Are ‘Liberals’ Really Destroying the Church?

Are Liberals Really Destorying the church

David French, an attorney and staff writer for the National Review, recently wrote an article titled “If You Want to Destroy Your Church, Follow Liberals’ Advice.” It goes downhill from there.

The article was a rebuttal to an editorial by Rachel Held Evans in the Washington Post. French finds apparent frustration in Evan’s critique of contemporary Evangelicalism. Evan’s main point, French proposes, isn’t an attempt to reform the style or face of the church but rather its “substance”;  Evan’s pushes reforms that are not theological but really just “a progressive writer’s wish list.” He further categorizes Evans (and presumably all ‘liberal’ progressives) as desiring to unlock the “Millennial spiritual energy found in the old ways- not its actual beliefs, mind you, but the trappings of the faith. To (Rachel Held) Evans, the answer is combining high-church traditions with no-church theology.”

French goes on to make the claim- based on statistical data- that mainline churches that have adopted progressive beliefs are “committing slow-motion suicide.” His conclusion is that Evans’ approach to church is not only theologically fallible but that “theological liberalization and cultural conformity” are paths to certain extinction.

“Yes, there are liberals who ‘long’ for the church to change,” French states. “But that’s because they long for it to disappear.”

It’s hard not to discard David French’s article as a straw-man tirade against progressive Christians and/or any Christian who’s ever registered as a Democrat. He uses the word “inclusive” like profanity, conveniently notes that President Obama’s denomination has seen serious decline in recent years, and attributes the demise of mainline denominations to their adoption of gay marriage (while overlooking the recent decline of the Southern Baptist Convention as mere happenstance). French doesn’t exactly invite open discussion on the topic at hand. Which- from a mere glance at Evans’ new book- was kind of her point.

But there is- at the heart of French’s fear-mongering- a pertinent question: is “liberal” theology destroying the American church?

In the aforementioned book Searching for Sunday, Evans joked that “you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.” (That’s the beauty of self-deprecation; Evans beat French to the punch.) This seems to give further validity to French’s point: Millennial Christians are looking for wide paths on ground that can only support narrow gates. 

Or are they?

I’m weary of any discussion on the state of the American church that draws lines based on “liberals” and conservatives.” But, if we’re dealing with the categories as French has arranged them, then we must also say that French represents a facet of American Christianity that is unwaveringly stubborn (or at least tone-deaf) to Millennial calls for reform. We have an arrogant belief in our own flexibility: “unity in non-essentials” we like to say. But who decides the “non-essentials”? In French’s world, it’s the conservatives. This, naturally, means that any congregation which supports gay-marriage has crossed a line from whence they can only return with sackcloth and ashes. That’s hardly flexible. And it’s as ineffective in promoting a theological way forward as was the Diet of Worms.

David French’s approach to the next chapter of the American Church is old and cliche. The use of statistics to measure the health of the church may be practical, but its not theologicalAnd it’s ridiculous- but thoroughly conservative- to quantify theological health with statistics; “well, churches who support homosexuality are shutting down, so obviously it’s decrepit theology.” We’re a religion begun by one man who gathered a small group of people and, with them, defied the religious majority of his age and the most dominant empire known to man. Jesus didn’t win the numbers game; but conservatives like French love to think they should and will. 

What is equally cliche is for conservatives to hang the fate of Christ’s church on a single, politically charged issue. Christ’s gospel does not hinge on preservation of traditional family values, pro-life movements, or Reformed Theology any more than it does on hymns and liturgy. The gospel of Jesus Christ hangs on a cross and pours out of an empty grave. French may decry the “inclusivist” mentality that’s seeping into American churches; but its equally valid to decry the moralistic agendas that attempt to roll the stone back over the grave.

And if we’re really trying to move the church forward, then fear-mongering is an unhealthy way to go about it. French operates under the belief that liberal notions, like the “gay-agenda”, will overtake and destroy the church. So Emperor Nero couldn’t wipe out Christ’s followers but the gay couple on my block will see it through? Thinking such as this is why most theological circles can’t take Evangelicals seriously.

