Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Dan Lewis
“It wasn’t always this way,” she said.
I’d called to check in on her, a longtime member of our church. I wanted to see how she was doing after the presidential election. She was ok, she said, “Trusting in God.” But had I noticed, she asked, the deep sense of uncertainty around the church? Had I felt, as she had, a real reluctance to engage in conversation about these things? I had. “It wasn’t always this way,” she went on. “Not so long ago, we’d pull into that same parking lot, one car with blue bumper stickers and another with red, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’d joke with each other, even around election time, poking fun. And then we’d head off to Bible study or worship together, laughing. Now we just stay quiet most of the time. And angry.”
What changed? Surely we’ve always had disagreements in the church as in the nation, different viewpoints and preferences concerning politics, theology, and such. But why is it that these differences now seem profoundly debilitating? Why are we so unable, or unwilling, to be around those with whom we disagree?
The answers to these questions are surely complex. Sociologists and historians will point to any number of factors, including increased immigration and globalization, as well as the gradual weakening of public institutions – including the church – that had once served as a kind of American cultural glue.
But we in the church of Jesus Christ do not think of ourselves as simply another institution, do we? We are a body – a living, breathing “enfleshing” of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. He is, the scripture says, our peace, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between us. For us, the problem of division is far more than a mere frustration – it is an existential threat. We cannot not seek unity in the church of Jesus Christ and still be the one body of our Lord. Our witness demands that we push back against the division, and actively work for new unity.
Yet it must be said that there are no easy solutions. Inasmuch as the apparent unity of yesteryear was just that – apparent – it is no model for the church of today. The unity we seek cannot be achieved through the silencing of dissent and the marginalizing of minority voices – both of which were a part of the church of the 1950’s. We seek a deeper and more organic unity now, something founded on surer stuff than the sameness of days gone by.
This March, my friend Pen Peery and I will be leading a workshop at the NEXT Church National Gathering called “Toward the Purple Church.” We are both ministers serving churches striving to find a new middle way through the current divisiveness in politics and theology. We want to talk about ways to move toward the church that is less clearly red or blue in its orientation, but more purple – that is, more representative of the diversity of our great nation and church, more reflective of a coming kingdom that we know must supersede all ideologies and platforms. The key word here is toward, because we must admit we all “see in a glass, dimly” regarding these things. Pen and I simply want to share a bit of what we’ve learned in church-based research projects aimed not only at examining the various causes of our many divisions, but also exploring new unity in Christ. Will you come and join the discussion? See you in Kansas City!
“Toward the Purple Church” is being offered on Tuesday during both workshop blocks 2 and 3 at the 2017 National Gathering.
Dan Lewis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia. His DMin project, “Stories to Bridge the Gap: Postliberal Preaching in a Changing University Town,” uses the theological perspective of Hans Frei, applied to preaching, to speak to a diverse and growing congregation.
Pen Peery is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His DMin project, “Identifying Suspicion as a Way to Move Forward in Hope,” challenges a large and ideologically diverse congregation to find new unity in celebrating, rather than flattening, difference.