Chapter 1: Five Haunting Questions
Often we only ask our most important questions when we are alone: Am I right? Am I making this up? I do’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.
Chapter 2: Behind the Questions: Five Genuine Disagreements
Moderates aren’t cowards, but we do cherish community. For many of us this means that we have stifled our questions about faith because we have feared that raising them might fracture our congregations. We are not wrong to suspect that deep disagreements may lurk beneath the surface. However, there is strength to be drawn from clearly articulating and understanding our differences. Within our churches even moderates hold conflicting views of morality, authority, history and other fundamental ideas. These conflicts are real, but by shedding light on them, we may find that they are less scary than we imagined. Even more importantly, by recognizing our conflicting visions we can begin the real work of coming to live with and love those who are genuinely different. We can openly and actively work to love those who are different, instead of pretending that we are all the same.
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.
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.
For those of us who treasure the church as a home and place of grace we wish that we could shout something that would cause the factions on either side of polarized debates to wake up and see that their differences are merely matters of limited perspective. Unfortunately, the tragedy of our situation runs much deeper. The disagreements that cause tension in the contemporary church are profound.
As uncomfortable as it may be, moderate Christians who long for unity in the church need to wake up to the reality that many Christians really do disagree with one another about important issues. We need to accept the fact that these disagreements are not always superficial. We need to keep our idealism in check and resist the temptation to wish away such disagreements. And we need to exercise our brains and figure out what really drives the fighting.
Chapter 2 outlines five specific and deeply rooted disagreements in the contemporary church. Take a few moments on your own or in your group to put these complex issues into your own words or to write them down.
- How would you characterize the two different visions of reality outlined in Chapter 2?
- Conservatives and liberals have different understandings of church authority. What are they?
- What are some of the main differences between the liberal and the conservative visions of history and the Christ’s relation to human culture?
- Chapter 8 will offer an interpretation of the conflict in morality between liberals and conservatives. How would you begin to characterize these different ways of emphasizing moral priorities?
Think about the different ways liberals and conservatives envision the role of the church in society. Then try to complete the following sentences.
For most liberals, the ideal church does _______________________________________,
but does not _____________________________________________________________.
For most conservatives, the ideal church does __________________________________,
but does not _____________________________________________________________.
The thesis of this chapter is quite simple, but it is so frequently overlooked (sometimes with the best of intentions) that it is worth repeating. These disagreements in the church are not superficial and they cannot be solved by ignoring them or wishing them away. It is also likely that they cannot be solved or overcome with any sort of finality. In other words, they are here to stay. The challenge to moderates is whether or not we can find a way of remaining together despite these real disagreements. Can the center hold together while at the same time refusing to whitewash the fact that there are real disagreements on either end of the religious spectrum, and probably on either side of us at the Communion table?
Lost is dedicated to answering this question in the affirmative. However, these differences are not like different tastes in music (though of course churches fight about musical tastes as well). They are profoundly entangled with our identity as Christians.
In a world of consumer choice, we have become quite comfortable disagreeing with the tastes and preferences of our acquaintances – I like football, but my friend prefers golf.
- Why do fundamental disagreements in the church, such as the five discussed in Chapter 2 of Lost, make us uncomfortable?
- How do these disagreements differ from differences in matters of taste or style?
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: Acts 15
The Council at Jerusalem
1 Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.
4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.
5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe.
8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us;
9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me.
14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.
15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 ‘after these things I will return,
and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen,
and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
17 so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
Â and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’
18 says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.
19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles,
20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.
21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas–Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren,
23 and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.
24 “Since we have heard that some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls,
25 it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,
26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
27 “Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will also report the same things by word of mouth.
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:
29 that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.”
30 So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.
31 When they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.
32 Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message.
33 After they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out.
34 [But it seemed good to Silas to remain there.]
35 But Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching with many others also, the word of the Lord.
Second Missionary Journey
36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”
37 Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also.
38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.
39 And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.
40 But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.
41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
Acts chapter 1 might bring a smile of recognition to the face of anyone who has long experience working in churches. The chapter opens with an ongoing discussion at Jerusalem where Paul and Barnabas present their case against some unnamed Christian teachers who had been telling the church in Antioch that the uncircumcised (read non-Jews) could not be saved. The irony in this story is that Paul and Barnabas, in making the case for equal access to salvation through Christ for Jews and Gentiles, are furthering the disagreement between two other groups of Christians, the “Yes, circumcision is necessary” camp and the “No, circumcision is not necessary” camp.
The council went on to make a decision in favor of Paul and Barnabas. Interestingly, the pro-circumcision argument is suppressed in the Acts version of the story, which was written by those who triumphed in this first major church disagreement. But we can be confident that the decision must have been enormously frustrating to the pro-circumcision Christians, for whom the watchword was a saying attributed to Jesus himself: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 15:22-28). They must have felt certain that Paul and Barnabas were destroying the church and completely distorting Jesus’s message. We also know that pro-circumcision Christians did not just give up. How could they meekly surrender to what they deemed Paul’s terrible error and the church’s faithless betrayal of Christ? For several decades after the Jerusalem Council there remained Christians in Judea and elsewhere who favored circumcision for all followers of Christ, and sometimes the disagreement between the two groups of Christians turned violent. Paul reports that he was, more than once, beaten to within an inch of his life, probably by eager and angry representatives of this rival group of Christians (II Corinthians 11:16-29). No doubt the violence went in both directions at times.
