In seminary, I knew I was different, but I didn’t have a name for what I was. I was the product of an unusual union of Christian traditions, and this left me feeling out of place. My early faith formation took place in small evangelical house churches where being born-again, faith healing, speaking in tongues, and the daily battle with the devil over my soul were paramount to the Christian life. At this same time, I was an active member of the First Congregational Church in Fairport, New York. This was a very proper church in the center of town that was concerned about the poor, prided itself on its youth and church school programs, and was always wary that the slate roof might spring a leak and cost a small fortune to repair.
It was in the house church that I learned to pray; it was in the brick church I learned to play. It was with my born-again friends that I developed a personal relationship with Jesus; it was with my congregational friends that I learned to talk about God instead. In battling the devil I learned about the power of faith and the fear of damnation; at church bake sales and harvest festivals that supported our local and wider missions, I learned about God’s grace and care for all people. In living rooms I learned to take the word of God literally, in the ornate sanctuary of our church I learned that there was some room for interpretation in scripture.
I grew up in two worlds, one was evangelical and Christian, the other was liberal and Christian, the two never met face to face until they collided within me during seminary. I loved the passion, spirit, conviction, and holy mystery of evangelical faith, but I was repulsed by the exclusive nature of it. I loved my institutional church with its broad welcome and its embrace of the diversity of God’s creation, but I loathed its barren sermons and limp faith. Was there a way to be a passionate, unapologetic Christian, while still embracing the complexity of the world? Was there a way to be liberal and still love Jesus? Could the Christian message be energetically shared with the world, while respecting the traditions of others? Could I be both liberal and evangelical? Was there anyone else like me?
A Liberal and Evangelical Church
I have found that being both liberal and evangelical is kind of a “don’t ask don’t tell” proposition. Staunch liberals find evangelicals offensive, and passionate evangelicals believe liberals are intent on emasculating the Christian faith. I found I could move in both liberal and evangelical circles with relative comfort as long as I kept my mouth shut and my opinions to myself. My liberal friends didn’t want to hear about my Jesus, and my evangelical friends didn’t want to hear about my gay friends. I was overjoyed when, in my search for my first Senior Pastorate, I came across a congregation that described itself as both liberal and evangelical. They were an Open and Affirming church that believed fervently in an inclusive gospel, while trying their best to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Feeling as though we were made for each other, it wasn’t long before the church and I got “hitched.” I have now served the United Church of Christ in Norwell, Massachusetts for almost five years, and it has been an extraordinary journey of faith and discovery.
Did I hear you correctly?
It is fair to say that the church wasn’t entirely liberal and evangelical, or at least they weren’t as liberal and evangelical as they thought they were – or as they thought I was. It wasn’t long into my pastorate and preaching ministry in Norwell that people began to approach me with questions. The church had just completed its Open and Affirming process a few months before my arrival, so many of the more evangelical or conservative Christians had left in a huff. The first questions came from the more liberal members of the congregation. They were glad that I was committed to the inclusion of all people in the life of the church. In fact, they were thrilled to have a young, white, heterosexual male championing the place of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the life of the church. But they also had concerns. Why did I talk about Jesus so often? Did I really believe in an actual resurrection? And, what was all this “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior” business about? In time, word got out that our church was talking about Jesus and that began to draw in more conservative and evangelical Christians. It only took a Sunday or two before those folks made their way to my office. They were thrilled to be in a New England church that focused so intently on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, but they were confused by all this talk about welcoming gay people. As I have often mused, there is enough in a liberal and evangelical message to offend everyone. But people came, and the buzz about our church was amusing. The talk about town was that our church was growing rapidly, but that it had become much more conservative even though we had an affinity for rainbow flags. There was confusion within our church itself, liberal members did indeed believe we were becoming more conservative, and the conservative members felt it was the most liberal church of which they had ever been a part.
Listening and Communing Carefully
The liberal and evangelical message is counter-intuitive enough that if you don’t listen carefully you might miss its dual call to love Jesus, and love everybody else too. Early on I worried that we would lose our Unitarian members and our evangelical members because they would become frustrated by the seeming ambiguity of our stance. “What are we talking about here? Who are we? What do we really believe?”
As it turns out, regular celebration of the Sacrament of Communion, and our inclusive call to Holy Communion have offered us a language for what we are. Early on in our ministry together, we moved to celebrate communion almost every week. The presence of Jesus Christ was going to be central to our worship services and to our life together. At the same time we decided that we were always going to have all of our children present when we celebrated a sacrament in the life of our church. Without fully realizing it, we broke down two fairly typical protestant exclusions to the communion table; the participation of children in the Eucharist, and the regularity with which we refused ourselves Communion due to our tradition of monthly celebration. Suddenly our call to communion had added significance: “This is the Lord’s Table, therefore the invitation cannot come from a pastor, a deacon, a church council, or a denomination. The invitation comes from Jesus Christ himself and it is always the same. Come as you are. It doesn’t matter where you have been, or where you are going. It doesn’t matter what you have done, or what you have left undone. It doesn’t matter if you believe yourself a success or a failure. There is room at this table for you. All you ever need to approach this table is a willingness to come forward. This is the Lord’s Table, and you are invited to make it your table.” Week in and week out, we proclaim this message – Jesus Christ is alive and central, and you are welcome in his presence. Careful communion and careful listening have turned out to be the keys to our growth as a Liberal and Evangelical Christian Church.
I wish I could say that we have seamlessly woven together liberal and evangelical Christianity, but that is not the case. My people still have questions, and our message makes everybody a little bit uncomfortable at times. But the church is alive, in fact it is thriving. People come from all over southeastern Massachusetts to worship and grow with us. These people long to hear about Jesus, and they long to be welcomed as they are in the hope that they might grow into the people God knows they can be. I would love it if every member of my church could proudly say, “I am a liberal and evangelical Christian” and have a basic understanding of what that means. Right now, I simply feel blessed that they know our mission statement by heart: We are a Christ-centered, inclusive community called to ministry.
Liberal and evangelical, it’s different, but it fits. I fit.