Monday, April 20, 2009

Donkeys, Elephants and the Body of Christ

As many of you know, I work full time for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area as their communications person. It's from here that I can observe another denomination as it makes it way trying to follow God. What has been so interesting is seeing how people in the denomination sort themselves into affinity groups; conservatives joining groups like the Presbyterian Coalition and liberals joining groups like the Covenant Network. In some way, there is very little talking between the two groups. Even the churches are sorted into liberal and convervative churches with very few in the middle.

I could be all smug and say that we Disciples aren't like that, but then I'd be lying which is a bad thing. In fact in many cases, Christians are starting to mirror the wider culture in that we have sorted ourselves into places where we are with other like minded people. That's something that bothers me for several reasons.

One reason is that as mainline Protestant churches become more politically liberal, I find myself more and more of an outlier because my politics tend to skew right of center. In the olden days, I would have been called a Rockefeller Republican, and for the most part I tend to vote Republican with exceptions. But the churches where I have worshipped and worked at tend to skew left of center and tend to be vocal about it, which can make me feel uncomfortable.

But if you think I'm going to flee into the arms of a more conservative church, you would be wrong. Since I am openly gay, and most conservative churches don't like that, I don't think I'm going to be darkening their doors anytime soon. And to be honest the mainline churches do have some good points, if they would just stop making me feel I've just attended an Obama rally.

No, I want to remain in the mainline church because I want to be a witness for true diversity, to really reflect the body of Christ. I hear a lot of talk in the churches about community and diversity, but if everyone around you thinks the same and has a similar lifestyle, I don't know how diverse we really can be. Maybe I'm being an idealist, but I really believe we are called to be an example to the world, and in such a world as ours that is so divided, we need an example of people who might not always get along- well, getting along as sisters and brothers in Christ.

Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse
has been doing a series based on the book the Big Sort, by Bill Bishop. In this book (which I have yet to read) Bishop notes that over the last 40 years or so, America has been sorting itself ideologically, with liberals congregating in one place and conservatives in another and really never communicating with each other. In a post today, Kruse focuses on the church and how we tend to segregate. Kruse is focusing on the religious left, but one could say the same of religious conservatives. This is his note on mainline congregations:

Many (mainline churches)now gather around a collection of social justice causes (with politically left solutions), gay inclusion, or being green. I find that many of these congregations and their denominations hold themselves out to be ecumenical and to be seeking diversity, yet the only partners they seek out are those who also share these values and share a similar politically left orientation toward societal transformation. Ironically, embrace of “ecumenism” and “diversity” has become one more social segment around which to create a politically left homogenous community. And not being politically left means (in their eyes) you are opposed to God’s mission of societal transformation.

“Churches were once built around a geographic community, [Martin] Marty said. Now they are constructed around similar lifestyles.” (173) Bishop points to Martin Luther King’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week and declares that now it is also the most politically segregated as well. He isn’t suggesting that most people look for a political position held by the congregation but rather they are looking for a church that comports will with their lifestyle; and political views correlate highly with lifestyle factors.

I think Kruse is correct here. I remember back in the 80s when some evangelical churches started bill themselves as "conservative." Now we see mainline congregations using words like "progressive" or "liberal." In short the church has followed politics: with "red" and "blue" churches.

But if churches are no more than extensions of the current red-blue split, then what is our witness in the world? Does the church become nothing more than a cheerleader or chaplain for their respective teams? Are we just enabeling the echo chamber that has been created in American life, where liberals and conservatives can read blogs, watch TV channels and go to church without ever seeing someone with a different outlook on life?

I don't have an answer for this. All I know is that I want to remain in my own creative tension with my liberal parishoners and fellow pastors. Because in the end, I need to hear them and they need to hear me. They are my sisters and brothers and I am theirs.

Maybe in the end the church isn't supposed to be a comfortable club, but a community of creative tension.

1 comment:

Dean said...

Thanks for posting this. As one of those right of center ministers serving as a judicatory leader in a left of center church, I lament the way we perpetuate the divide by mentally sorting churches into liberal and conservative groups. It is harmful to our witness of "one body of Christ" not only to divide but also to view one another with suspicion.