Often we only ask our most important questions when we are alone: Am I right? Am I making this up? I don’t seem to fit in any church, does this make me a freak? These questions haunt many of us, and we feel all the more lonely because we fear saying them aloud. We worry about feeling even more alienated. Everyone else seems so happy, so confident. Should I risk upsetting my family, friends and congregation with my uncomfortable questions? Part I begins by accepting this risk. Together we acknowledge the questions that plague us as moderate Christians. We need to ask tough questions about Jesus’s role in our churches, and our very different pictures of reality. We have to face our questions about truth and relativism. We have to ask these questions, not because we know the answers, but because we know where refusing to run the risk of questioning leads. We’re tired of feeling alone.
The stories in this chapter (as in the rest of the book) are based on actual events. They represent a larger collection of similar stories of frustration and confusion that many of us could tell. Do you have a story? Think about sharing it with your group or with a friend. We are not alone in our uncertainty and longing to feel more at home in our churches.
This chapter is organized around five questions that haunt moderate Christians (they are listed in the exercise below). One of the chief difficulties that we face when we try to admit and confront our uncertainties is that we are bombarded by shrill answers from both the conservative and the liberal extremes. Partisans proclaim simple solutions to the issues that vex us, but the answers they give seem to bypass the process of contemplation and prayer. In the rush to give the “right” answer they sometimes seem not to take the questions seriously.
Many moderates are drawn to the questioning process as an opportunity to engage God and the Christian faith through careful study, conversation, and prayer. We are not eager to jump to hasty conclusions or to offer bombastic answers to profound spiritual questions. On the other hand, we are surrounded by simple answers whether on bumper stickers or billboards or from the mouth of a TV evangelist and must contend with them. Identifying and addressing these simple answers head on and recognizing them for what they are is a helpful step in the process of moving beyond them and heading toward more nuanced answers.
Take a few moments together or alone to identify some of the simple answers that moderate Christians might encounter as we ask ourselves the questions discussed in Chapter 1. Some sample extreme answers have been provided. Fill in the gaps.
Question 1: Are we right?
|Extreme Conservative Answer||Of course we are right! The Bible is the absolutely authoritative voice of the all knowing God. Stick literally to the text and there is no need for hesitation.|
|Extreme Liberal Answer||Of course we are right! Everyone is right so long as they are sincere in their convictions.|
Question 2: If I love Jesus, am I a freak?
|Extreme Conservative Answer||Yes, if you love Jesus you must be a freak. Jesus was despised and rejected by the evil world and his genuine followers will also be despised and rejected.|
|Extreme Liberal Answer|
Question 3: Am I making this up?
|Extreme Conservative Answer|
|Extreme Liberal Answer|
Question 4: How do I reconcile conflicting pictures of reality?
|Extreme Conservative Answer|
|Extreme Liberal Answer||It’s time to grow up and put away the children’s stories found in the Bible. Science, along with literary and historical study of the Bible, is more reliable.|
Question 5: How do I stand for truth?
|Extreme Conservative Answer|
|Extreme Liberal Answer|
It can be fun and maybe even liberating to try and identify the ideologically extreme answers to deep faith questions. However, we should be careful not to turn from identification to derision. If we look closely we can often see how simple slogans may actually evade rather than respond to a pressing question. Why evade important questions? Perhaps evasion happens because questions about certainty and authority can be existentially disturbing and many Christians at the extremes are eager to wrap them up quickly and then tuck them safely away.
As moderate Christians we are challenged to respond in two ways.
- First, we are called to empathize with extremists on either side of these debates, even as we disagree with their solutions and slogans.
Conservatives may respond to liberal rhetoric with rhetoric of their own and vice versa. As moderates we should be less concerned with winning a battle of slogans than with honoring the religious questions that genuinely trouble us, our children, and our Christian sisters and brothers. Empathy does not require agreement. Empathy means that we work to read between the lines of the simple slogans of partisans on either end of the ideological spectrum. When we see a “Darwin Fish” on a car’s bumper or a “Truth Not Tolerance” t-shirt, can we look beyond the slogan and see the buried question?
- Second, we are challenged to honor the questions themselves.
We can begin to honor the questions by noticing the space between the easy answers on the far left and far right. In between there is a lot of room for the development of alternative moderate answers. We can allow adequate time for thoughtful reflection and make room for the questioning process in our lives and churches.
