The Missing Middle: Three Expressions of Christ I'm Yearning to See In Evangelicalism
I had one question for Ed Stetzer when I ran into him at the D6 conference a couple months ago.
Are you seeing a rise in centrists?
I was hopeful because I had read one of Ed's tweets with interest, as it echoed themes of posts I'd written that same week.
Statistically, the unchurched lean heavily Democrat. So -- and I know it's just me talking crazy now -- if you want to reach the unchurched, maybe constant Facebook/Twitter posts about how stupid Democrats are might be a bad idea.
Ed's research, however, was not picking up a big increase in evangelical centrists.
He told me via trademark Ed humor that yes, he'd seen a slight rise in evangelical centrists. "Now there are seven of them, I think. And it was mainly you and Jonathan Merritt."
(I grinned then. Because I really like Jonathan Merritt.)
We know that the largest portion of our population leans left or right; there are fewer in the middle than either of the extremes. (To keep with common language, I will use "centrist" to define those between the left and right.)
To ask about evangelical centrists is almost an unfair question, of course, since it is an in-between grouping that is self-defined. There's no guaranteeing Jonathan and I would describe our place on the religious landscape the same way...and certainly no guarantee about the beliefs of the other five or more centrists Ed might be able to scrape up around the country.
But while my ideas are still in progress, I'd still like to take a stab at imagining what this possibly-existent-possibly-not-existent non-tribe of evangelical Chrisitan centrists might look like.
Here's the 3 Centrist Expressions of Christ I am looking for:
1. Centrists in the Faith
I am looking for a tribe that creates space for free-thinking and non-regulated, conscience-driven response to God; a community that does not have to panickedly posture against losing clout or control.
Full disclosure: In 2003, I penned a vulnerable and angst-ridden book called Dear Church which was released in 2006. But while a straggling few characterized it as anti-church, this was only because they'd given up a few chapters in, before the call to responsibility, before the call beyond cynicism, and before the final chapter which was in fact a love letter to the church.
Growing up ten years further has only deepened my respect for the institution.
Nevertheless, I get uncomfortable about religious empires that seem to creep up around both the right and left poles.
As I said in a blog post earlier this week,
"I'm unwilling to engage warfare as if every issue has two clean and neat sides with no space in between. Unwilling to pledge my allegiance to any party's allegedly inerrant views about God, rather than trying to cast my allegiance farther, into the mysterious abyss beyond that where I might catch a glimpse of the inerrant God himself stirring in the waters."
I yearn for a people that does not assume they have correctly interpreted and applied 99.9% of God's history with the world or his Bible. A people that humbly credits their religious others with bringing more than .1% of value to the conversation.
I yearn for a people who do not feel as if allegiance to God can only manifest in a list of intellectual or political assents that Jesus never wielded over his followers. Who feel solid and gracious enough in their belief that they are not threatened by pushback or change.
I yearn for a people who generously call those who believe "brother" or "sister" and who call other believers who disagree...siblings who disagree. A people who can acknowledge there is strength in embedding ourselves in the Bible the conservatives hold so dearly, but who can simultaneously acknowledge there is strength in the practice of that Bible that many progressives live out well.
2. Centrists in Politics
I am looking for a tribe that doesn't pledge its allegiance too tightly to either political party or to the sometimes-imperialistic American Dream itself. For a tribe that binds itself to neither donkey nor elephant nor flag, but who serves at the pleasure of the King.
I yearn for a tribe that works hard to value sanctity of life for the unborn as well as quality of life for all those already living.
I yearn for a tribe who comes to the world as Jesus did, offering and inviting and modeling belief rather than trying to regulate it into existence. A tribe that respects God's design of a free world and who doesn't try to infringe on humankind's freedom in ways that God himself refuses to. A tribe that honors that many of the Biblical admonitions were given to Israel as family rules (for those in the family), and then extended to followers of Christ. And that Christ himself seemed to have no expectation that the whole of culture would restructure itself accordingly, that the masses would stop giving to Caesar what was Caesar's.
I yearn for a tribe that wants what God wants for each person, regardless of how they identify. A tribe that wants physical well-being and freedom from mistreatment for every people group. A tribe that doesn't spend millions trying to enforce Romans 1 upon the whole of society, without also thinking carefully about how much of James 1's true religion might be nurtured if those same millions were invested in the care of orphans and widows.
I yearn for a tribe that is willing to credit multiple parties with good ideas, to work toward bi-partisan cooperation. A tribe that believes in the examination of opposing perspectives, in Paul's testing of ideas in the public square.
3. Centrists in Relationship
I yearn for a tribe that doesn't ask me to disidentify with other believers I love in order to be at home with their camp. I have a deep and healthy personal history with a conservative evangelical denomination. The local expressions of their denomination have done well by me. And evangelicalism, although it has since taken me through the Methodist and Wesleyan camps, has always been my adult home. I write for evangelicals, I invest in evangelicals, I work among evangelicals, I believe alongside evangelicals. I love how they study and internalize the Bible.
Yet my heart for social justice has led me into enduring friendship with progressive Christian communities as well. With non-denominational churches and urban gospel ones, with Sojourners and Red Letter Christians and a stream of social-justice minded people who have offered me equal good in the name of Christ. I have written for them, invested in them, worked among them, and believed among them as well. I love how they live and practice the Bible.
I long for a way of being a follower of Jesus that allows me to claim a broader definition of family, to bring more to the table. A way of living and being church that does not require me to label myself in a way that polarizes me from some "other" who believes.
Some final thoughts
I know the call to centrism sounds scary to some. But be clear, I lean toward the centrism of "Let your moderation be known unto all men", the centrism of wisdom and humility, the centrism that comes with prayer and supplication. Not the centrist way you could look at the lukewarm saliva-people that God spits out of his mouth.
I don't know if centrism will ever be a "thing." An identifiable religious or political grouping, some religious equivalent niche to the Occupy Movement or Tea Party (or whatever would be in the middle of them). But I think the yearning for more centrist thinking will have its day.
And that perhaps this is all of God's design. That he purposefully allows us to endure the swings of the pendulum, to wade in the ebb and flow, to push and pull each other toward the poles in order to foster growth and balance for each era. Perhaps, as I said in Dear Church, it is this tension between who we are and who we are striving to become that keeps us active in the faith.
I don't know if there are more of you out there who yearn for the things I yearn for. And some days, I myself, am just trying to understand and grow into myself let alone speak for the masses.
But if you resonate with this imagined non-tribe of centrists, I want to hear from you. Because after Ed answered my question about the absence of centrists, he correctly interpreted my facial expression and asked, "You're not satisfied with my answer, are you?"
And he's right. I'm not. I think there's more of us. And I think we in the middle ground have something to bring to this timeless conversation of faith. We—along with our brothers and sisters on the poles—may be threads useful for continuing to knit together a timeless, intergenerational, interconnected and still, chronically imperfect, global church.