A Continuing Fragmented Reality
During my days in seminary, I passionately uttered the following phrase in the middle of an evening class on collegiate ministry. “Do we really want to proliferate sectarianism in a postmodern society?”
My friend Matt still mocks the wordiness of the way I phrased my question.
Regardless of the way it’s phrased, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the sentiment I expressed that night. New hot button issues emerge frequently that plague sincere people of deep faith. The rise of the “Nones” is further proof that postmodernity is here to stay (which is not a bad thing).
As churches, we are at a crossroads – just as we always have been. It is not a new phenomenon. A history of church division, outraged piety, innocent heresy, and theological debate serve to remind us that the life of the church in the world is one that will be marked by a differing of opinions and approaches.
An Opportunity in Our Midst
In the midst of this milieu, churches are given a great opportunity. In the living rooms of parishioners, television sets may be turned to the ranting of ideologues who preach with venomous certainty, but in our houses of worship, we have the opportunity to cultivate and hold space for a community that can live life together in the midst of disagreement. It will take work to worship even while we disagree, but as we are able to intentionally be churches that are comfortable with holding space for differing opinions, three beautiful things will begin to occur.
God as the Essential
First, our communal life will become more focused on the centrality of God and less driven by issues or agendas other than the cruciform life. When leaders of the church can be gracious with one another and believe even in the midst of differing opinions that each brother and sister in the congregation is seeking God through his or her thoughts and actions. The church can focus on being a space where we see the best in each other – even in those with whom we disagree, because we believe that there is a larger power than our own opinions at work in our midst and in the world.
From Milk to Meat
Second, our churches will grow spiritually and educationally. If we become playgrounds of idea and belief interaction instead of walled gardens of homogenous belief, we will be incapable of stagnation. When we open ourselves to the ideas of others and learn to defend or reject our own deeply held beliefs, we become more capable thinkers and followers of Christ. A simple Google search returns a plethora of articles decrying the lack of biblical literacy amongst church attenders. But in a faith community where uniformity is not a sacred cow, many of us will have to return to the depths of scripture to determine why we believe as we do. We will move from the sickly masses for whom religion is an opiate, to a faithful people who are not afraid of the deep questions that life always brings.
An Honest and Renewed Witness
Finally, I deeply suspect that some of the aforementioned “Nones” are more than willing to be a part of congregations where their questions are embraced instead of shunned.
When my wife and I were spending time apart when I moved to a new town ahead of her and the kids, we spent a few nights syncing our watching of our favorite TV shows online together over the phone. New services are being created frequently (like rabb.it) to help people connect with one another despite distance. The people who have stopped coming or have never started coming to our churches aren’t absent because they don’t want to belong. They want to belong, but not if it means leaving their doubts and opinions at the door.
Beginnings, Not Endings
Written down, it sounds nice to become churches and communities that truly learn to celebrate diversity in our midst. In reality, becoming the types of churches that can hold space for one another is a difficult journey. We will be flying in the face of the culture that wants us to choose teams like we were still in junior high P.E. We will have to have difficult conversations about the lines between belonging and orthodoxy.
These conversations are to be embraced, not shunned. What must be shunned are the assumptions we bring with us into conversations with our fellow church members. As leaders, we must lay aside our preconceptions and learn to hear one another. We must work through conflict instead of avoiding it. As uncomfortable as it may be at first, as we practice this way of life, we will find ourselves healthier and more prepared for whatever comes next.