What can we do to increase empathy for those on the sloganeering extremes and to honor the driving questions beneath the slogans? Choose one or two categories of questions below that best fit your group. Then discuss the questions.
As individuals with busy schedules:
- What can we do in our own lives to honor these deeper faith questions and the questioning process?
- How can we avoid the temptation to settle for easy solutions?
- How can we make our churches more amenable to the process of open religious inquiry and those who struggle with continuing faith questions?
- How can we avoid the rush toward hasty answers and convenient slogans?
- How can we encourage one another to ask questions without promoting relativism, and to seek answers without advocating absolutism?
As people immersed in a seminary culture:
- What tools and resources can we create to help others honor the process of asking and answering faith questions in an open manner?
- How can we make seminary education less programmatic, and more dynamic?
- How can we remake our seminaries so that they encourage the development of thoughtful moderate answers to the deeper questions for faith?
- How can we prevent our seminaries from becoming indoctrination centers for the ultra-conservatives and the extreme liberals?
As church leaders, parents and mentors:
- How can we support our teenagers and young adults as they struggle with religious questions and face the temptations of simple answers from the extremes?
- How can we encourage responsible religious moderation in our youth when the far right and the far left are fighting for their attention?
- In what ways are youth uniquely equipped and especially challenged when wrestling with faith questions?
As lay leaders and church members:
- Too often congregations expect their ministers to be ready with answers to all of their questions. Does our church have a culture that expects immediate or one-sided answers from our leadership?
- How can we help our ministers to pursue the truth without rushing them toward quick solutions and tidy resolutions of complex questions or problems?
- What can we do to encourage our ministers to be honest with us when they wrestle with their own haunting questions?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Chapter 1 of Lost in the Middle? (hereafter simply Lost) begins, “Religious messages from the left and right reach into the lives of moderate Christians, whether invited or not, offering answers to potent existential questions.” We are inundated with religiously loaded ideas and images, many of them contradictory. Like baggage, we carry religious and ethical messages that make claims on our time, money, minds, and hearts.
Usually we scarcely notice these messages. They flood in from television and radio advertisements, magazines and newspapers, e-mail forwards, news programs, talk shows, bumper stickers, and even tattoos or graffiti. We grow so accustomed to them that they may not always register with us on a conscious level. Like advertising, however, they have an effect.
As you prepare to discuss Chapter 1, make a conscious effort to notice some of these omnipresent religious messages. Specifically, keep an eye out and an ear open for the ways in which Christians on the far left and the far right work to capture your attention. What subtle or perhaps not so subtle messages are being offered? How are these messages communicated? Write them down as you encounter them throughout the week so that you can remember them and share them with your group.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
Our homework assignment for the week asked everyone to be on the lookout for religious messages from both the left and the right. Take some time to share with one another the kinds of things that you noticed throughout the week.
- What kinds of religious themes were most prevalent?
- Which media (print, radio, television, internet, etc.) presented the most religiously themed content? Did any particular media tend to present a particular kind of religious message?
- Where did you encounter religious messages or themes unexpectedly?
- Were liberal or conservative messages more prevalent?
- Did you encounter any religious messages or images that emphasized moderation?
We can learn many things from this kind of exercise in active listening and looking. First, most of us, if we spend much time outside of the home or online during the week, encounter at least a few religious images and messages. God is invoked on our monuments and money. The car in front of us may display a Darwin fish or a Christian fish eating a Darwin fish. The woman behind us at the post office may sport a necklace with a cross, and the local grocery store may have a kosher section. Religious claims and messages surround us, if we open our eyes and ears to them.
Second, we learn that a majority of the mass produced religious messages on the radio, in magazines, on websites, or on billboards reflect the concerns of the far right or far left and perpetuate the myth that one must choose either to be a liberal or to serve Christ and take the Bible seriously. They assume that one must choose either to support equal rights, tolerance of diversity, and a scientific worldview or to proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ.
Moderates, the large group in the middle that wants a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ but who also eschew reactionary literalism and intolerance, do not often find their concerns and positions articulated in the public sphere. Lost names this group of moderates “liberal evangelicals,” and calls attention to the fact that voices from this middle position are not frequently heard. Moderates don’t have many bumper stickers. There are not many self-proclaimed moderate talk show hosts and it is difficult to convey nuance on a billboard when those who would read it zip past at 65+ mph.
