In a recent post about the competing op-ed pieces about Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity and whether either can be saved, Rachel Held Evans once again spoke my mind for me in so many ways. Her articulate piece outlines the good and the bad of both Christian “camps” in this nation, and outlines pretty well where I sit – right in between the two. Her truths about what both sides have and lacks were spot on. I applaud her for seeing good on both sides.
I was raised in some very conservative churches, where I learned a heaping knowledge of scripture, studied my faith diligently, and became a Christian whose faith genuinely mattered to her whole life. But, I was also told women couldn’t be preachers or leaders or even deacons. I was confused about what I might do with my life when I felt called to ministry. I faced a LOT of guilt over the most normal of life’s happenings. I loved science and marveled at how much, and yet how little, we know about the magnificent creation we see – and I knew that the earth had to be more than 6,000 years old. Then, after much turmoil and leaving church for a spell (like, most of college), I found the progressive movement in the Baptist world – the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (and the American Baptists, who I knew existed, but wasn’t familiar enough with; and the Alliance of Baptists, which even in the middle of seminary struck me as very far from my Southern Baptist upbringing). I learned that women were welcome in many pulpits, my calling was fully embraced, and I was allowed to doubt and not be judged. I also learned that progressive Christianity lost much in Bible study to gain in social ministry, and lost much in personal piety to be replaced with philosophical debates and a lot of intellect. I believe in the movement of the Spirit, and sometimes (though luckily not often), this was quashed by the amount of thinking my classmates and I did. And I believe the Bible needs to be taken seriously – all the time. I believe in miracles, the bodily resurrection, the movement of God in personal lives through scripture study…things that are often challenged in the more intellectual “liberal” extreme. (Because, as Evans points out, we are describing the extremes, not the middle ground).
Neither extreme has a good mesh of the holy and the intelligent, of the ritual and the free Spirit. And both have lots to learn from each other and must meet those of us in the middle to do it. Evans’ exact words were “Missing from the whole dialog” [between the and conservative and the angry liberal Christians] “was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-tie low.” She gets it, too, as she has left the church and been unable to consistently attend a church since. While I hope for nothing more than her resolution to the issues she faces in finding a church, I suddenly became aware that I already have that church…and have had that church for some time.
Now, to be fair, no church has it all figured out. The two churches where I have actively attended in the last five years (first church 2007-2011 & second 2011-now) have messed up, done horrible things, and been absolutely wrong on some things (both in the leadership and the lay persons). But, on the whole, at least while I have been a member of these churches, I have seen two groups of faithful Christians who differ widely on topics of theology to politics to the color of the sanctuary carpet, come together in fantastic ways to love and lead in their communities. And also to be clear, one church leans slightly right, the other slightly left. But I feel at home in both – because they hold in utmost importance the message of Jesus and the promise of God’s present and coming kingdom. They think through things, ask questions, and try their best not to assume. They forgive those who’ve really messed up. Neither church actively turns away or shuns the pregnant teenager, the divorced, the cohabitating partners, or the poor. There are a majority of members who would drop everything to come to the aid of anyone in the community. My “home” church is famous for their actions after major storms – they are first-responders who make a mission of helping others when all seems lost. They do the back-breaking labor of love to saw trees and pick up the pieces. My current and new “home” church gives up their space regularly to minister to the downtown homeless. They wrap their arms around the outcast and welcome them with open arms into the service and work of the church.
And in both churches, I see the face of the Living God at work in the middle of humanity’s local affairs. Yes, both churches support overseas missions through their respective denominations. Both churches send missionaries to foreign lands. (And those works are deeply important to both denominations and their members). But most importantly, as Baptists, they plant themselves in the middle of a local area and get to work with both feet on the ground. They brush off differences in order to work among those in need in their immediate midst. They give their all to active love and put theology to the side while they work – this is something to be commended for. Not all Baptists make this work so well.
Baptists are, by nature, a bunch of staunch individualists. We each read and interpret the Bible in our own way. We are holy priests and mediate our own relationship with God. And as churches, we are autonomous units designed to function in a specific locale. And the only way for a Baptist church to stay whole (yes, some do manage to stay whole…at least for a period of time!), we must hold together the dissenting opinions. We must give and take on all decisions. We must be willing to be wrong and humble even when we feel sure we’re right. We talk theology and politics in a way that helps us all to grow and not in ways that divide the house of God. And when we do that, and do it well, the Kingdom grows. God’s people learn, and we all become better disciples.
I pray more of our churches and those caught in between these ongoing left-right debates would find ways to work together to reach that many more people with the message of hope, promise, inclusion, and love that Jesus so freely offered us. My friends to my right and to my left, in my denomination and not, I pray we do this as a team – with humble hearts and forgiving spirits. The church at its best is a humble group of people seeking to live as Christ, continually uplifting one another, and finding ways to make our differences teach one another about the good and bad of our own theology and traditions. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger than our biggest differences, and it deserves our best effort at working together.