moment
2. Foster a policy aptitude that fights apocalypticism and disenchantment. There are a few ways to do this. First, anticipate apocalyptic rhetoric from partisan actors, and ignore it. In the wake of any major court decision, endless media personalities and organizations will immediately engage in “messaging” intended to influence public perception of what just happened. There are numerous reasons for that, and not all are nefarious. But much is fundraising, and fear is helpful marketing for donations.
Pastors can anticipate the “sky is falling” rhetoric and inoculate their congregation against it. The truth about public policy ramifications is often more complicated and, frankly, more boring and slow moving than the talking heads and Twitterati allow.
If Roe’s legacy is significantly curbed, the abortion industry’s apocalyptic rhetoric will scream about the imposition of religion, the power of “the patriarchy,” and call for “court packing.” Following the Alito draft leak, we’ve already seen some commentators and government leaders extrapolate—from that draft—catastrophic implications for other civil rights established by court precedent. Field those claims lightly.
If the final court opinion either flips, or seems like the Alito rhetoric was in anyway “watered down” from its first draft, then handwringing among some pro-lifers is inevitable. Disenchantment is caused by overestimating or overpromising what the possibilities are in any given political moment. We risk that disenchantment again, having now seen a first draft of what would always have seen future revisions.
American politics, instead, is a long game, wherein sustainable change in governing typically happens slowly and incrementally. Even when some events seem like watershed moments, those are most often the tipping point of cultural and political trends that had grown over time.
Will Dobbs be one of those watershed moments, overturning the Roe/Casey abortion regime? Will it be a setback to the pro-life movement? Or will it be another pebble, adding weight to the pro-life cause? Thoughtful pastors can prepare their members emotionally whatever the contingency.
3. Partner with a local pregnancy resource center (PRC), if your church hasn’t already. How? Start by asking the center what they need. PRCs have long been the front lines of the pro-life movement. Highly trained staff and volunteers meet mothers, fathers, and families where they are: in the midst of their fear, when they feel like they have no one to talk to. The myth about the pro-life movement (or “the church”) only caring about babies until birth (not after) is disproven—daily—at any PRC.
While PRCs often view themselves as the first responders of the pro-life community (meeting mothers in the crisis moment), virtually all PRCs provide some mixture of material and education support for their clients, long after a baby is born. That support comes in the form of everything from diapers and formula to subsidized boutiques to education in parenting and personal finance. I can’t emphasize this enough: PRCs want more churches involved as partners. They recognize numerous family and social influences occuring upstream from an abortion decision, and they see churches as key to addressing them.
4. If your church is already partnering with a PRC, ask them what their dream support would look like, and help them reach their goals, quickly. PRCs are indeed the specialists for meeting abortion-vulnerable mothers, but they can’t do everything. PRC leaders recognize that abortion is a temptation because other things in a mother’s (and, often, father’s) life aren’t going well. Namely, they need mentors and discipleship in areas as diverse as education, language, housing, finances, and navigating nonprofit and governmental resources, as well as learning Scripture and developing spiritual disciplines. A church must be positioned to provide practical and spiritual helps, all as ministry in the name of Christ. As one PRC leader told me, “We need creative, practical, and attractive ministry on-ramps to refer clients to the church.”
5. Don’t rely on only the PRC director to inspire your congregation into partnership. That’s not a fair burden, and here’s why: Directors desire to partner with local churches and to facilitate that partnership with education and strategy. By all means, bring them in to tell of the challenges and fruits of their work. Your people will be moved.
But if a partnership between a PRC and its surrounding churches is going to work, the missional inspiration and institutional commitment to a partnership must first come from a church’s leadership. The PRC can deliver the how of the mission, but the why and the resources must come from pastoral leadership.
Most churches have some expression of mission into their local community. Many have multiple expressions. Think soup kitchens and homeless ministries. Think addiction recovery groups and collegiate ministries. Each of those is a ministry of outreach into the local community. Partnership with a local PRC provides a local church with yet another mission field that is ready and waiting.
Challenges abound, of course. Keeping in mind that PRC work is highly specialized and nuanced, a local church must be patient and willing to learn from the PRC. Abortion-vulnerable mothers and fathers have many reasons to shy away from church life. Simply handing off client names to an unprepared small group frequently falls flat.
Building any kind of sustainable discipleship program requires persistent and hard work. Doing so for the sake of PRC clientele is all the more nuanced and difficult. Such a commitment from a local church takes time, dedicated and trained personnel, and funding. It’s a lot to consider. But more churches have the resources to partner with PRCs in more robust ways than are currently doing so. Is your church ready to embark on a new or amplified partnership with a pregnancy resource center in your community?
6. Discuss within your church how the political and cultural landscape is about to change. This can and should be informed by your closest PRC. Assuming Roe is overturned, the pro-life cause is not over. We merely cross a threshold into a new era. The legal landscape is likely to be a patchwork of different abortion policy from state to state. Is your church located in a state where abortion will be outlawed? Heavily regulated? No regulation? The participation and leadership of your church on the abortion issue is likely to be shaped by how the policies develop and play out in your particular state.
As with any dramatic legal change, there will be unintended consequences. That’s not a reason to withhold celebration of a positive change in abortion policy, or express concern about fallout. Nevertheless, as citizens with a mind toward good, sustainable governance, it is worthwhile to keep our eyes wide open about how individuals and communities will react and behave in light of such policy changes in the short and long term. Court decisions are a necessary part of our governing systems. But they are not legislation.
Legislation involves negotiation, accommodation, implementation, and enforcement. All that is long, difficult work and made all the more difficult by a political environment that is heavily polarized. Pastors can help inoculate us against disenchantment once again by affirming those facts and challenges as the reality of the road in front of us.
Navigating civic (or “political”) issues in the life of a local church has always been challenging. Our current era of toxic political polarization makes things all the more complex and heated, especially with the Dobbs ruling forthcoming. But pastors and other leadership in local churches have the tools with which to disciple their people regarding pro-life issues and make a difference in their communities. Instead of placing the weight of that discipleship into a single sermon or event, try implementing some of the above ideas into the regular, mundane life of your church. Implementing these ideas over the next year may lead, by God’s grace, to more communities with vibrant pro-life ministry in the coming years that see babies saved, mothers and fathers served, and the gospel proclaimed.