In the interest of best serving small to medium churches, I go to great lengths to build bridges with all constituencies, some with whom I vehemently disagree.
Toward that end, I attended a men’s conference in Richmond, Va., with a group from the church I was serving. The format was predictable, a kind of knock-off smaller version of the Promise Keepers meetings so popular several years ago.
There were a couple of opening pep rallies or worship events (I wasn’t sure which). There were also breakout sessions, all geared toward helping us to be “real men” through developing and living by a “Christian worldview” and establishing or re-establishing ourselves in our proper roles as “heads of our households.”
With some reticence and a bit of curiosity, I went to a breakout session titled “Creation and Evolution” or some such designation. Surprisingly, the presenter did a good job, given his hearers and the mood in the room.
A 30ish graduate of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., yet an admitted conservative, he spent the first half of the session covering a broad spectrum of what he saw as common American beliefs about the origin of the universe.
They ranged from “atheistic evolution” to “theistic evolution” to “Christian evolution” to “Christian old Earth creationism” to “Christian fiat young-Earth creationism.”
He defined each and then took a dangerous and courageous step given his audience.
He said that while he was a mix of the latter two perspectives, he also believed that it was possible to be a Christian and to accept evolution as the means of God’s creation.
When someone asked him how he could believe such, he did not hedge, saying: “The only non-negotiable requirements for being a Christian were loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength and loving others as self.”
I sat quietly, smugly and maybe self-righteously as some of those present just about jumped out of their chairs.
Some were irate, with one saying he felt like he had been “duped into coming to a session that he hoped would provide ammunition to put his unbelieving enemies down, and all he got was a restating of atheistic, liberal and humanistic hogwash.”
Oddly, I felt kind of sorry for the presenter, as I had shared his predicament many times. Mercifully, the zero hour eventually came and it was lunchtime.
In the lunch line, the aforementioned presenter was just ahead of me, apparently alone. I invited him to join me over the snack lunch, and we chatted.
I told him that while I did not share his perspective altogether, I thought his presentation was fair. He said he thought the same thing, but reminded me that “fair” in some circles is “biased” in others.
Not hiding my agenda, I asked, “Would you rather present to groups who are people right of center or left of center?” Without hesitating, he said, “Left of center.”
I asked him why. He said that moderates and liberals were, as a rule, kinder and more tolerant of diversity.
He went on to say, “The center-left population generally considered diversity in thought to be necessary, inevitable and even desirable.”
He concluded by admitting that “many right-of-center thinkers considered diversity of belief to be problematic and, in some cases, were too quick to dismiss or try to squelch it.”
I could not help but think of some of those times when I presented a different way of looking at something to my hearers and felt like I drew back a nub.
Neither could I help but think of some of those times when Jesus’ opponents tried to kill him for his divergent beliefs or actions.
I also remembered so many of those times when he responded with love to those who disagreed with him, plotted against him or attacked him.
I know I have broken at least a couple of rules of good writing.
One is the rule against painting groups with a broad brush based on the behavior of some of its adherents.
The other is quoting those who will go unnamed, leaving the reader to trust me, since nothing can be done to prove or disprove the accuracy of my claims.
Thus, one might understandably dismiss the above conversations as concocted, but I was there.
As a Christian, I can’t dismiss the importance of right beliefs and I have witnessed left-of-center folks in attack mode.
However, given the choice between my being “correct” while embodying the wrong spirit or being a bit “incorrect” while embodying the right spirit, I would choose the latter.
To be sure, Jesus did spend time trying to correct people’s errant beliefs, but showing love and developing loving spirits in his followers seemed to be at least that important.
Now, if I can just remember that.
Reggie Warren is interim pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Va., and is a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.