Part II. Lost in the Middle?

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Chapter Summaries

Chapter 3: Neglected Moderates

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.

Chapter 4: Culture Wars and Religion

Tolerance and moderation are usually among the first causalities of war. The cultural and religious wars are no different. As Liberals on the Left and Evangelicals and the Right rail against one another, we moderates find ourselves caught in the crossfire. Must we choose sides? The rhetoric from the extremes suggests that “if you are not with us, then you are against us.” But as moderate Christians, inspired by Christ’s vision of radical inclusion, we need not choose sides. We are free to follow the revolutionary strategy of loving engagement with both sides. We are liberated to respect the magnetism and dynamism of contemporary evangelicalism, while also admiring the openness and social activism of liberals. In this chapter we argue that moderate Christians have a unique talent for tolerance that is desperately needed. If we can come to a better understanding of the issues that fuel the culture wars, then we can find new ways of advancing a Christian vision that is both Liberal and Evangelical.

Chapter 5: Reasons for the Emergence of Liberal-Evangelical Christianity

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

Introduction

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This timeworn cliche is especially true in politics and public perception. At the center of this chapter are two caricatures, one of liberal Christianity and one of evangelical Christianity. If you are reading and studying Lost then you likely do not wholly identify with either one or the other and feel that the caricatures both miss something important. But there is no question that these caricatures run deep in our religious culture. 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. But moderates themselves are not rare, and we are growing.

Part II makes important points about who we are as moderate Christians: We are a large segment of the American church, many of us have thoughtful theological opinions, and we are discovering one another and our influence. Additionally, intentionally moderate Christians are not necessarily wishy-washy or muddle-brained. 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.

Get Busy

Exercise

Lost? 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.

LiberalSeekerModerate
EvangelicalBorn againBible-believing
Religious rightFundamentalistTrinitarian
PentecostalCharismaticMoral majority
ProgressiveVery conservativeLeft-center
CatholicReligiousVery liberal
Biblical literalistAgnosticOpen-minded
ConservativeMainline ChristianProtestant
Right-centerReformedSpiritual

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.

Discussion

It can be liberating to identify and discuss labels and names for what they are, since they are frequently employed naively or with vicious intent. Most of the labels above have deep histories and can be used responsibly, but they are just as often used to construct caricatures. As Chapter 4 emphasizes, however, real Christians and real churches are never as one-dimensional as ideological labels and caricatures sometimes make them appear to be.

  • If you are in a liberal Christian context, what in your experience rings true about the popular caricatures of liberal Christianity? (If you are a liberal with a healthy self-image and sense of humor, this may be an easy and fun question for you to answer.)
  • If you find yourself in an evangelical Christian context, what truths does the caricature of evangelical Christianity reveal? (Evangelicals, if you are comfortable in your tradition, it may be enjoyable and even liberating to take a few moments to consider the evangelical caricature.)

Many Christians, and especially moderates, cannot help but recognize within themselves a longing to share in some of the blessings and strengths of both liberals and evangelicals. “What do moderates in liberal contexts want that evangelicals have?” And conversely, “What do moderates in evangelical contexts desire that liberals have?”

  • How would you identify yourself and your context? What labels would you use?
  • If you are a moderate in an evangelical context, what (if anything) intrigues you about (or makes you leery of) liberal Christianity?
  • If you are a moderate in a liberal context, what (if anything) draws you toward (or turns you off about) evangelical Christianity?

One of the great things about moderate forms of Christianity is that moderates do not have to subscribe to ideological purity. Moderates in one context can be honest about what they find compelling and attractive in another context. Moderates in liberal churches can take advantage of all of their church’s opportunities for social-justice work and the environment of open inquiry, but can still admit that they find the passionate worship available at the evangelical church down the street appealing. Likewise, moderates in evangelical churches can cherish the intense Bible studies and chances for personal engagement available at their churches, but can be honest about their desire to be more inclusive and tolerant of differences.

It is this spirit of honesty that causes us to confront the cultural wars within the church head on, instead of trying to sidestep the issues and avoid the awkwardness surrounding terminology and naming. There are persistent and real differences between liberals and conservatives, and we need to become educated about these. But the caricatured differences between evangelicalism and liberalism are not necessarily permanent or irreconcilable. A moderate middle way is possible.

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 “typical” 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?

Get Scriptural

Bible Reading: Ephesians 2

Made Alive in Christ

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

2 In which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;

9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands

12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall,

15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,

16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.

17 and he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near;

18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household,

20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,

21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord,

22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Reflection

As a group, read through Ephesians 2 together, perhaps taking turns reading groups of verses. As you read, think about the pronouns that are used. Depending on your translation you’re likely to see “you,” “we,” and “they” several times.

In its original context the letter is addressed to Christians struggling with internal factions. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians each had their own traditions, languages, and ways of engaging Christ that did not always allow room for the other. Caricatures abounded. Jews were caricatured as legalistic, while gentiles were caricatured as undisciplined. Maybe there were some who were able to shrug off these caricatures and embrace non-sectarian Christianity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians is one such Christian and he gives a theological justification for his recommendation: Christ’s ministry and death reconciled “us” not only to God, but also to one another.

The reconciliation between humanity and God through Christ is intimately linked to the reconciliation of humanity, Jew and Gentile. There is not one without the other.

We have discussed the current divide in the church today between liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants. How does the divide between Jews and Gentiles in the early church relate to our current situation? What theological lessons can we learn from Ephesians 2?

Get Practical

Case Study

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 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.

Discussion

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. First United Church 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?

Get Going

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.

If we move beyond the caricatures of evangelicalism and liberalism, and try to characterize them more fairly and with less exaggeration, might we find ways of bringing Liberals and Evangelicals together?

What might a potentially moderate “sweet spot” look like? This is what we are calling liberal-evangelicalism. Ask yourself: What aspects of the caricatures must be overcome or left behind if we are to realize this “sweet spot?”

Closing Prayer

Jesus Christ we pray today in a spirit of thanksgiving and humility, thankful for your gift of renewed life, and humble in our recognition that we have not always embraced that gift fully.

We recognize that the reconciliation you bring cannot be between us and God if it is not also between us as partners, sisters, brothers, and fellow servants.

Help us to see one another more truly and to love one another more deeply. Instill in us a deeper desire for reconciliation and peacefulness.

Empower us with the gift of humility and the power to laugh at ourselves. Enable us to see the truth and humor in the ways that others view us so that we might respond gracefully and without self-righteous anger.

Even more, help us to see others as they are, so that we might see them as you see them, with compassion and understanding.

Continue to restore us and give us patience to love one another as you love us.

Lord, make us one.

Amen.

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