Interview by Jennifer Johnson
Meet Our Contributing Editors: The senior pastor of Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland, shares his passion about Christian witness in a post-Christian culture, especially how we relate to gays and lesbians. From an ongoing series of interviews with CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors.
At our recent meeting of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, you described the 21st-century American church as an exilic community. What did you mean by that?
There was a time when Israel was large and in charge, enjoying prominence in the promised land. But the tide turned significantly. Eventually they were chased out of town and found themselves in exile. Their startling new reality was as outsiders and minorities. Psalm 137 says they sat by the river and cried, wistfully remembering the good old days, trying to figure out how to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.
And I think that’s how a lot of Christians in America feel today, especially if they’ve been around long enough to remember a different kind of relationship with the surrounding culture. We are certainly not in a position of dominance and centrality anymore; we’re on the periphery. Call it post-Christian, call it what you will, the important thing is to recognize that it’s different, it’s real, and it’s disorienting. And we have to ask, “What does this mean for us as Christians?”
I really think it’s important to recognize that it’s not all bad. Christians have done a lot of hand-wringing over our loss of place. Sometimes our tendency is to fight, try to take things back, win the culture wars. Others want to withdraw, afraid of a scary and contaminated culture they don’t understand, so we circle the wagons in protectionist huddles. Or we just lose our distinctiveness altogether and blend in like chameleons.
But I really think it’s important to recognize that our postmodern, post-Christian, living-in-exile situation is not all bad. It opens up tremendous opportunities for God’s mission. People used to consider themselves Christians simply because they were American. That is no longer the case. And this presents a grand moment for us to model a fresh understanding of what it truly means to be a disciple of Jesus.
We can repicture a discipleship that is so much more robust and rich than the version of cultural Christianity that is fading away. Yes, there’s a growing disrespect of “church” and a disillusionment about Christians. But this is an opportunity for us to re-present what the church is to a truly unchurched, neo-pagan society. They are hungry for meaning, hope, love, and purpose—they just wouldn’t imagine you could find that in the Christian faith.
Now that we can’t fall back on our cultural big-boy status, maybe we can finally become the people of God, you know? Maybe we’ll finally depend on the gospel as our only strength, instead of trying to earn respect on the world’s terms. When you’re in exile, all you have is God.
When you are an exilic community, can you still be attractional? It seems you have to be incarnational, because all you have is just being present.
Well, that’s a great point. It certainly changes what is attractive about us, doesn’t it? If we mean by attractional that we expect folks will continue to want to show up in our services on weekends because of some cultural expectation, well, that’s a shrinking number. But it’s an opportunity finally to learn that merely attending a church service doesn’t by itself create people who truly follow Jesus.
To your point, a waning percentage of the population is going to find it attractive to come to our gatherings for the reasons they used to come. They might attend because they’ve connected to you in some way they find meaningful—they were served, they found an answer, they saw something of substance, they thought your church made a difference somehow. But the notion that they’re going to feel this inward cultural pull toward goodness and follow it to church is increasingly unlikely.
But people want meaning. They want deep community. They want to serve in a way that makes a real difference. Tragically, the last place many unchurched would think to find these things is the local church. And yet this is exactly what Acts 2 describes—a community with real relationships, with depth and substance, that was serving and turning the world upside down.
Everybody wants to be a part of that, and no one thinks it exists. But it does exist in churches, and when those churches gather and welcome newcomers—call it attractional or whatever you want—that is magnetic and compelling.
So this is our great opportunity to relearn and rethink ourselves. And then to re-present Jesus and his church to a people who have discarded a silly caricature of it. All this just might lead us back to being the kind of kingdom community Jesus envisioned in the first place. Because the church’s greatness in this era is not going to be measured by its seating capacity. It’s going to be measured by its sending capacity, by the health and welfare of the city it’s in, by the health of its discipleship.
You mentioned the Acts 2 community had substance and depth. Is that part of having an impact as exiles?
Absolutely. I see two groups of people; those who are hungry for substance, and those who don’t know they’re hungry for substance. We live with so many short, snippy sound bites and shallow exchanges that it’s become the norm in our society. It’s created an extremely cynical population increasingly skeptical of any institution or leader. Disillusionment is rampant.
I think it was Richard Foster who said, “The great need in our time is not for smart people, but for deep people.” That doesn’t mean spouting pithy sayings like some guru, but it means we’re smart enough to know the only thing we have to offer is Christ, and we can distinguish ourselves in the midst of a very shallow culture by offering a clear message that engages with the thorny, difficult issues of our time. And try to do so in a thoughtful way. It’s about that conversation, that real hope in Christ, that life change, that depth call to discipleship—not our fog machines or our light shows or our hymns or our candles. It’s letting the content of the gospel be felt and experienced.
I’ve heard you say our churches need to be more humble. Why is this so crucial?
Churches aren’t always thought of as humble, and Christians are certainly not always thought of that way, which is ironic because our leader, our “Boss,” was. We need humility because that’s what defined Jesus.
Humility is also important because there’s such a lack of it in the public square. People are polarized more than ever—shouting louder, listening less. It takes humility to step into that and listen to people and show respect, because there’s such temptation to prepare your sound bite and shout it back as soon as the other guy takes a breath.
Frederick Buechner put it something like this: “Kindness is not the same thing as holiness, but it’s very, very close.”
So often that attitude is caused by fear. As exiles, we’re afraid of being taken advantage of, of losing even more ground, of being misunderstood, of being persecuted. We think if we can just yell louder or make our point more forcefully or convince the right person, we will no longer be exiled.
