Many of us feel lost, it is true, but acknowledging our feelings of isolation is only a first step. How will we react? Will we lash out? Will we grab onto the simple answers offered by the Left or Right in a desperate attempt to find a home, any home? There is a growing movement of Liberal-Evangelicals who are finding a way of staking a claim to the moderate middle. We are sometimes frustrated and fearful, but we are also guided by Christ’s example of inclusive love and transcendent hope. We do not give up. We love others when they condemn us and hope for reconciliation in times to come. We sometimes worry about the future and frequently shake our heads at the repulsive actions of others, but we have learned through Christ’s example to be thankful for the securities and gifts we have and to be thoughtful in our reactions. Wisdom and thankfulness are marks of the growing movement of Liberal-Evangelicals because we know that we do not have all of the answers, and are thankful to our teachers and our God who offer us patience as we grow in faith. Liberal-Evangelical Christians are finding one another despite our fears and misgivings, and we will continue to grow so long as we practice inclusive love
Motivations can be difficult to identify and analyze, which is one reason that professional psychologists and counselors undergo so much training. Human emotions, purposes, and actions are complex, and it is seldom the case that we can isolate a single emotion or motivation as the sole cause of an action. In the same way, there is no one reason for the emergence or resurgence of liberal-evangelical Christianity. The contributing causes are social, political, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual – all at once. What is plain is that moderates are responding to the polarization within churches with renewed vigor, and are challenging one another to take appropriate action.
Chapter 5 identifies four emotional responses that liberal-evangelicals in diverse churches are feeling: frustration, fear, dismay, and disgust. While each of these intuitive responses may have negative connotations that make discussion uncomfortable, the emotions are genuine and deserve careful reflection.
If you are studying Lost in a large group, then take this opportunity to split into smaller groups for discussion. Ask each group to consider an emotional response (one of frustration, fear, dismay, and disgust) to the current polarization in the church and then produce a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the emotional response (make them suitable for sharing with the larger group). Finally, ask yourselves how the corresponding Christian virtue (love, hope, gratitude, and wisdom, respectively) fosters unity and moderation in the circumstances of each anecdote.
- Are there other common intuitive responses to the current state of the church that we can identify besides the four discussed in this chapter? What other virtuous Christian disciplines might be appropriate in these cases?
- How might the Christian disciplines of love, hope, gratitude, and wisdom differ from mere emotional responses that go by the same name?
If you are working on your own, this may be an excellent opportunity to do some journaling. Reflect on your own emotional responses to polarization in the church and the ways in which you or people you know have effectively (or ineffectively) addressed their emotional responses.
Ponder the following questions.
- What exasperates or frustrates you about the current state of the church?
- What are your fears regarding the present condition of Christianity in America (or elsewhere) and the future of the church in the twenty-first century?
- Are there particular trends in the church in general or in your church in particular that discourage you or cause despair?
- Do you ever find yourself being disgusted by the words or actions of others in the church? Can you give examples?
These are extremely difficult questions to answer honestly in a group or even privately. It can be hard to admit that certain things disgust us or cause fear to rise within us, in part because the negative connotations attached to these emotions are so strong. However, if we do not admit that these reactions and feelings (fear, dismay, frustration, and disgust) are real, then they are likely to fester as they go unexamined. Moreover, if we cannot be honest about our emotional responses, then we are likely to miss out on the powerful and time-tested strategies for managing them that the Bible offers.
Chapter 5 suggests that Christians are called to respond to frustration with love, to fear with hope, to dismay with gratitude, and to disgust with wisdom. In these cases love, hope, thankfulness, and wisdom are not mere feelings. Instead they are robust biblically sanctioned virtues cultivated within disciplines of discipleship. When we are not honest with ourselves about our fears, we are unable to see the biblical discipline of love as more than a nebulous feeling. The same is true for the other disciplines.
If you or your group can honestly confront and discuss your feelings about the current state of the church and the fears, frustrations, disgust, and dismay that that many moderates feel, you can see the real work that love, wisdom, thankfulness, and hope must accomplish.
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
This week’s homework asks you to call to mind and then write about a situation in your life that made you feel disgust, frustration, dismay, or fear. Here is one way to do that. After you read the chapter, ponder the discussion of each of these emotions in the text. Pick an emotion with which you personally struggle and then think about a time in your past in which something in the church caused you to react with that emotion. Once you’ve thought about that event, describe the event and your emotional response to it in writing.
As you write, describe only the event and your emotional response. The aim of this exercise is not to justify your emotions or to describe the manner in the your responded, but merely to describe an occasion of fear, dismay, frustration, or disgust. Remember to bring your written description with you to the next discussion group.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
This week’s homework assignment asked participants to write a narrative of a time when some event in the church caused them dismay, frustration, disgust, or fear. The group leader will collect these narratives and redistribute them. Each participant should take a written narrative and read it carefully.
Take several minutes alone to consider the situation and the emotional response that the writer depicts. The point of this exercise is not to judge the emotion, but rather to think about ways of reacting to the event and the emotion it generated with a biblical discipline of love, hope, gratitude, or wisdom. Consider not only how you think you might react, but also how you ought to react as a Christian.
