As moderates we may feel as if we are cast in the role of cultural and religious moderators, constantly striving to balance and assuage the voices on the extreme ends of the spectrum. This situation is understandable, but unnecessary and ultimately untrue. The Right and Left have recognized leaders and loud voices, but who speaks for us? Who speaks for those of us in the messy, moderate middle? Demographically in both politics and religion moderates are the majority. The extremes turn up the volume and ramp up their rhetoric in large part because they hope to convince us to join their side. But as part II argues, we can assert ourselves and develop our own voices. We do not need to identify with either extreme, but can legitimately claim a rich biblical heritage of Christian witness to radically inclusive love.
This chapter makes three important points about who we are as moderate Christians. (1) We are a large segment of the American church, (2) many of us have thoughtful theological opinions, and (3) we are discovering one another and our influence. Additionally, the chapter suggests that intentionally moderate Christians are not necessarily wishy-washy or muddle-brained. We will examine each of these important points and consider the ways in which knowing more about ourselves might help us articulate a clearer vision of Christian discipleship.
The section “Who speaks for us?”points out a reason why moderates get less attention than the extremes: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This timeworn cliché is especially true in politics and public perception. Turn on the radio or Sunday morning cable television and you might be convinced that Christianity in America is purely a phenomenon of faith healing, musical spectacle, and the charged rhetoric of protecting traditional values. The most conservative Christians are usually the loudest. On the far left of the political spectrum there are plentiful, though usually smaller and less visible, resources and outlets for very liberal Christians. Resources, ministries, and voices specifically oriented toward moderates are rare.
The book explores many of the recent reputable studies designed to chart the religious landscape in the United States. As Chapter 3 notes, however, all such studies have different limitations and need to be carefully interpreted. These limitations often derive from labeling decisions.
What labels or categories best capture your religious self-understanding? Take a moment and go through the following list and circle each descriptor with which you identify.
What kinds of indicators do you think are most helpful for categorizing you and your fellow Christians?
- Belief categories (Do you believe in Christ’s atoning death?)
- Practice categories (Do you attend church at least once a week?)
- Ideological categories (Are you rightwing or leftwing?)
- Historical categories (Are you Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Methodist, etc.?)
How important are these kinds of indicators to you? Do you feel that they reveal anything meaningful or important about you?
What kinds of information would you like to have about your fellow American Christians? Why might this information be helpful to you? The “Web Links” page on LiberalEvangelical.org is a good place to visit if you would like to find other studies on the religious landscape in America.
Where do intentional moderates turn for guidance and support? It may be helpful to share with others and find out where they turn for thoughtful guidance, information, and inspiration.
Of course we recommend visiting LiberalEvangelical.org and exploring its resources, but what other strategies might be worth exploring for moderates who, to put the matter bluntly, want more attention paid to our concerns for Christ-centered unity across ideological and theological, social and economic differences?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Take some time to visit PewForum.org and become familiar with some of their surveys and reports. Browsing the entire site may be informative. Once you are comfortable with the site’s layout, take a few moments to look specifically at http://religions.pewforum.org/.
- Using the tools on the webpage, look at the religious composition of your particular state or region.
- Examine the data for your particular religious affiliation or denomination.
- Locate yourself among the demographic data. For example, if you are a Native-American, female, Roman Catholic, compare yourself to other Native-Americans, other females, and other Roman Catholics.
- Go to the MAPS section and compare the data collected under the heading “Religious Groups” with that collected under “Beliefs and Practices.”
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
Studying reports like those generated by the Pew Forum can help us better understand ourselves (and perhaps name our frustrations and resolve some confusions) by situating our religious beliefs and practices in larger context. The questions below serve at starting points for discussion about our place in the American religious landscape as intentionally moderate Christians.
- What surprised you about the religious composition and practices of your particular region or state? What expectations were confirmed?
- Did the data you examined yield any insights regarding your own feelings of fitting or not fitting in with others? How â€œtypicalâ€ are you as a Christian?
