I’ve been a “progressive Christian” for as long as I can remember. (Ok, I did a brief stint of evangelicalism in late high school/early college, which led to a crisis of faith and is the subject of a much longer post.) The point is, that for as long as I’ve been Christian, I’ve been a Christian who isn’t “like that.” After I was ordained, I felt like the only way to introduce myself was “I’m a pastor, but not that kind.” Because, you know, I had to get that last part in before people started worrying that I was going to ask them about where they’d be when the rapture came, or launch into an exposition denying science, or perhaps talk to them about how gay marriage is a sin.
You get it, right? So many of us have been defining our Christianity in terms of what we’re not.
And because we’ve been defining ourselves by what we’re not, we haven’t been saying what we are. At least, not what we are as Christians. Most of us have been fighting for the kin-dom of God in all kinds of ways: volunteering at homeless shelters, showing up at city council meetings, voting our values at the polls and holding our reps accountable to our vision of a world where all are truly recognized as Beloved.
But we’ve been doing it quietly.
For sure, in some ways this doesn’t matter. After all, if the hungry get fed and the prisoners get comforted and the sick get healed, it doesn’t matter much whether they knew the person who offered the help was religiously motivated or not. And, I think, in many cases we withheld our religious convictions out of respect. With so many people using religion as a weapon, we wanted to be sure we didn’t accidentally inflict harm ourselves.
But there has been a downside and it is this: with our lack of speech in the public sphere, the only voices proclaiming Christianity were voices of exclusivity.
Now, those of you who are active in mainline or progressive evangelical traditions know that there are churches and churches full of Christians who are eager to make America a more just place. You know that there are churches that are intentionally multi-cultural and are creating rich conversation to heal a racially unjust nation. You know that there are churches who have been on the front line advocating for marriage equality. Or churches who see taking care of the planet as a central part of their mission. (This is Creation Stewardship in church-speak.)
But most people don’t know this.
The other day, in Boulder County, Colorado, where there are any number of progressive churches, someone said to me, “I would be Christian again if I could find a church that was in line with Jesus.” He went on to describe a church that would welcome all kinds of people, work on issues of homelessness, healthcare, racism, religious tolerance or do other things that Jesus actually talked about. (emphasis his)
Here’s the kicker–I could name 5 churches exactly like that within a reasonable Sunday morning drive from his house.
I can only assume that we’re not being loud enough to cut through the noise that is the Christian culture wars today. Honestly, I think it’s because many of us have our own spiritual wounds–the thought of going up against the evangelical machine makes our hands shake and our hearts race.
But people are hungry to experience a community of faith where they can explore this side of Christianity. And more importantly, if this is what we truly believe about God-in-Christ, then it’s our Christian witness to get out there and share it.
So what does that look like? I think it’s mainly about bridging the gap between our faith-selves and our secular-selves:
- Try showing up in the regular world in your religious t-shirts, hats, and lapel pins. Do it especially in the places where religious conversation has been hurtful. I wore my clergy collar to an anti-racism training a few weeks ago and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t comfortable. There were a few suspicious looks, probably from people wondering what my agenda was. Plus, my ironed shirt and skirt stuck out like a sore thumb in a group of hip Boulderites in their carefully grunge-clothes. But it also meant that I got to have conversations with people that never would have happened if I’d shown up in my civilian camouflage. As Carol Howard Merritt says, this is our Pentecost moment. We have to “[dress] up, show up, stand up, and pray up, whenever possible.” And while she’s writing mainly to clergy, I’d say this is true for all Christians right now. We have to do whatever we can, in whatever big or small way, to show that while stories of hatred perpetrated in the name of religion might dominate the news, they’re not dominating in real life.
- Use your digital space. Post articles from faith leaders who are confronting issues of injustice. Show pictures of yourself at Peace Rallies with a hashtag about following Jesus. Share your denomination’s stance on the issues of the day. Maybe you’ll get trolls. Delete them and forget about it. But not everyone who disagrees is a troll; be willing to enter into respectful conversation and share your views as a person of faith.
- And if you’re part of a church, see about using your church space to raise your voice. The church I currently serve has a rainbow flag on the bell tower. Another church has a Black Lives Matter sign on their front lawn. A Mennonite church started those wonderful “we’re glad you’re our neighbor” signs that branched out and became a Big Deal.
I know the objection: these are “political” signs…why can’t we just hang something Jesus-y like “all are welcome” or “God loves everyone” and stay out of the political fray? The simple answer is that it’s that’s not clear enough. “All are welcome” is an important theological statement for sure but the casual passer-by can’t tell your “all are welcome” sign from the mega-church down the street’s “all are welcome” sign. And they’ve been around long enough to know that when a church says “all are welcome,” they usually mean “all are welcome to come be just like us.”
Getting louder is going to have to mean stepping outside our comfort zone a bit. Personally, I kind of hate the idea. But I really, really hate the idea of living in a time when people associate Christianity with exclusion. That was never the goal–you know it and I know it. So it’s time to show it to a world that needs to know it, too.