Integrity, Relevancy and Effectiveness: Old First E-pistle 01.25.13

Someone asked me this week, “why does the church keep taking stances; they just make the members nervous; turn outsiders off; and don’t really change the world?”

The comment’s timing was unrelated, accidental, but, ironically, occurred on a week when

1) on Sunday our worship considered a public “statement” about the human costs of gun violence in our city; and

2) on Monday, I joined others — as a clergyman — in the median of Broad Street at Locust, encouraging passersby to celebrate and show support for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. (The response that stuck with me most was not the surprising number of pedestrians and drivers that indicated support, but the man who paced up and down the sidewalk across from us on Broad, screaming “baby killers.”)

So let’s take the issue of church, our faith and social and political positions apart, and really think about them for a moment:

Does the church have to take stances? The straight answer is, “Yes.”

Even not taking a stand is a stance, even if just a passive acceptance of the status quo.

Or deciding the church is going to restrict its interests, sphere and programing to things explicitly or purely non-political or spiritual is to take a stance. It’s a position too… and will necessarily preclude other stances as well as lead to consequences and further stances.

That’s the way life works itself out over time. Or better, it’s because our God works in history!

And theology, if it matters at all, is also taking a stand that will either be experienced as attractive or off-putting by various people, depending on their faith, experience and theological reflections.

Likewise, to invest in maintaining a church building on a corner in a certain neighborhood is a major commitment, Just as surely as protesting a war. Or advocating family values. Or championing religious freedom (whether you are for the separation of church and state or concerned that making room among different religious practices impinges on your faithful sense of what is right). Working for the equality and welcome of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people. Or teaching creationism.

Does the church taking a stand turn people off? Yes and no.

People’s response to a stand the church makes (or shies away from) is decided somewhere in between

1) how the wider world relates to that position, and

2) individuals’ understanding of the issue at hand.

Positions the church takes that people experience as attractive can occasion someone’s increased participation. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Stands can garner followers as surely as turn people away.

Still, you can’t be all things to all people if you really want to stand for something! (Sort of a corollary to “you can’t please everyone!” Remember at Old First, we have “the
80 / 20 rule: we hope 80% of what you experience at church feels appropriate, on target, “right,” of God. But we acknowledge and even ask you to expect to disagree or dislike or be uncomfortable with as much as 20% of what you encounter. It’s the price we pray for being diverse, meeting “the other” and growing!)

Still, social and political stances are absolutely crucial — because the success of a church and its ministry depends on being recognized and making a difference in people’s lives… mattering in the world.

But the stances a church takes — here’s the important thing to remember — are always and inevitably relational. They come from our understanding and interpretation of our faith tradition and what it teaches or expects of us. But even that’s not enough to determine a congregation’s stands, because what’s happening in the world around the church is a part of the equation.

This is very true at Old First. You can’t talk to people for whom this community is sacred for very long without hearing about the commitments this congregation has made or even the commitments by which people define us.

I suspect, congregations — at their best — position their stances a bit out in front where the people of the church find themselves. It’s ok for there to be a slightly tense situation, as long as the stand is “in the imaginable realm of ‘reachable.’” Agitation is a powerful tool that the church often shies away from unnecessarily because it’s held captive by “the tyranny of kindness” (the fear that church ought never even discomfort the comfortable.) But people make commitments to stick around and work with a congregation because they see their church is “about something” and “going somewhere.”

Do stances a church makes make a difference in the world? Churches have more of an effect than they (or the world) are often aware of.

The first place they make a difference is with the people who are members of their faith community. Church affects our hearts and minds and bodies. Our relationships too. What we see and care about. How we respond and act. Relying on its tradition and teaching, the local congregation influences and affects its members’ understanding and vision.

But a church’s influence extends beyond its four walls. Some say that the Vietnam War protests were empowered by and the war ended earlier for the mainline church’s anti-war activities. I hope so, because the mainline church paid a price for its Vietnam activism!

And, just as we hear how conservative churches influence and support social and political agendas they deduce from their theological understandings, so too should the progressive church. But we need our people to be able to access the deep roots in their faith to speak profoundly of a woman’s right to choose, or of environmental justice or of immigrants’ rights. Likewise, we need to be able to speak of how science and faith can be paired…

Often times, when the church introduces a new idea or takes a position, that’s enough to get folks outside the church to open up, listen deeper, or take a second look (at the issue and the church!).

Our world, and all its influences, are complicated and interwoven. We are long past the days, thank God, when the church could say the world was flat and it was! But I believe the church has a vital role to play. We are a unique voice… one that’s rare in a world of competing self-interests (and the church has its own self-interests too!).

I’m always glad when Old First finds its courage to make a stand.

See you in church,

Michael