After each participant has had time to read and consider the narrative that they were given, read the narratives to one another and share your thoughts about possible reactions and emotions. The person who wrote the narrative is encouraged not to “correct” the person who is reading it and sharing their thoughts about it. It may be helpful to the group if, at the end of the discussion of each narrative, the writer shares with the group the successful or unsuccessful reactions she or he had at the time and the ways in which they might want to react differently today.
Bible Reading: Psalm 33
Praise to the Creator and Preserver.
1 Sing for joy in the LORD, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright.
2 Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;
Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings.
3 Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
4 For the word of the LORD is upright,
And all His work is done in faithfulness.
5 He loves righteousness and justice;
The earth is full of the loving kindness of the LORD.
6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.
7 He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap;
He lays up the deeps in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the LORD;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.
9 For He spoke, and it was done;
He commanded, and it stood fast.
10 The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations;
He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
The plans of His heart from generation to generation.
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.
13 The LORD looks from heaven;
He sees all the sons of men;
14 From His dwelling place He looks out
On all the inhabitants of the earth,
15 He who fashions the hearts of them all,
He who understands all their works.
16 The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
17 A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His loving kindness,
19 To deliver their soul from death
And to keep them alive in famine.
20 Our soul waits for the LORD;
He is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart rejoices in Him,
Because we trust in His holy name.
22 Let Your loving kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
According as we have hoped in You.
Upon first reading, Psalm 33 sounds like a straightforward song of praise and rejoicing. Upon closer reading, we see that it offers a comparison between the powers and prestige of earthly rulers and God.
The underlying message is that hope in kings and armies is always ultimately in vain. Swords rust, armies are destroyed, and rulers die. The Lord of heaven, therefore, is the only sure source and object of hope, and trusting God is the only way to dispel our existential fears.
The writer of the psalm presumes an agricultural setting and one in which military conflict was an ever-present possibility. Thus, hope in the Lord is couched in agricultural and military language, because it was from these directions that danger came. These were the things that generated fear.
This week we have read about and discussed many of the sources of fear in the church, as well as sources of other emotions that can lead to unhelpful reactions. We fear losing our church cultures. We fear that our children might not adopt our traditions. We fear newness and strangers, even if we may not always admit this. For many of us, our churches are no longer a place we come to alleviate fear, but rather a source of fear, as well as frustration, dismay, and disgust. In what can we hope?
New programs, new books, new committees and buildings, like swords and armies, are insufficient sources and objects of hope. Like the psalmist we must turn to God as the object of hope, as the only source that can help us deal with our fears and react in helpful rather than harmful ways.
Lost suggests that there are concrete Christian disciplines of virtue designed to help us manage frustration, fear, dismay, and disgust. How large a role do love, hope, gratitude, and wisdom play in the life of your church and family? What can you do to enlarge this role?
Here at the end of Part II, we want to return to a true story that was shared in Chapter 4. There we read the story of a new pastor who faced the challenge of a seemingly fragmented congregation. Take a few moments to reread that story.
Put yourself in the place of that minister for a moment. For ministers, this may be fairly easy, but for seminarians or lay leaders it may require a little more imagination. No minister, not even the most professional and seasoned, is perfect. Think for a moment about the frustrations, fears, dismay, and disgust that this person must have felt. This could not have been what he expected when he left seminary, and yet here he is in the middle of a congregation that is pulling him in different, perhaps contradictory, directions.
Nevertheless, his creative response (let us be honest and name our likely feelings) to a disgusting and frightening situation was genuinely wise. And it worked.
- What was the new pastor’s response? Take a moment to think about and discuss why it worked in this instance.
- In what ways were this minister’s actions authentically loving, hopeful, grateful, and wise?
- How did he manage to move beyond the miniature culture war that threatened to break out in his church and find a way to articulate the deeper church culture “lying beneath the polarized surface fights”?
- Might his actions begin to show us the way toward finding our own authentically moderate, liberal-evangelical voices?
- In what ways might this story serve as a metaphor for the larger “culture wars” that plague the church in America?
For Further Thought
This week we have worked truthfully to engage our emotions and to consider them as responses to frustrating, dismaying, disgusting, and fearful situations inside our Christian communities. We have also pondered how to manage these emotions. Our feelings are not wrong, but we can react to them in ways that are constructive or counterproductive.
These discussions can be very difficult and can cause tension among even the most compassionate discussion groups. As you prepare to part for the week, read together Psalm 23 as a closing prayer (see below). Take solace in its words of comfort, but also be sure to note that the Psalmist prays from the perspective of one who is asked to go to a difficult place, the valley of the shadow of death.
Our emotions are natural. Sometimes we are right to be disgusted with the world, with the church, and with our own behavior. Sometimes we confront a world that induces profound fear. The church can cause dismay and trigger deep frustration. The divine shepherd of Psalm 23 does not take these from us, but rather gives us the guidance necessary to manage such powerful feelings in virtuous and disciplined ways.
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and loving kindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.