Your pastoral leaders and your churches would be lost without you. Without you there is no community. Without you “Jesus” is an empty word rattling about in the corridors of history. Without you the church is a lifeless shell. The measure of the church’s success is directly related to how you, the lay members of your community, love one another and live out your faith in your daily lives.
Remember that Jesus’s call was not to a bunch of ordained clergy. Jesus called fishermen, businessmen, hated tax collectors, feared soldiers, mothers, widows, prostitutes, the able-bodied, the infirm, people with faith, and people without faith. Jesus’s call was for everyone to follow him. You have as much right to follow Jesus as anyone else. Your pastor, your church council, your bishop, your church boards do not have a higher claim on Jesus than you do. So take your role in the church and in the world very seriously.
What does that involve? Love, tend to, and work to strengthen your pastor, your church, and your church leadership. Help your community to keep its focus. When you sense that something is amiss, speak up and make your case lovingly. Too often when the going gets tough, lay people get going and hightail it right out of church. Church is messy, community is messy, life is messy. You can’t get in the habit of running from it because the mess will follow you until you deal with it. Remember, the church is yours and you are the church. Stick with the body of Christ in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow as long as you live.
This calling to faithful unity and participation can be challenging for liberal-evangelical Christians because we are not always easily identified or categorized. We can become frustrated in church because we don’t feel we fit. We are not always sure where to find our place. We do feel lost at times, and it is hard to believe that any of our well-dressed, well-pressed, and well-spoken neighbors in the pew next to us are as confused as we are. But in fact many of us feel lost in the middle. Most of us are uncertain about our faith, at least some of the time. We are all searching for something we have yet to find. We try to follow Jesus, we try to love God, we try to love our neighbors, and we fail much of the time. But that is not a reason to quit. We are aware that we are lost in this life, and we engage in Christian community in the hope of being found.
The first great test of the liberal-evangelical church, and of your moderate and radical Christian faith, occurs when you face conflict and difference in your community. Can you sit next to someone who will vote oppositely to you on the question of gay marriage and still move forward together to celebrate Communion? Can you participate in a Bible study or a faith discussion group and genuinely strive to understand in depth the person who has a different view of salvation through Christ than you do? It is so easy to shut down in the face of such disagreements. But that is when you and the church both lose. Church can’t be only about comfort and agreement, and that is doubly so for the liberal-evangelical church, with its Christ-centered commitment to radical inclusiveness and the principle of agape love. Divine love shines when you stay connected, especially when it feels like a major effort to do so. Strive for the spiritual maturity to place love ahead of personal comfort and your church’s witness will flourish.
The second great test is whether you will commit yourself to the practices that build up the church and your faith. In particular, will you look for educational opportunities within your congregation and strive to deepen your understanding of your faith? Will you encourage your church to centralize practices such as the Eucharist that bind differently minded people together in the name of Christ? It takes work to learn, and it is often uncomfortable to have our existing beliefs broadened and to make new discoveries. But committing to the journey of learning is part of discipleship and it can be incredibly exciting if you stick with it.
If we have a dream for liberal and evangelical laity, it would be for you to know that you are not alone. There are countless people of faith who struggle just like you do, who are filled with longing just like you are, and who desire a Christ-centered and radically inclusive community just like you do. The more you speak your faith, share your vision for your church, and take leading roles within your community, the more room you will make for people who find themselves lost. You don’t have to remain lost in the middle. You can be found in the middle, too, and learn to feel at home there.
Adapted from Found in the Middle: Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Lost in the Middle: Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
There exists a deep and broad population of Christians who feel the labels of “liberal”and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society.
Found in the Middle: Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner
As a follow up to Lost in the Middle?, Found in the Middle! offers a foundational approach to the theology and ethics that undergird a congregation where moderate Christians can thrive. Wildman and Garner serve as helpful guides on a quest for a humble theology, an intelligible gospel message, a compelling view of church unity, and a radical ethics deeply satisfying to most Christians with both liberal and evangelical instincts.
The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
by Diana Butler Bass
Historian and researcher Diana Butler Bass argues against the conventional wisdom regardi
ng “mainline decline.” She sees encouraging signs that mainline Protestant churches are finding a new vitality intentionally grounded in Christian practices as they lay the groundwork for a new congregation.
Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power
by N. Graham Standish
Standish shares the story of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and its journey to become a spiritually deep congregation, one that is inwardly and outwardly healthy: spiritually, psychologically, physically, and relationally. This book will help you find Christ in your midst and become aware of the many ways the blessings of God’s Spirit flow through your congregation.
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