I’m writing to leaders of “moderate” churches, clergy and laity whose theology is a mixture of progressive instinct tempered by an anxious reserve.
I’m writing to pastors inspired by Gospel truth and the burning call of prophetic challenge, but whose courage has been trumped by the need to keep the peace – and, yes, maybe a paycheck. I am speaking to those whose vision for ministry has been marred by denominational leaders and chairs of the diaconate, those trusted voices within and without the local church whose primary loyalties are to ecclesiastical tradition and structured belief rather than the wild wind of Spirit.
I’m writing to you who have traded a daring vision, with the future always unfolding with new truth from God, for a “future” confined by the past and the good old days and the way we used to do church, a future of settled belief and uncritical certainty.
I’m writing to friends and colleagues in moderate churches, Baptist and otherwise. But please know that I do so with no self-righteous anger. I am aware that I could be right where you are. I am one of the fortunate ones.
“Your young people – and their youth ministers – are begging for your support.”
Twenty years ago my wife and I inherited a church that had already forged its identity as progressive, never pausing in the muddle of a moderate middle ground. Over these 20 years as co-pastors, we have furthered the progressive conversation, helping to move our church ever forward; and somehow we’ve managed to avoid much of the division and the malaise that has so critically wounded the larger Church.
Maybe staking a clear and firm identity and leaning into that identity when troubles come is what makes healthy churches possible, in both the pulpit and the pew.
So, humbly acknowledging that “there, but for the grace of God, go I,” I want to say to you as a friend and fellow traveler: If you want to kill Church in this country, just keep doing what you are doing.
I know that sounds harsh. I don’t intend to be offensive.
When I say “kill Church” I am not talking about the fundamentalist version of church. Some form of religion-as-clinging-to-the-past will always be with us. I am talking about the living Church, that ship God has entrusted to us to help her navigate into the storms, pressing ever forward, acknowledging and accepting the changes that come upon us and accommodating (yes, accommodating) those changes into our theology and practice.
There is no other way for the Church to remain contemporary, real and relevant, a beacon of light and hope in its own day and time.
I recently spent 24 hours at a retreat attended by about 75 youth ministers. Most are serving in “moderate” Baptist churches, mostly dually affiliated congregations (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship/Southern Baptist Convention). During one of the breaks, I stood in a small circle of four, just listening. I was profoundly saddened by what I heard.
These were all new faces to me. Today I cannot recall their names or the names of their churches, but three of these four young ministers had been forced out of at least one church in the last few years. And they were not alone. Experiences of pain and frustration were whispered from all four corners of that big room.
The energy, idealism, hope and optimism – the joy of Gospel calling and challenge that had sent these young women and men to seminary in the first place – leaked out of their conversations like air slowly bleeding from an old balloon.
“‘I was asked when I interviewed, ‘Do you believe in the Bible?’ But all they really wanted to know was what I think about gay people.’”
There were other issues – church, money and politics; insensitive parents and colleagues; unattended concerns for justice; and the usual “How do we just get along?” frustrations. But one consistent theme ran through these conversations – and through the youth groups to whom these young adults are called to minister.
One youth minister said something like this:
“I’ve got a kid in my youth group who just came out, and some of the parents want to know what I’m going to do. They want me to kick him out of the youth group. What am I supposed to do with that? And though the pastor and I have had open conversations (I know he shares my basic feelings), he will not back me up.”
“I was very honest with the search committee before I was hired, but we have a transgender kid in the group – and it’s now clear to me the church is not as open as I was led to believe. Why won’t they support me now?”
“I was asked when I interviewed, ‘Do you believe in the Bible?’ But all they really wanted to know was what I think about gay people.”
One of the ministers turned to me and asked, “How do you let your staff know you’ve really got their backs?”
The question came out of a painful, personal experience and a sense of quizzical disbelief that such a thing could actually happen (a pastor actually supporting her or his colleagues). I fumbled for a response because I cannot relate to that context, to an environment poisoned by paranoias and a ministerial atmosphere where appeasing the powers and being careful not to rock the boat rule the day.
The church I serve is far from perfect. So are its pastors. After 20 years together we’re still not without moments of conflict. The most recent tensions devolve from the toxic Trumpism that is dividing states and churches and families, but there’s no second-guessing where the pastors stand on topics that matter. And though there’s little unanimity on any issue (we are Baptist, after all), there is no question where the church stands on the issue of basic human identity and worth: made in the image of God, as you are. All. Are. Welcome.
So, to my friends in these moderate churches, I say this humbly but unapologetically: If you want to hand the church over to fundamentalism, all you need to do is more of exactly what you’re doing.
“There is no other way for the Church to remain contemporary, real and relevant.”
This issue is settled in our culture. It is also settled for an increasing number of Christians who understand a culturally-conditioned scripture through the timeless light of the life and compassion of Jesus, and because of our experience with LGBTQ friends and family. It’s hard for me to imagine that “the gay issue” could still be ruining churches, especially churches with well-educated, thoughtful, committed ministers.
Ask any Christian teen, millennial or 30-something. For them, LGBTQ is not a politically correct designation of identity politics, and “homosexuals” are not “an issue.” They are our friends, our children, our parents, ourselves. And gay marriage? Though this seems to be THE issue for many churches, the words do not even register for the young among us. Their friends are coming out in middle school, even elementary school. Their friends’ preferred pronouns are “they, them, theirs” or “xe, xem, xyrs.”
(If that sentence makes no sense to you, you need a brief education in transgender identity. An excellent essay by Susan M. Shaw and Brenda McComb published by BNG is a good starting point.)
Here is the unvarnished truth that I hope you can face honestly: There will either be Church to embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters As They Are – and to embrace them completely, unreservedly, joyfully – or they will find community elsewhere. It is that simple.
I know this is easy for me to say. I don’t have to face your board of deacons or other members with significant influence and power after Sunday’s sermon. I do understand. But you must stand up. There are many in your congregation who will follow. They just need to be led (which is why they called you). And your young people – and their youth ministers – are begging for your support.
Finally, there are many good resources available to help you along this journey. Two I recommend are Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, produced by Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, and Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches, a collection of essays edited by the late biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink. Both can be found online at Amazon or elsewhere.
Also, if you just need a listening ear, if my support would be helpful in any way, feel free to email me.
The Church of Jesus Christ will survive. The world needs it more than ever. I’m just praying that the form of the American Church that reveals itself in these difficult days is a Church that has the courage and conviction to welcome all. I’m praying that you and I will be up to that challenge.