- We all know that some labels can be misleading. What did you learn about religious denominations and affiliations and the actual practices and beliefs of people belonging to these groups that thwarted or confirmed your expectations?
- What did this exercise teach you about the size, character, beliefs, and practices of moderate Christians?
Bible Reading: James 3
The Tongue Is a Fire
1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.
4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.
5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!
6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.
8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;
10 From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.
11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?
12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
Wisdom from Above
13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.
15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.
18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Imagine your boss giving an address in which she thanks everyone who worked on a successful project by name, but inadvertently forgets to mention you and your contributions. Imagine the surge of jealously, pain, and perhaps even hatred that accompanies this unintentional slight. It can be extremely difficult not to lash out when we feel neglected or unnoticed, but as moderates this is the challenge we face.
We long to call attention to ourselves, our beliefs, our contributions, and our convictions. However, one of the reasons we are intentionally moderate is that we understand the dangers of inflated rhetoric and inopportune words. The third chapter of James highlights these dangers and warns us against purported wisdom that does not grow out of peacefulness and does not result in humility. Moderates instinctively sense the soundness of James’ argument. We feel neglected and cast aside, but also know that we cannot participate in angry words or recrimination. This is the common conundrum of moderate Christians.
The meek and moderate are overlooked, but the remedy to this situation seems to demand that we abandon moderation and humility. What to do?
There are no easy answers to this question and no simple formulas to follow. The deeper, truer answer that Lost suggests is a form of radical Christian discipleship. As we continue to study this volume, engage the scriptures, and pray together, we must not forget the warnings offered by James to curb our tongues and listen with a generous spirit. There is no shortcut.
In a medium-sized Protestant church in an affluent suburb of a large Midwestern city a committee of church members meets to discuss church growth. The congregation of First United Church has recently charged the committee with developing both long-term and short-term strategies for growing the church. While they may not realize it or use the same terminology, First United Church is in many ways a congregation of moderates with the potential to become a liberal evangelical church. The committee on church growth, however, faces a sociological crisis.
After Helen, the committee chair, calls everyone together and offers a prayer she opens the floor to suggestions, encouraging everyone to brainstorm ideas for growing the church. Many suggestions are offered and discussed, but they generally fall into two categories: concrete projects like enlarging the parking lot and adding more child care, and general ideas like being nicer to visitors and increasing the church’s community presence. Eventually the committee hits on the idea of hiring anonymous visitors to attend and provide a neutral and unvarnished look at the church on a particular Sunday. They decision is agreed to and the committee chair agrees to contact and hire independent surveyors to visit and critique the church at some later date.
Two months later, the committee meets again to review the comments made by two independent and anonymous church visitors. Curiously, neither of the visitors commented on the building, the parking lot, the coffee, or the friendliness of the congregants. Both, however, wrote that they felt uncomfortable and likely would not return. One visitor, who identified herself as a single, Christian, middle-aged woman, wrote that she did not feel that the church had a place for her. There were numerous announcements about family activities, couples retreats, and child care, but as a person without children or an immediate family she did not feel welcome. She also noted that the themes addressed in the prayers and sermon assumed that married couples with children were the target audience. She wished the church well, but did not think she would feel welcome, useful, or ministered to in First United Church.
The second anonymous visitor identified himself as a young, married, Hispanic, Christian man and also wrote of a disappointing experience. He was himself a member of a church of the same denomination in another town, so he found the order of worship and some of the music familiar. The sermon was instructive and the congregants greeted him warmly. He was, however, disconcerted by several subtle cues that his particular political beliefs would not be welcomed at First United. He saw several bumper stickers in the parking lot for a political candidate whose policies he thought were racist against Hispanics. He overheard a man with a “Deacon” pin making fun of a political candidate that the visitor supported. He also did not notice any other faces of people of color in the congregation. Again, he wished the congregation well, but wrote that he would not feel comfortable bringing his family to worship at First United on a regular basis.