And while we are listing major disagreements, don’t forget that, by the end of Acts chapter 15, Paul and Barnabas fall into conflict and decide to split from one another.
Spare a thought for contemporary Christian ministers who deal with similar situations every day. They recognize all too well that devastating fights among Christians are hard to stop and that shifting alliances are difficult to predict.
We do not know much about the Jerusalem Council and the way it made decisions. We do know that even our best efforts to make church decisions in a fair manner often end in friction, factions, and hurt feelings. The book of Acts and much of the New Testament celebrates the Jerusalem Council’s decision to include Gentiles into the Christian fold without having to be circumcised, but we should never forget the pain of those faithful Christians on the losing side. This was a fight over the very meaning of following Christ. After the Jerusalem Council’s decision, the church would never again be homogenous. With the loss of ethnic, linguistic, and ritualistic homogeneity the church would never again feel quite so cozy. It would no longer retain the flavor and camaraderie it had when Jesus walked the countryside with his ragtag group of followers. Something really was being lost and the church really was moving away from Jesus’ chosen way of relating to his disciples, at least in one sense.
In another sense, however, Jesus’s message and mission achieved a cultural universality and an international potency at the same time. The Jerusalem decision launched a period of growth in the Christian community that continues today. But with growth come growing pains, church fights, and real disagreements, which church history traces in glorious detail. Something vital was gained even as something valuable was lost.
The book of Acts does not offer us a utopian vision or easy answers to our questions about whether to avoid or how best to work through major church disagreements. But if we can read stories such as those in Acts 15 with a sense of history and a knowing smile of recognition, then they may help us to face our current disagreements with more humility and a greater sense of compassion for those who we too often think of as our opponents.
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
In the closing paragraphs of Part I (“A Moderate Conclusion”), we read the following:
the only satisfying approach to the challenge of conflicting worldviews within the church is a lifelong journey of radical discipleship, humble learning, and compassionate social engagement.
In the chapters that follow each of these steps will be explored. However, the text also suggests:
The path of radical discipleship for moderate Christians is not an easy way to walk, and it will never be a wildly popular route because it is demanding and ill-suited to sloganeering.
In other words, it is hard to be an engaged moderate, and it is going to be difficult to practice the kind of radical discipleship that refuses easy answers with bumper-sticker complexity. The simplest approach when confronted with the questions raised in Chapter 1, and the genuine disagreements noted in Chapter 2, is to pick a side. If we are looking for instant satisfaction, if we are looking to blend in, if we are looking to build a church quickly, or to consolidate support among church membership with minimal effort and rapid results, then radical discipleship is not the way to go. There is an easy way of being a moderate. The easy way entails never taking a chance, preaching vapid and inoffensive sermons, and allowing the cultural momentum of the church to carry it forward. In this case, we who are lost in the middle in effect decide to remain lost.
With this in mind, we have to ask the following question. How important is it that our Christian communities be places of comfort and easy belonging?
It is worth noting that most churches, denominations, committees, and books on church growth and governance emphasize how important it is that churches provide an environment where people feel at ease, welcome, at home, and comfortable. Everything from landscaping to the color of the bulletins is considered when leaders seek to be intentional about designing a pleasant church experience. And that makes good sense. If liberal evangelicals or moderate Christ-centered Christians are going to practice radical discipleship, however, then they must also intentionally create some uncomfortable experiences by refusing to build a church of ideologically similar Christians. It is easier to be around “your own kind,” of people with similar experiences who share your worldview. Are we ready to commit to a kind of Christianity that we know going in will be hard and unpopular?
Many of us work long hours during the week and feel that we’ve earned a relaxing weekend. Can we commit to doing something difficult on Sundays? How important is it to us that Sunday be “a day of rest” in the emotional sense as well as the Sabbath sense?
Is committing to a church that forgoes easy solutions worth the effort and sacrifice of some degree of personal comfort and easy familiarity? After all, most towns offer several options for churches in which we might individually feel more at home.
Many of us, whether we admit it or not, prefer to worship beside people of our own racial background, economic status, and level of education. Church scholars have known this for decades, and yet the church is still racially, economically, and socially divided. Can we even imagine a scenario in which we are willing to worship every Sunday beside someone with a different worldview, a different conception of the Church’s role in the world, or a different moral orientation?
Liberal evangelical Christians are Christ centered and radically inclusive; they feel drawn to witness to a kind of unity-in-diversity that reflects the power of divine love and resist the ordinary patterns of human group life. If you identify with that goal, can you imagine circumstances in which this sort of radical inclusiveness in worship and practice becomes comfortable as well as challenging, heart-warming as well as embracing? What kinds of things must happen to make this vision of radical inclusiveness a reality for a church community?
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.
Help us to appreciate one another more. Help us to empathize with one another more, to feel one another’s hurts, especially when we inflict them.
Teach us to disagree in a manner pleasing to you. Help us not to hide from our disagreements, but to admit them, talk about them, pray about them, and laugh about them.
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.