Walk On . . . In or Out

Theology Thursday

Note: No pastors I currently work with or am related to were referred to in the making of this post. Hopefully none were harmed, either.

Twice in my life, I nearly walked out in the middle of a church service. Only twice, but definitely twice.

(credit: Matt Hobbs)

(credit: Matt Hobbs)

One of the times, I was listening to a theologically conservative pastor, and the other time I was listening to a theologically liberal one. In both cases, the reason I almost walked out was because each one said something in one sentence which I thought was so theologically erroneous and dangerous I was surprised my ears didn’t fall off or my brain shrivel up inside my skull. In both cases, the reason I didn’t, in fact, walk out at all was because I loved people in those churches. I’m not talking gushy, romantic, possibly sketchy love. I’m talking about the kind of appropriate love you have for your friends, the people you know personally and in whose interests you take an interest.

I am telling you about all this because back in July I had an idea (it happens, occasionally) which I posted into this blog and which got a fair amount of feedback (well, for Jenn stories, anyway) from both sides of the theologically liberal/conservative aisle. And, with respect, People on Both Sides of Said Aisle, I’m not entirely convinced the commentators representing either group really understood the idea I was trying to convey. The idea as I stated it (and am still stating it because I can’t think of a better way to do so) was

Conservative (by which I mean fundamentalist and/or evangelical) seminaries should require their students to take at least six month internships at liberal (by which I mean mainline and/or progressive) churches, and liberal seminaries should require their students to take at least six month internships at conservative churches.

Let me say back to you (because this is, reputedly, a good listening skill), what I hear you saying you hear me saying vis à vis the above idea and its attendant original post:

Conservative churches and liberal churches should get over their differences and unite in tolerance and harmony.

Depending on the aisle-side on which you’re sitting, there may be implied boo-hisses or huzzahs connected to this summary . . . of an idea which isn’t actually what I was talking about. (The fact that people at opposite ends of the spectrum think I’m saying the same thing I’m not saying makes me concerned for my communication skills, but . . . maybe that’s why I’ve never been Freshly Pressed.)

For this specific idea I was talking solely about seminary students. Spending some time worshiping in and serving a church of a different stripe from one’s church of origin may have value for any churchgoer (I would argue it did for me before seminary was even a thought), but I’m not delving into that at the moment. I was only trying to say that people who feel a vocational call to serve the church, and are already investing time and money in theological thought and learning, really ought to be exposed to the (or an) opposite “brand” of Christian theology in real life, by real people who hold it, instead of being given at worst an alarmist or dismissive run-down, and at best a two-dimensional synopsis of the “opposing” views.

I think the value to the student and the people influenced by that student’s future ministry would be enormous, and (running the risk of repeating myself) I believe the three main benefits are as follows:

  1.  A stronger personal faith. Maybe it’s just me, but my relationship with Jesus grows deeper, and my interaction with (and I hope understanding of) the Bible grows sharper, and my trust in God’s heart and intended outcomes grows stronger when I have to wrestle with what I believe. I don’t have to wrestle too much if Prof SysTheo tells me about a view of the atonement that I don’t agree with and he doesn’t agree with either. (Although it has been noted that I don’t always agree with the material Prof SysTheo presents as somewhat more acceptable–and he’s an awesome enough professor to be okay with that.) But when I manage to resist the urge to walk out on either Liberal Pastor or Conservative Pastor, I do have to think about what they said and what I’ve always been taught and figure out which of the two views I actually hold and why.
  2. Humility. I’m a firm believer that once you notice you’re humble, you’re not, and I already know I’m not that humble anyway, so maybe this is theoretical. But I can tell you that when RevCD opened the pulpit to me to preach on John 3 (a notoriously evangelical passage), I saw what humility in the face of differing views looks like, and it’s pretty compelling. (There’s also this blogpost about the kind of humility I’m talking about, described a lot better that I can say it.) Genuine humility allows people the seminarian or pastor disagrees with to feel heard anyway, and also opens potential for real, meaningful–and potentially life-changing–dialogue, without the student’s own ego getting in the way of the Good News.

    This approach? Really not necessary.

    I’m going to go ahead and suggest this kid’s face negates what the dude in his left hand is doing.

  3. Love. When I didn’t walk out of those two sermons all those years back, it wasn’t because I thought what was said didn’t matter, or wasn’t dangerous, even, but because I did (and honestly still do). It was because I knew and cared about people in each of the churches represented. If I had walked out in either case, I may or may not have caused a scene, I only possibly would have made a statement (and probably not the one I wanted to make–again), and I indubitably would have shut down any opportunity to relate Jesus’ love to my friends in either of those churches in any meaningful way. From the perspective of one who has been ministered to, I can say that I receive such ministry much better if the person doing the ministering actually knows me, and loves me where I am and whether I stay there or not. If all I’m being handed is propositions, I get fed up pretty quickly–and this is me, a person who lives largely inside her own cranium, speaking. If all I’m handing to other people is propositions, the relationship is over before it starts. But if I remember that God loved the world so much He became one of us, who certainly weren’t on track with Him, to save us through relationship with Him, then I can enter any community He leads me to, for however long He leads me there. I can start to let Him love the people around me, through me. I can trust Him to bring us both into the state of mind and heart that He wants for us.
He'll sort it all out.

He’ll sort it all out.

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8 thoughts on “Walk On . . . In or Out

  1. It’s a lovely post. Even though regular church attendance gives me the willies. I tried, I did. The only church I liked was a black church I once went to for a while… the passion and the music blew me away. People actually ran around in excitement! Unfortunately, I just could not understand what the preachers were saying with such verve. 😦

    I once did attend a very conservative anglican service, and badly wanted to walk out because I thought what the priest was saying was appalling. But a good friend was in the choir… no way would I walk out. Relationship trumps ideology, yeah!

    • Ah, see? You made my point. 🙂

      I used to sing in a Gospel choir and loved visiting the churches we toured at. I agree, though–church CAN be a chore. I still think it’s worth it, for reasons about which I will surely blog…sometime. But I certainly understand opting out.

  2. I remember reading that post, and I did understand what you were saying (I think). It helps all seminarians to at least get a glimpse of the perspective of the other side. Dialogue not blending. Understanding each other, which can be done more easily if we can listen to what the other side is saying, even if we don’t agree with it. We can t least understand the position of another. I find it fascinating that so many took your idea to mean that we should all cast aside our differences and be one big happy family. We aren’t in heaven yet. 🙂

    • I was wondering if/when someone was going to ask that! I feel like it might be unprofessional or something to answer that in this context (though I have already blogged about one of the issues a few years ago, and I may indeed touch on the other one at some point), but if you’re really just dying to know, feel free to shoot me an email at jenn at thatsajennstory dot com, and I’ll fill you in there. 🙂

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