Perhaps ‘liberal’ churches are too lenient. And that’s nothing to disregard. But conservative churches, if we’re playing off stereotypes, have a tendency to kick you while your down then slam the door in your face. Don’t get me wrong-if you fix yourself, then they’ll gladly let you back in. The prodigal son sent a wonderful precedent for church potlucks. But some scars don’t fade. As many know all too well.

So which would Jesus abhor? The wide gate or the harsh Pharisee?

It’s not for me to say. But I think we ought to at least be fair in saying- be we “progressives” or “conservatives”- that the other side, though maybe not right for us, isn’t authoritatively wrong. I’m sure this notion makes David French’s skin crawl. But a dose of practical humility would’ve helped things in 1521. And it would really help things now.

I don’t consider myself a progressive. I don’t consider myself a traditionalist either. I consider myself a Christian and an Evangelical one at that. Yet I feel myself being pushed out of my pew. And I don’t want to leave. But it’s increasingly difficult-especially when encountering voices like Mr. French’s- to find reason to stick around.

Unless, of course, I care less about my theological agenda and more about the church

David French might find it absurd that I could allow a gay person to become a member of my church. That’s fine. I find it absurd that he would see this as a threat to Christ. On the other side of the coin, Evans might find it absurd that I support pro-life movements as opposed to advocating for women’s rights and women’s health. That’s fine, too. Let’s all go to Christ’s table together.  

Because it’s within the questions we ask, within the disagreements in humility, that the noise fades and we can hear when Christ calls us to the table. And he calls us to stop quarreling, stop drawing lines, stop slapping labels and making moral diagnosis; he calls us instead to sit and eat and drink and maybe even laugh. He calls us to realize we’re all human and we’re all feasting on his grace together. 

Are liberals really killing the church? I doubt it. And even if they are, even if all the hordes of evil should assemble on red and blue donkeys, I still maintain that Christians shouldn’t be worried. After all, as Rachel Held Evans reminds us:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.”

Which is to say that- worst case scenario- if ‘liberals’ do manage to kill the church, they might prompt the resurrection we’re all are together waiting for, the resurrection we all truly need.

It’s not likely. But it’d be nice.

 

 

 

I’m A Seminary Graduate (But)

I'm a seminary graduate

I’m a seminary graduate. See? It’s right there, on that nice piece of paper hanging on the wall.

It means I’m a leader; I’m confident and I’m capable. I’m informed and I’m persuasive in conveying my (so-called) wisdom about God and life. I can preach and I can pastor; I can build a church and lead it forth.

But wait… Can I?

Because I am a seminary graduate. CS Lewis lives on my bedside table, and NT Wright is what I might call a kindred spirit. But, honestly, sometimes I don’t give a damn about my person quiet times.

I’m a seminary graduate, and I been moved to tears while translating the book of Revelation from its original Greek. But later that same week at church, I couldn’t pay attention because I was counting down to when the service would be over and I could check my fantasy football score. God knows what the pastor was saying (but Jamaal Charles had one hell of a day!).

I’m a seminary graduate and I yearn for the unity of the church. But a snide comment or subtle remark in a blog post is not beyond me. Even when it’s aimed at another Christian. Because although I am a seminary graduate, sometimes I care more about the “like” button than I do about the well-being of another’s soul. (If I’m being truly honest, then that’s most of the time.)

I’m a seminary graduate. You can sit in my office and you can tell me about your brokenness and cry and swear God could never love you. And I will tell you something about how Christ’s grace can heal whatever you’ve done or whatever’s been done to you. But when you leave, I’ll remember that I have scars and skeletons which- deep down- I’m not convinced this Jesus I like to reference can actually handle.

I’m a seminary graduate and I’ve preached a sermon on “do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.” But last year I saved about twice as much money as I tithed. Granted, I am a seminary graduate, so that’s not saying much. But it is saying something.

I am a seminary graduate. I can parse all the Greek verbs in 1 Corinthians 13. But tonight I got into a fight with my wife over- and yes, I’m serious- who should do the dishes. We made up just in time for me to start another one over taking out the trash.