Finally, when we think to pay attention to the religious messages that bombard us every day, we notice something almost miraculous about ourselves: we have an amazing capacity to filter out the noise! Think about the kinds of religiously themed information that you noticed, when you intentionally looked and listened for it. It was there even before you thought to notice it, but you filtered it out. It did not register as important. The far right and far left continually vie for the attention and loyalty of the moderate middle, but we have the power to tune them out and tune in to our own theological questions.
Bible Reading: Matthew 22:15-22
Tribute to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said.
16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.
17 “Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?
19 “Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius.
20 And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
Our scripture reading for today is the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22. In this chapter Jesus is teaching his followers using parables. He uses both a wedding party and a marriage as teaching metaphors, but offers no political slogans or sound bites. Hearing this, his political enemies seek to lay a trap for him. In a poetic turn of phrase the King James Version says that they looked for “how they might entangle him in his talk.”
All of us have suffered from the occasional malapropos or slip of the tongue, but in this chapter Jesus is facing a deliberate attempt to corner him. His detractors want to force him to commit himself on a question to which there is no politically expedient answer. If Jesus says, “Yes, pay your taxes,” then he is a traitor to his people and a pawn of the Romans. If he says, “No, do not pay your taxes,” then he is a political agitator and subject to arrest by Rome.
For those who follow contemporary politics in either Washington D.C. or denominational headquarters and church leadership meetings, this situation is all too familiar. Liberals and conservatives at the extreme ends of the political and theological spectrums have staked their claims to positions and language, so that moderates feel cornered. “Is every word of the Bible literally true or not?” “Is Christ the only way to God or not?” “Is social justice the central priority of the true church or not?” How can we answer without committing ourselves to positions and truth claims that we do not support? How can we not answer without feeling that we have failed and allowed the fanatical positions to carry the day?
Jesus clearly saw the trap his opponents had laid for him, but instead of taking the bait or refusing to answer, he defused the trap and untangled the snare. He showed the question itself to be a lie because it presumes a false dichotomy. Their “with us or against us” rhetoric and their “yes or no” thinking divided the world into two camps, pro-Rome or anti-Rome. Jesus rejected the concept of a divided creation and insisted that the world is undividedly God’s.
Matthew tells us that Jesus’ opponents, when their trap had been undone, left and were amazed. They were not convinced or converted. We should not, therefore, expect to bring the entrenched interests in our governments and churches crashing down. Radical liberals and extreme conservatives of all stripes are far too invested in the current rhetorical battles to be much interested in transcending them and finding middle ground. As moderates, however, we can follow Jesus’ example and seek to carve out a place between the tired positions offered by both sides that presume the dominance of divisive “with us or against us” thinking. We can point out and defuse the linguistic traps set by both sides, and work to make our churches safer places for honest conversations and questions.
In a small town in the middle of America, Tom and Nina buy a new home. They moved from the east coast because of work and left behind a church they very much loved. Tom and Nina met and married in their old church, he sang in the choir and she served as a deacon. On the first Sunday in their new home they walk a quarter of a mile into the center of town and attend the 10:00 am service at Central Christian Church. They are delighted to see that one of the ministers is a woman, they appreciate the sermon’s central theme of caring for the poor, and notice that all of the bulletins from the service and cups from coffee hour are dutifully recycled. The following Sunday they decide to walk a quarter mile away from the center of town to attend the 9:00 am service (the first of three services offered that day) at Word of God Church. They are greeted by several church members, ushers, and ministers as they make their way into the sanctuary, they enjoy the sermon and the way in which the preacher applied the Bible to their everyday lives, and they note that as they leave the church more families are arriving for the 11:00 AM service.
Tom and Nina cannot make up their minds about which church to attend and eventually decide to attend Central Christian in the morning and then attend Word of God’s evening worship service. For several months, as they get to know people at both churches, this arrangement works out well. They learn about social justice on Sunday mornings and study the Bible on Sunday evenings. They sing hymns and pray quietly before lunch, and clap to worship songs and pray aloud after dinner. Tom and Nina are delighted to have found new church homes.
This arrangement works well until they decide to invite the ministers of both churches over for dinner on successive weeks. When the minister of Central Christian finds out that they have been attending evening services at Word of God she is very disturbed. She warns them about Word of God’s long history of “poaching” Christians from other churches. She cautions them against emotionalism and making the Bible “too simple.” When she leaves, Tom and Nina are quite worried about their new friends at Word of God.
