It has been about a month since “The Fellowship Gathering” in Edina, Minn. I attended “the Gathering” to gather information about possible ways forward for a small, urban congregation where I serve as interim pastor. The congregation spans the theological and political spectrum. They have also believed that “relationships were more important than issues.”
I hoped that “The Gathering” would be a positive experience. On Thursday, several speakers talked about how well they were working with denominational leaders to “create a new way of doing mission and ministry in the church.” I had a sense of a desire to work together with the denomination as much as possible, without the “us vs. them” rhetoric of other such conferences.
I attended a breakout group that challenged congregations to “know your neighbors; look for ways to connect with the community of which your congregation is a part.” As I thought about our small urban congregation, we haven’t done a very good job at that over the years. We seem to hope that people in the neighborhood will discover us. “Knowing your neighbors” was the key idea that resonated with me, as I think about helping this congregation move forward.
On Friday, just before lunch, a speaker spoke from Romans 12, where Paul wrote, “Let your love be genuine. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good…” and then he went on to say that the PC(USA) has settled for the false gospel of ‘tolerance’ over love, “but the Bible doesn’t say, ‘for God so tolerated the world… it doesn’t say, tolerate one another;” and he went on and on with similar “quotes.” The implication (as I heard it) is that the Fellowship will have genuine “love,” while the denomination has settled for a cheap imitation.
I was hoping that the last speaker of the conference would send us away on a high note. However, he talked about how the Northern Kingdom (Israel) had bowed down to the false gods of its neighbors, while Hezekiah said “we will not bow down…” The Northern Kingdom was destroyed, while Judah became the “faithful remnant.’
I grew up in fundamentalism where we were taught that our denomination was “the faithful remnant” and all the other denominations (except the one or two that believed like us) had departed from the “True Gospel,” and had fallen away. I remember as a child, my parents praying for Lutherans, and Methodists, and others they knew who, because of denominational affiliation, had ‘fallen away.” It was drilled into my head, that we were the “faithful ones,” and we needed to witness to those who had “fallen away.”
When I heard the last speaker talking about the “faithful remnant,” I was transported back to my days as a fundamentalist, with all its legalism, guilt,
shame and self-righteousness. There is no part of me that wants to go back there.
The Fellowship leaders talked about “clearly defined essentials of the faith” (which are yet to be defined). I grew up with very clearly defined “essential beliefs” and those who did not subscribe to our narrow set of beliefs were viewed as something less than “Real Christians.” So when I hear “clearly defined essentials,” I wonder how clearly defined these essentials will be. Will there be any latitude or room for grace?
I was reminded a couple of weeks ago, by someone new to our congregation, that people on the outside of the church couldn’t care less about “our issues,” or who “the more faithful Christians” are. They would like to know whether or not we would care about them should they decide to enter our doors. But, when they hear about divisions in a congregation, or denomination, their negative opinions of “Christians” and churches are only reinforced.
As Christians, we are supposed to have something very positive to offer those on the outside. But when we expend so much energy arguing and fighting over issues, there is little energy left to reach out beyond our doors to our neighbors with the Good News of God’s love, grace and forgiveness.
Frankly, my heart is broken because issues have become more important than ministry, mission and relationships. I think the Evil One is pleased by our divisions and God is grieved. I say, it’s time for us to get back to doing ministry and mission, and being a light that shines in the darkness of our broken world.
Ken Ribe is interim pastor of Randolph Heights Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minn.