I’m a seminary graduate and when I say a prayer in public my words flow eloquently; they fall like poetry off the tongue. But last night, when the hour was dark and my heart cold, I couldn’t pray. No matter how hard I tried.

I’m a seminary graduate, dedicated to living a life of moral uprightness, purity and fear of God. But I have internet filters on my computer; when I’m angry, I swear like a sailor; and- let’s be honest- sometimes I’d just rather have a drink (or two…or three…).

I’m a seminary graduate. I mentor younger Christians. I formulate discipleship plans for college students. Numerous people call me their “accountability partner.” But if I’m mad at you then I have trouble telling you to your face. I’m more liable to talk behind your back, and spiritualize by placing it between the parentheses of a “prayer request”.

I’m a seminary graduate but I might as well be Job’s friends. I tend to be quick to speak, slow to listen and – why should I be the one saying sorry?

I’m a seminary graduate. I’ve taken counseling courses and read endless case studies. But still don’t know what to say when you ask me: “why did God allow my miscarriage?” If I say anything it’ll probably be something cliché, stupid or even hurtful. Because I’m a seminary graduate, but my daily bread tastes a little too much like my own foot in my mouth.

I’m a seminary graduate. I know God is beyond my reach- yeah, duh. And I know that I’m no wiser than the next guy. Still, I like to talk about God in absolute terms, in subtle ways to inform those around me that I have a direct line to the Almighty, one they haven’t been offered. They don’t have a Masters of Divinity, you see.

I’m a seminary graduate. But there are a few bottles of pills at my bedside. I need them to get through the day.

I’m a seminary graduate and I wrote my own Statement of Faith. It was fifteen pages (and that’s without the footnotes!) and had words like soteriology, eschatology and dispensationalism. But if a stranger on the subway asked me what I believe about God, I’m not sure what I would say.

I’m a seminary graduate. See? It’s there on my resume. But I’m scared to death that you might actually hire me, call me ‘pastor’ or (dear God!) ask me to preach.

When I started seminary I had a great deal of admiration for graduates. Sure they didn’t have it all figured out. But more so than me. Still, I was getting there. At the end of each semester, I crossed off the classes and eyed the remaining requirements with an executioner’s stare. And I looked forward to when I would finally ‘get there.’

And now I’m here.

I’m a seminary graduate. I’ve got the letters by my name; I’ve got the classes under my belt. But I still look in the mirror and see the same puzzled, hurt, lonely, excited, wandering, arrogant, startled, and confused eyes staring right back.

Somehow I flew under the radar and I’m not the person I should be. I’m scared; I’m insecure; I’m arrogant; I’m greedy; I’m broken; I’m lustful; I’m stressed; I’m busy; I’m wrong; I’m right…all at the same time.

Because I’m a seminary graduate. But I’m not much different from you. Save for the fact that my ass is especially familiar with the cushion of a certain library chair. Save for the fact that I was called out of the world- like a toddler on ‘time-out’- to help me figure out how to then live within it. Save for the fact that I may be slightly more aware of how small I am because I’ve been granted a slightly longer glance at the vastness of the God we worship. Maybe I have sunglasses while you’re eyes are closed to protect them from the sun. But we’re both floating in the same lifeboat.

I’m a seminary graduate. And yes, you might hire me. And yes, you might listen to me preach. And yes, I might lead you and yes, you might pay me (…please?). But I’m a seminary graduate. No more though sometimes less.

I’m a seminary graduate. But I’m on the same road as you. So please, won’t you take my hand?

Let’s do this life together.

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33 Ways You Know That You’re About To Graduate From Seminary

seminary graduation

Congratulations!!! Yeah, you. I’m talking to you. You who three years ago walked on campus with your moleskin journal and Gap khakis. You who enjoy discussing things like hermeneutics, atonement theories and the theology of a mustache . You who regularly correct your grandparents: “No, I’m going to seminary. Not cemetery.”

Yes, you. I’m talking to you:

Because you’re about to become a seminary graduate. Which just kinda means that everyone expects you to know how to explain Revelation and you’ve yet another institution calling to ask for money. Okay, so it means a bit more than that. Just a bit.

