A small but urgent call to all the churches

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The “small proposal” that I offered on this blog during the seasons of Advent and Christmas seems to me now to be more desirable than ever. Almost every day there is an article in The New York Times about Trump, Cruz, and the “evangelicals.” The evangelical Trump supporters are a huge conundrum (and, indeed, an embarrassment) to mainline evangelicals like myself, but the reporters are really trying to interpret them to us. Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand how this can be.

Many people think that the NYTimes is beneath contempt because of its liberal bias. Editorially, of course, it does have a liberal bias (I never read the Times editorials….nor do I read the Wall Street Journal editorials). However, I do believe that their reporters who write about religion, particularly Laurie Goodstein, do a commendable job of reporting, that is to say, diligently working to present a story in an interesting way, but hewing close to the facts and, above all, seeking understanding. Indeed, during my years of reading Ms. Goodstein, who presumably is not a Christian, I have never caught her in an egregious mistake concerning the Christian churches.

I have been writing with alarm about the vast chasm between the mainline congregations and the conservative evangelical ones. Just to give one example, I heard on good authority that in approximately the year 2008, the then Episcopal Bishop of New York had never heard of Tim Keller, the widely known senior pastor of the PCA Church of the Redeemer, with five locations in Manhattan. This degree of insularity and self-centredness is really disastrous for the wider mission of the church of Christ. Along about that same time, the aggressively secular New York Magazine named Tim Keller as one of the most influential people in the city.

Mainline Christians nowadays seem to be so eager to distance themselves from the Christian Right that they often don’t seem to be anchored in any essential Christian identity at all. Many theologically-minded observers believe that this capitulation to the culture has a lot to do with the decline of the historic mainline churches ( the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America [PCA], the Evangelical Lutheran Church [ironically, these are the “liberal” Lutherans], and the United Church of Christ [UCC]). Thus, at present, the gulf between many aging, diminishing mainline congregations and the large flocks of mostly young people who crowd into New York’s Church of the Redeemer is painful to see.

My small proposal addresses the importance of local clergy reaching out, one pastor at a time, to build relationships across these divides. Today, Laurie Goodstein has an article about a select group of Baptist pastors, one black, one white. They met in Jackson, Mississippi, of all symbolic places. This article presents the Christian church at its best, reaching out across barriers at some degree of risk to itself.  The president of the Southern Baptist Convention (white, with its origins in racism) and the president of the National Baptist Convention (black, founded just after the Civil War), met with Ms. Goodstein to discuss the recent “bold gesture” made by the two long-alienated groups to try to find common cause. The context for this unprecedented attempt at rapprochement was the massacre at “Mother Emanuel” Church in Charleston and the Black Lives Matter movement. The president of the National Baptist Convention told Ms. Goldstein that his reaction to the Jackson gathering was “almost euphoric”–it was “filled with hope, and a sense of possibility.”

It’s important not to romanticize the black church. Black Baptist pastors have a culture of their own, not always commendable by white church standards. But there is a sense in which the white church, and indeed the white population of the US, does not deserve the forgiving nature of the black church. Were it not for the strong message of redemption and mutuality taught by the African-American church for all these 150 years and more, we might have had a formerly-enslaved population among us that would rival the Islamic state. It should humble us to see how ready the black church is to be reconciled with us.

This is related to my concern about the gulf between mainline congregations and the so-called Christian Right. The mainline churches have almost no public voice at all, these days. All the news is about the conservative-evangelical Trump supporters, the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage crowd, the biblical fundamentalists. Scorning and ridiculing these Christians is not working. It is stoking the fires of fear, resentment, insularity. I believe the initiative belongs to us in the mainlines. I believe we clergy should be willing to risk our sense of intellectual and cultural superiority in order to be in conversation and fellowship with pastors in the “other” churches in our towns and cities.

And I am pretty sure that Will Campbell of blessed memory would not only agree, but would be leading the effort.


The article by Laurie Goodstein, excerpting her interview with the two black and white leaders, is here:

Will Campbell is remembered here:

And my small proposal is further described at:

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