As one might expect, the committee’s initial reactions were mixed. Some members were dismissive of the anonymous reports as overly critical and hyper-sensitive. Others thought the visitors did not pay attention to the “right kinds of things” since they did not mention the new stained glass window or cappuccino maker. Eventually the committee decided to put the reports aside and concentrate on more important things. However, Helen, the committee chair, continued to ponder the anonymous visitor reports. She sensed a common thread in them and found it difficult simply to set them aside. As a wife and working mother of three children, Helen found her church’s emphasis on family values and childcare very helpful and supportive. She found very little in her church to be critical of, but the visitors obviously saw something different, and experienced a level of discomfort that she did not share. But Helen did not get a sense that these visitors were mean spirited or ill intentioned. They seemed genuinely interested in offering constructive criticism. Her committee was simply unable to make sense of it.
How might you articulate the concern that Helen seems unable to articulate to herself and her committee?
We have been looking at demographic information about American Christians, their beliefs and practices. Does this information help to make sense of the reaction of the two anonymous visitors? Does it shed any light on the dilemma that Helen faces in trying to get her uncomprehending committee to take seriously those anonymous visitor reviews?
It is natural to gravitate toward people who are similar to us, who share our political opinions, cultural tastes, and moral presumptions. But it limits us and our congregations when we are unable to worship and serve with people who are different. This is not to suggest that our shortsightedness and inclinations toward the familiar are in any way malicious. FirstUnitedChurch does not intend to antagonize Hispanic Christians or to marginalize single Christians. Rather, as we flock toward and with those who are similar to us, we often fail to notice those who are different. In these cases tolerance and moderation become mere buzzwords, because there is no genuine difference that needs to be tolerated, no real variety of opinions to be moderated.
If Helen prevails upon the committee at First United to take the anonymous visitor reports more seriously, what changes might they recommend? How can they address the effects of their congregation’s sociological profile? Can or should demographic and sociological factors be changed?
If anonymous visitors came to your congregation, what might you expect to hear from them?
For Further Thought
Every Christian has a unique faith and Christian identity, so group surveys and polls cannot tell us everything we might want to know. However, regardless of how we might feel about any of the studies cited in the book or any of the indicators and labels that they use, we can learn a lot from this sort of group information. One of the most important things that we learn is that we moderates, dwellers in “the messy middle,” are probably the single largest group of Christians despite the fact that we may be the least vocal.
Richard Nixon talked about a “silent majority” of Americans and used that term to justify reactionary policies and to campaign against civil rights. If Christian moderates really are a majority or at least a significant minority, how can we claim a voice and a place in civic and religious discourse appropriate to our size without resorting to the uncivil and frankly questionably Christian rhetoric that comes from the extreme ends of the political and religious spectrum? How can we speak up and be heard in a way that matches our faith commitments?
- How can we have an influential voice without that voice becoming shrill?
- Is there a way to participate in debate inside and outside of the church as moderate Christians without resorting to immoderate rhetorical strategies?
- How might we argue not just for Christian values, but as Christians?
- How can we speak, vote, debate, spend, and live as moderates in an immoderate world that often rewards extremism?
Lost and the companion volume Found in the Middle! do not offer prognostications and predictions, but they do suggest that there are concrete steps that moderates can take to foster the growth of Christ-centered progressive Christianity, what we are calling liberal evangelicalism. The answer to the question, “Where are we headed?” depends in large part on where radically engaged and intentionally moderate Christians are willing to take us.
Lord Jesus Christ we are thankful for the continued opportunity to gather together in fellowship and prayer, to learn from one another and work to make our church a better reflection of the Kingdom of God.
Guide us as we examine ourselves, as individuals, as members of congregations, and as parts of the larger community of Christians.
Help us attain a clearer knowledge of who and what we are, and of what you would have us become.
Grant us a fuller imagination and deeper vision of what your Church might be and of how our congregations might be transformed.
Help us to find our place in the world, where we may minister to others and help others to know your love and care.
Make us thankful for and appreciative of our Christian sisters and brothers of all creeds and kinds, and good-hearted people of every religious persuasion, so that we might experience the fullness of your will and love.