A Church You Can Relate To

Allan Bevere shared the above image on Facebook. It certainly reflects a popular stereotype many conservatives have of liberal churches. But when one looks closely at such claims, a paradox emerges. Supposedly, liberal churches are pandering to the world for the sake of popularity. And yet liberal churches do not seem to be distinctively popular, and indeed, are often unpopular, both from the perspective of the non-Christian world, and from the perspective of the conservative churches.

One could make a case that that suggests that actual liberal churches are doing something right. Liberal churches may have different views about sin than conservative ones do. But typically they are not lacking in a stance on what can be called evil, nor happy to leave people unchanged. The sins liberals tend to focus on are injustice, bigotry, judgmentalism, and others – which a caricature of conservatives might suggest are equated with piety in conservative contexts. Indeed, one could redo the cartoon to make the point. The sign might say “Fundamentalist Christian Church,” and the visitor could say that this is just the church he has been looking for – one that will convince him that he has all the right answers, and that that justifies his smug arrogance.

But it is better to reach the point of leaving caricatures to one side, and asking instead about how liberal and indeed many other churches can move forward.

Many conservative churches do indeed specialize in offering answers. David Hayward’s cartoon which he shared today gets at this point:

There are so many ways that one can interpret it. One is as simply a description of an authoritarian fundamentalist church. Laypeople have questions. The pastor answers them. Problem solved.

But another possible interpretation is that the pastor is merely offering exclamation, not something that truly satisfies as an answer, despite his dogmatism. And the congregation remains with questions, which it cannot articulate out loud because of the culture of the church, in which having questions is sinful doubt.

I read somewhere recently that churches which demand commitment are growing or remaining stable, while others are declining. That doesn’t seem to me to fit my experience. It takes commitment be a church dedicated to social justice and equality, to allowing people to question, and to being a community that brings people of different backgrounds and perspectives together. It is a different sort of commitment, but it is something that I believe many people long for. The question is how to best offer it.

More and more Christians are finding that the assertions offered dogmatically by conservative pastors fail to satisfy, because they have the courage to examine them, and they are nowhere safe from voices offering different perspectives and pointing out problems. Samantha Field recently wrote:

My Harmonious Library understanding of the Bible– really, only a house of cards– has completely collapsed. It couldn’t bear up to an honest examination, and initially I thought I had to replace it with something else right away right now.

It took me a little while to realize that the only reason why I felt that way was that I was still stuck in the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible– as my only source of faith and practice. I simply couldn’t imagine being a Christian without a divinely-ordered Bible. Believing in the Bible as “inspired” was what made me a Christian, and this was as recently as last month. I think I’m starting to figure out that being a Christian has a lot more to do with my life and actions than it has to do with a book and what I believe about it.

The challenge for liberal churches – and better still, churches which are genuinely inclusive of liberals, conservatives, and everyone else – is to get our message out effectively, that we offer something challenging but worthwhile: a place where one can ask questions and discuss important topics without being ostracized, while working together to make a positive impact on the world around us in practical ways that we can collaborate on, across whatever differences doctrinal or otherwise we happen to have.

 

  • Allan Bevere

    James, it’s interesting that you have turned this into a liberal/conservative issue. I had no such thing in mind when I posted the cartoon. Not everything needs to be viewed as a liberal/conservative thing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Indeed, and I apologize if, in giving you credit for drawing the cartoon to my attention, you felt that I somehow connected you with the reflections I offered or with what may or may not have been the intention of the cartoonist.

      As the blog post unfolded, I hope I made clear that there is a good case to be made that we need fewer liberal and conservative churches, and more inclusive and diverse churches which bring Christians together across such divides and categories.

      • Allan Bevere

        James, no apology necessary, my friend. I just think the church would be much better off if we viewed our differences through other lenses.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          And the church is better when we view our differences up close by being part of the same church! :-)

          • Allan Bevere

            Indeed!

    • Donnie McLeod

      I disagree. As liberalism is to inquiry conservatism is to inquisition. While liberalism tries, and so makes mistakes, to deal with realty conservatism makes no such cognitive effort. Google “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

  • T. Webb

    @allanbevere:disqus, I thought the same thing. It’s interesting, I heard a scholar say last week that people often have certain questions, but the questions that the ‘sacred texts’ ask are often different, and can be as challenging to us as our questions would be to their times. Or sometimes some of our questions may not be that important.

    Or, changing the subject in line with the blog post, I would think that Dr. McGrath would mention that liberal churches can be and often are as ‘dogmatic’ as many conservative churches. And even the few friends I have who attend conservative churches are very active in discussion about the nature of their beliefs, what they believe, and why they believe it, and it sounds like their pastors are excited when members want to talk about those things. Typifying “conservative” churches as ones where pastors give dogmatic take-it-or-leave-it answers doesn’t seem fair. But I don’t have a dog in this fight.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I’ve realized recently that I’ve been very guilty of buying into conservative church’s stereotype of mainline and liberal churches as dying places where Christianity lite gets practiced. Which is just bizarre, really. In my town it is the Catholic and mainline churches which give away food, make gas cards available and have a small fund of petty cash to help people out when they are desperate. Even after I discovered this when my family was in trouble and needed help, I continued to think of them according to the caricatures fed to me by “conservative” churches. I’m afraid I don’t have any good advice for how to overcome the prejudice. I would love to hear other people’s ideas on the subject, though.

    BTW, I don’t know if you’ve seen this already, but this post reminded me of something I wrote about “ear tickling” a while ago: http://theupsidedownworld.com/2013/01/08/about-those-tickled-ears/

    • Allan Bevere

      Rebecca, I do not deny those conservative caricatures of liberal churches, but as a mainline pastor for 30 years, I can tell you we do a lot of caricaturing of conservative churches.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for reminding me of that post of yours. I will try to draw attention to it again soon!

  • Donnie McLeod

    As liberalism is to fear-less conservatism is to fear-full. The liberal Church has the opportunity to use the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” to create shared wealth for middle class jobs. The conservative Church can not.

    • Allan Bevere

      Donnie, it’s quite revealing that you charicature conservative churches in the same way that James rightly is concerned about the way conservative churches charicature liberal churches. Thanks for demonstrating my point.

      • Donnie McLeod

        Conservatism and liberalism are the products our two separate thinking process. Our fear based thinking process and reasoned based thinking process. Defaulting to fear is easy. Creating the habit of reason is harder but with daily practice becomes automatic. Comparing and contrasting conservatism and liberalism maybe a waste of time.


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