Liberals in conservative churches: leave, or stay to effect change?

Liberals in conservative churches: leave, or stay to effect change? October 3, 2012

Yesterday on my Facebook page I wrote this:

I receive letters from closeted liberals in conservative Christian organizations–ministries, seminaries, churches. They’re torn between leaving, and staying so they can effect change from within. What’s been your experience?

You would not believe how many such letters I get in. Each is unique, of course. But generally speaking I would say to any conservative church-goer, “Dude [to me a unisex sobriquet], you have no idea what kind of people are in your church.”

Sobriquet. Huh? Huh? Wheredaya think you are, your corner liquor store?

My sobriquet should be Roget.

Please don’t kill me.

Which is what many liberal Christians in conservative churches are secretly thinking whilst socializing around the ol’ donut table between services.

And what should such Christians do? Stay, have another donut, and try to effect changes in their church from within? Or bolt, go find a flock with similarly feathered birds, and start flying?

Either way, I think we can all agree that they should snag another donut. I know I always do. Sometimes getting two free donuts is the only reason I go to church. But this isn’t about me.

Seriously, friends: I cannot believe the quality of responses to this question left on my Facebook page. (Which, if you haven’t already, please go “Like” right now so I’ll know my life has depth and purpose.) Just remarkable stuff. Roget Sobriquet or not, words fail me. (Stupid words. Why can’t just pressing my chest against my iMac tell you what I think? I would so buy that app!)

If you are a liberal Christian who has written to ask me whether you should leave your conservative church or stay to effect change from within it, then … well, then I’ve probably already written you back about that. And so you’re likely aware that my core feeling on such matters is that it’s best to move on: that people don’t change, that life’s too short, that you don’t want to end up in jail for one day snapping during a service, etc.

On the other giant hand, I know how much just this blog has changed people.

So obviously the answer is that everyone should start a blog.

Oh, right: everyone already has.


Seriously: I know that right now there are a lot of Christians deeply conflicted over the relationship between their values and the church family they’ve come to know and love. And of course there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for such a conundrum. All there can be, for each of us with any such concern, is reflection, prayer and discernment. And to help with that sacred process on the particular matter we’re here discussing, I can definitely recommend reading through what turned out to be a superb repository of thoughtful and heartfelt offerings. Some of which are:

“I stayed for a long time until I realized I was avoiding church because it was so distasteful. Even the friends, long history of good relationships and other support wasn’t enough. Then it was time to go–which opened up a whole ‘nother phase of spiritual growth, for me. So my advice would be, it varies by person and stage you’re in, but be open to new experiences. Leaving is never wrong, let’s put it that way. It may not be your best option at a given time and phase, but it’s never wrong per se.” — Jessica Turner

“While I did stay for 5 years, I tried to speak up and it definitely make me a stronger (but scarred) person. People from my old church seem to know they can come to me when they feel extremely stressed about the church which always surprises me, esp the ones that didn’t know me that well. And I have messaged young people privately, that have witnessed evil things (like even their own parents freely slandering and gossiping about others) and all I say is, “Remember not everyone in church acts like that and it is wrong. There are some who are trying to follow in Christ’s footsteps.” — Shirley Valleroy Buntin

“My partner and I were rejected as potential members of a local conservative church that we had grown to love (the worship was awesome!). They said we could stay and worship there but we chose to leave. However, I have since realized that I believe we can make more of an impact if we simply stay and really let people get to know us, so they can see that we are regular human beings. I know that we will not change church doctrine, but we will likely change a few human hearts.” — Julia Simmons

“What decided me was the fact that I truly believed we are to be the light of love to the world and the body of Christ that was about grace, forgiveness, and love was a city on the hill. All of the time I spent trying to get the whosoever won’ts to become whosoever wills was time taken from loving the lost, cold, suffering, abused, etc. Venturing out in the wilderness is not lonely, it actually takes less time for you to be appreciated just because you care. I much prefer reminding gay friends who are not churchy that no one can take their faith from them, that freedom of religion means they can love Jesus without permission, and that they have a spirit that will guide them too. Some of them truly become strong defendants of all faiths. I love seeing wild people grasp and own their own love of good and God and stop carrying socialized guilt because they have no use for the traditional church rules. It’s not lonely and I have spent more time discussing God and faith and spirit with “sinners” than the “saints” were ever interested in exploring.” — Brena Easterday

“Some people flourish in environments of conflict. For them, I say “stay.” Others flourish in peaceful environments. For them, I say “leave”. God will work through you wherever you are at, but when you find the place that helps you to flourish, you will see Him working in ways you never dreamed possible. Personally, I flourish in peaceful environments. I left a conservative church that seemed to WANT strife and turmoil every 16-18 months. Splits, pastoral firings, staff turnover…. Ended up in the Catholic church, and now have conservative and liberal friends. And I finally found the peace and place where I can open up and be myself. It also helped that I wasn’t pressured to join every committee, or be there every time the doors are open. I limited my “church duties” and am living a much more peaceful and loving life. And I’ve grown tremendously!!!” — Jennifer Vance

“I realized that my cash in the basket may be paying for lawyers to oppress rape victims, and my butt in the pew was a source of political power. For me, there is no moral option. I am out.” — Mike Huber

“I tried many years to stay, thinking if I wasn’t strong enough to try to enact change, who might never hear the truth? But I found that eventually, it was just killing me. I really wasn’t being fed and could never just relax and be me. I started avoiding going at all. When I realized I wasn’t the “strong one” I had envisioned, I went out and found a congregation that already shared my ideals and visions. Now I work to let people know that such congregations already exist as an option and I have never been happier.” — AC Smith

“I’m staying because I think that it’s important that people see that there are genuine, true-believing Christians who hold different opinions on some subjects. I am not rewriting Scripture, I’m not throwing out the Bible, I’m not living some kind of crazy, wild-eyed “radical secular” life. (Whatever that means.) But I’m well to the left of my Church. When some members speak in general terms about how evil and anti-Christian someone has to be to hold certain views, I’ve been known to ask if that applies to me. This generally results in some hemming and hawing, though not a concession. Have I won anyone over? Not yet. But some of us are more willing to speak knowing that there are more of us in here.There might come a time when I have to walk, but that time is not yet. This is my family, even if we disagree on some major points. I don’t begrudge anyone who makes the choice to leave. This is where I think I need to be right now.” — Ken Leonard

“If there is genuine and honest interest in dialogue and achieving mutual understanding, then stay as long as it does not wither your soul. But if it is a place where people already “know” the answers and are more interested in changing others, run as fast as you can and never look back.” — Jeff Blackshear


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