A week later the minister of Word of God joins Tom and Nina for dinner and learns that they have been attending morning worship at Central Christian. He warns them about Central Christian’s long history of cultural condescension toward other newer churches. He cautions them against humanism and secularism posing as Christian truth and the tendency of some churches to convolute the Bible and twist its meaning. When he leaves, Tom and Nina are equally worried about their new friends at Central Christian.
This study presents a quick sketch of a common conundrum faced by moderates. Lost in the middle, we see the energy of evangelicals and want to share it and we see the open-mindedness and tolerance of liberals and what to share it. Tom and Nina came up with a solution: they attended a liberal church in the morning and an evangelical church in the evening and gained tremendously from both. Predictably, however, both the liberal leadership of Central Christian and the evangelical leadership of Word of God were eager to bash the other in order to claim Tom and Nina’s exclusive loyalty.
Discuss the following questions.
- Why might Tom and Nina and the balance they struck in their lives have threatened the leadership of both churches?
- If Tom and Nina quit attending Word of God, what would they be likely to miss?
- If they stopped attending Central Christian, what would they lose?
Looking at evangelical churches (even if you are in one), think about the kinds of things that these churches offer that are appealing to you and that you do not usually find in non-evangelical churches. What are some of these things?
Think for a moment about liberal churches (even if you are in one), what kinds of emphases and programs do liberal churches have that you find appealing and that are tough to find in non-liberal churches. What are these things and why are they appealing?
Finally, consider Tom and Nina’s two-church solution. Would a solution like this be sustainable in your life? Would others in your church be challenged if they found out that you were a regular attendee at a very different kind of church at some other time during the week?
For Further Thought
As you press ahead with Lost you will encounter more stories of bewilderment, loss, and even anger at the condition of the contemporary church, but you will also read stories of hope and faith that offer a glimpse at another way, a moderate way, of being a Christian. You should not, however, expect a silver bullet, magic solution, or foolproof program for building a bigger congregation, raising more money, or banishing all conflict from your church. Moderate Christianity and liberal evangelicalism are classical strategies for sustaining Christian communities. They represent an ancient form of Christian community, well attested to in the New Testament and practiced in diverse times and places throughout Christian history. The program and descriptions offered in Lost are not new, but they are innovative and powerful.
Sometimes when Christians decide to gather together for study and prayer, they agree to work with and read a text in the hope that the book will provide them with a rallying point, a body of ideas or teaching about which they can all agree and around which they can convene their congregation. Sometimes they are motivated by a worry that there is too much diversity in the church, too wide an array of opinions and motivations. They gather out of fear, hoping that from the diversity of opinions a single opinion might be forged. These fears are natural and common. It can be very stressful to belong to or work in a congregation that has conservative and liberal members, and it is understandable that we might be drawn to books or programs that work toward erasing differences of opinion and political and organizational orientation.
Lost is not that kind of book. It will not provide a single coherent set of doctrines. It does not seek to eradicate differences and to settle theological opinions once and for all. Rather, Lost sets out to define and describe a robust form of Christian discipleship that, when practiced prayerfully and with love and patience, allows for churches to thrive in worship and communal life even as they remain diverse places where moderates, conservatives, and liberals can worship side by side. This is not an easy thing to do. Were it easy, it would be common. But it is not impossible, and the reward of creating a church in which many different kinds of people can be at home in the middle is well worth the effort. In fact, it is extremely empowering to work in a congregation, liberals and conservatives side by side, democrats and republicans caring for one another and reaching out to the world together.
God and Creator, we thank you for our nation and our churches, and the opportunity we have to worship and learn freely. We pray for those who do not have the same freedoms or opportunities.
We pray for guidance and wisdom as we join with one another in study and contemplation. We ask that you would guide our reading and conversations. Give us compassion for one another. Help us to trust one another with our emotions, our stories, and our time. Make us worthy of that trust.
We pray that you would soften our hearts so that we might empathize with those who are different from us. Help us to understand ourselves better, to feel less threatened about our differences, and to be more generous in our congregations.
We pray for steadfast endurance to see our task through to the end. Help us as we work to make room in our schedules for scriptural study, prayer, and group reflection. Bless this time and our efforts so that they might bear fruit in the weeks, months, and years to come both in our lives and in our churches. Help us to support one another, and to know when we need to ask for support.