In fact, here’s a few other ways you know that you’re about to graduate from seminary:

  1. ) You can define ‘paragogic nun’ but when someone asks you “do you use Quicken?” you go:

“‘Quicken?’ is that an imperfect or imperative?”

2.) Whenever your parents visit and ask if there’s anything they should bring, you say:

Dry campus = dry theology. And it’s been a long three years.

3.) When a church offers you a salary of $30K you’re all like:

4.) This is your reaction to dispensationalist theology:

5.) This is what happens when you think of no more meetings in your favorite professor’s office.

6.) When your spouse responds “ARE YOU SERIOUS RIGHT NOW?!” to you mentioning the possibility of even more school, all you can say is:

7.) When you realize you actually have to return your library books (no more eternal renewals!) you respond:

8.) You have frequent freak-outs at the thought of being called “Master of (ANYTHING)”. Because it just sounds absurd. Heck, you only just figured out how to (properly) make Ramen. And you learned just yesterday that cars require oil changes every now and then (sorry again about the van, pops). Sure, you know a lot about what white, dead guys think about God and sure you can parse verbs in five (dead) languages…but “Master”?

9.) Regardless, you still enjoy correcting people’s pronunciation of Barth.

10.) But this is what happens when you read your student-loan repayment plan:

11.) Listening to Taylor Swift results in an existential crisis regarding your calling.

12.) Every other person you meet asks you if you’ve read The Shack or The Chronicles of Narnia.

13.) This summarizes your most recent job interview:

14.) You regularly have nightmares that involve your professors saying:

15.) Thinking of doing life without your seminary classmates makes you wanna:

16.) When old college friends ask if you’d like to go out for dinner, you feel the necessity to remind them:

17.) You used to think ministry would be like:

…but now understand its really like:

18.) Your landlord congratulated you on finishing graduate school by asking:

“…and no, you can’t pay with Biblical commentaries.”

19.) You began seminary being all like:

…now you have no problem telling someone:

20.) You listed “God” as a character reference on your resume.

21.) …the same resume on which you also listed “Fantasy Football Manager” under “Additional Skills”.

22.) You have at least 25 books that you purchased for class, never read, and don’t plan on selling.

23.) At least one friend has asked you to proofread their Greek tattoo.

24.) This was the last advice you received from your significant other:

25.) When you hear the words “group presentation” all you can think is:

(Dear God, never again!)

26.) You wear your tweed jacket on a first date, expecting:

…bbbuuuutttt instead you got:

27.) Your car’s engine sounds like the grade on your last exam looks (#senioritis).

28.) This summarizes your philosophy of youth ministry:

29.) Old associates like to introduce you as “my friend who went to seminary” and all you can think to say is:

30.) Reading the comments section of HuffPost Religion makes you think:

31.) Whenever someone asks you “so, what’s next?” you tell them:

32.) This is how you feel about any and all snide remarks concerning “Masters of Divinity” and “Hogwarts (guffaw, guffaw)”:

33.) When someone asks you why you went to school for so many years, you tell them:

But that’s not (entirely) true.

You went to seminary because you felt called. You went to seminary because you believed that God had something to teach you. To teach you through flash cards, paradigms and endless pages of reading. Something to teach you through the classes, lectures, office hours and review sessions. Something to teach you through community, through friends, through brothers and sisters from across the globe who came to seminary to learn something. Just like you.

You came hoping to become capable. You leave feeling humbled. Humbled by grace, humbled by questions, humbled by the knowledge of all you don’t know. You came to seminary hoping to become a leader; you leave hoping to become a servant; a servant of God, a servant of others, a servant of the Gospel story which you leave desiring to tell.

But as you leave the hallways, classrooms and campus housing; as you hug friends, thank professors and swap high fives with your old study partners; as you pack up your books, pack up some more of your books, and (dear heavens!) pack up more of your books; as you venture forth into the world, into schools, sanctuaries, workplaces and churches; as you graduate from seminary and continue on your journey, you do so knowing that a part of you will always call this place home.

Because you may be graduating. But you’ll always be a seminarian.

 

Which is to say that your alma mater is calling. And they’d like some money.

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