Wow. Well said. You’re right. Exiles have a few options. Some are going to say, “We need to form a revolution. Even though we’re small, we can still take this thing.” Or you can blend in and say, “Give up, we’re going to accommodate.” Or you can hole up and be protectionist.
But there’s another way. We can live in the land of exile as possessors of the gospel in countercultural communities that will eventually win, because Jesus promises it. That’s a position of strength and it brings a calmness and a lack of panic. But it’s important to do this not with cockiness or smugness, but humility and compassion.
You’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about the church’s response to the gay community, and that’s certainly one area where kindness and humility and substantive dialogue are needed.
It’s important to talk about the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community, even though we know it’s complex and potentially divisive. Our response is important, and I’m not sure anyone can say we as Evangelical-ish Christians have responded very well to this point, not when huge percentages of our society believe a primary marker for Christians is that we are “anti-gay.” To many unchurched people who don’t know much about us, this is one of the leading traits they have firmly lodged in their heads about Christians: they hate gay people.
I think we should not be proud of this. I think this should crush our hearts as a scathing indictment. It is just so far from the way Jesus engaged with people. We know “God so loved the world.” So the question becomes, at what point are we willing to acknowledge that the world includes homosexuals? We’ve got to decide what we’re going to do with the fact that a huge number of those with same-sex attraction are convinced God hates them and our churches hate them. And we also need to decide if we think it’s worth telling them Jesus died for them. If they are primarily our enemy, subjects in a cultural battle we must win, then I’m not sure how well we’ll get the gospel through to them.
When it comes to the LGBT community, we’re probably talking about 3 to 5 percent of the population. That’s a lot of people, and we need to think of all their family members who are impacted by our actions. We need to decide if we’re going to primarily stand against an issue, or reach out to people.
Believing homosexual practice is sin against God’s will is important. But we’ve sometimes stopped there. Are we going to fight an issue or are we going to love people? We like to say we will do both. But the facts say we have not done that very well. I think it’s very hard for us to lead with the notion that we’re going to see our mission as fighting against a gay agenda, or have our primary engagement with the issue be fighting legislation, for example, and at the same time convince anyone who is homosexual that our churches would be a place where they will be able to find their way to God.
Some people will respond that not fighting is ignoring Scripture or being soft on sin.
The one thing sinners in Jesus’ day knew for sure was he loved them. Does this mean he was soft on sin? Can we really accuse Jesus of that? Jesus ate with sinners. He came to seek and to save the lost. We’re all for the saving part, but I’m saying we may have to think a bit more about how to seek out people from the LGBT community.
Many churches have become places where alcoholics, divorced people, porn addicts, and others broken by life and sin can find a path back to God and the healing of Christ. I think Jesus wants to reach gay people, too. And I say this realizing it’s as offensive to gays to be likened to porn addicts as it is to Christians who don’t want “them” in “my” church.
But if not in our churches, where are people going to find a connection to Christ? I think we sometimes get stymied by the myriad practical questions: “What does this mean for their involvement?” and “Do we let them serve? What about participating in parent/child dedication?” “Do we baptize them?” I realize it gets very messy in a hurry. But the alternative is to abandon the nature and the character of Jesus, who said, “I didn’t come for the healthy; I came for the sick.”
Whether we like it or not, or know what to do or not, we have to admit we’re going to make a huge tactical error for the mission if we can’t figure out some way to be welcoming in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our churches for people of same-sex orientation.
So what are you proposing?
That we humble ourselves, be Jesus in every way we can, and figure out a way to be what Stanley Grenz calls “Welcoming but not affirming.” Homosexual people who are interested in seeking God and who value Scripture will often say things like, “The churches that openly welcome us don’t tell us the truth. And the churches that tell us the truth don’t love us.” There’s got to be a middle way.
So I’m seeking a way to say we don’t feel the Bible gives us the freedom to accept or affirm ongoing practice of homosexual activity, because we view sexuality as a gift to be enjoyed within the confines of marriage between a man and a woman. At the same time, whatever your deal is and whoever you are, you are welcome here, because this is a community where all of us come in our shared brokenness, and our sexuality is part of what’s broken. “You” are not different from “us.”
If we can connect people to Jesus, good things will happen. The best place for that to happen is the local church, and therefore we’re going to say, “You are welcome here.” All of us are welcome. But none of us is going to be comfortable here, because being a disciple is not comfortable. Being loved by Jesus doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to change us. So let’s give Jesus a chance to work on people, and that starts with our loving them toward Jesus.
That is a fundamental shift from the way the church has typically responded to this issue, and it’s time we recognize the devastation to many lives and families—but also to the witness of Jesus Christ—if we don’t humble ourselves and handle grace and truth in a way that better mirrors the actions of Jesus.
I love what you’re saying about connecting people to Jesus and letting him work.
It’s his church. We can’t convert a single person. We can’t make someone repent. We can’t heal a broken marriage. We can’t get someone to stop drinking. We can’t do any of that.
It’s all Jesus, by the power of his Spirit. If fruit comes, the credit goes to Jesus. If it doesn’t come, you don’t have to beat yourself up because it’s his church anyway. It frees us to take risks, and we’ve found that the more bold we’re willing to be and the more scared we get, the more God rewards and produces fruit in his people. If I could do anything, it would be to call our own church and every other church to faithfulness in that direction.
Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.