It seems to me that in order to join a church in today’s religiously charged culture, you have to do more than declare “Jesus is Lord!” You also have to have an opinion on a litany of questions:
MSNBC or Fox News? Republican or Democrat? Liberal or conservative? NPR or Rush Limbaugh? Evangelical or mainstream? Liturgical or contemporary worship?
Pro-life or pro-choice? Open and affirming or love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin? Jon Stewart or Glenn Beck? Israel or Palestine? Jimmy Carter Baptist or Southern Baptist?
And the list goes on:
Heaven-on-Earth or Rapture-from-Earth? Retributive justice or redemptive justice? Social reform or cultural seclusion? Jesus as moral exemplar or sacrificial lamb?
Expository or narrative preaching? Infant baptism or believer’s baptism? Limited atonement or unconditional grace?
I could be wrong, but it appears that to be a member of a church means more about whether we land on the left or right side of these polarizations than it does about being a child of God.
Even if these aren’t reasons for choosing a church, they are often reasons for not choosing one. I’m aware that this is speculation, but I’d be surprised if you disagree.
Most churches are made up of congregants who are like-minded – and for obvious reasons. It’s easier to hang around people who think, speak and believe similarly. It’s easier to associate with organizations that affirm our biases and worldviews. It’s just easier.
Is it possible, I wonder, for these stereotypes and polarizations to wane and for the cultural perception of our churches to change?
I believe it is, but we’re going to have to make one drastic and philosophical move.
We church-going types have been operating under the illusion that people will know us by our love when they understand our truths.
In other words, we stand on the “truth” of a narrow political, social or theological stance and call it “love.” We operate out of a systematic set of beliefs and assume people will experience God’s love because of it.
Within this mindset we preach doctrine and church praxis. We evangelize with four spiritual laws. We disciple by reading books that reinforce our worldviews.
We see the quest for ultimate “truth” as the highest of all spiritual pursuits. We affiliate with churches whose members favor our political party or watch our preferred news network. And through this truth-claiming approach, we say people will experience God’s love.
But what if we flipped it? What if we church-going types operated under the condition that people will know us by our love because we in fact love them?
We love them for who they are and for whom God has made them to be. We love them no matter their political party or news preferences. We love them whether their theological views are liberal, conservative or somewhere in between.
I bet if we did this, they would understand the truth that lies behind our love – we love because he first loved us.
What I’m arguing for is a new ethical norm for church praxis. I believe the initial condition for joining a church should not be truth-claims based on political, theological and social differences, but rather an ethic that receives and gives God’s love.
For example, members should have to agree to share their life and quest for spirituality with the church body while participating in missions that extend the love of God in the community.
For too long the church has stood on the shoulders of truth claims too often defined by partisan politics and claimed to the world to be operating out of love. I want to pastor a church (and I think I already am) that stands on the shoulders of love and helps people experience the truth of God’s grace.
Churches must dispel the myth that love can only be achieved, experienced and felt through ordered truth that expects and demands uniformity of thought. Rather, we need to proclaim that truth becomes a reality when we first learn to accept and give God’s love.
I’m sure this change will cause some problems and disrupt the status quo, but at least we would be letting go of the lies we once held as truth. At least we would be living authentically. At least people would know us by our love.
This philosophical change is simple but transformative. Just imagine what the church could accomplish for Christ if the world knew her by her love.
J. Barrett Owen is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Waynesboro in Waynesboro, Virginia. He is a member of the EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board of directors.