You are not alone…

different[Edit: I’ve changed “pragmatists” to “utilitarians” throughout. I think that better captures what I’m trying to describe there.]

I’m running into a growing group of Christians — especially pastors — who are trying to figure out where they fit. They find themselves in an awkward and unusual place in the Christian world.

Most Evangelicals (not to even mention the fundamentalists) are going to think they’re far too liberal because they’ll put up with the likes of Rob Bell and may not have a problem accepting theories of macroevolution.

Most “liberals” find them far too conservative because they actually believe that Christ rose and that the Bible has more than just moral or literary authority. And if these people hold that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, the liberals might as well write them off as full-blown fundamentalists.

Among the ministry utilitarians — who may fall anywhere on the “liberal” to “conservative” theological spectrum, or may just not care — these people are going to have an even harder time because they put theological integrity before results, something the utilitarians often can’t even comprehend. The utilitarians have focused so long on how to grow the church and get results that talking to them in nuanced theological terms is like Alton Brown explaining the science of making a perfect hamburger to a McDonald’s manager.

Are you one of these people — searching for where you fit? Does the below describe you?

You may find yourself at an evangelical Bible study where you’re clearly the “liberal” in the room who doesn’t take the Bible seriously enough (see, e.g., “What if I don’t believe the Bible?”), and then find yourself at a mainline Bible study where you’re clearly the “conservative” in the room who keeps wanting to talk about what God was intending to say through a particular passage. [I’m referencing theological liberals here. John Meunier and Roger Olson have both captured well why I’m not a liberal. You should read both of those.]

And then, in ministry circles that are more focused on “church growth,” you just seem like a nuisance because you keep pressing theological considerations at the expense of utility. (See, for instance, any of my attempts to talk about the church’s use of money, which are attempting to ask how our theology should influence our use of money, but are consistently refuted in utilitarian terms.)

Is this you? You don’t fit the “conservative” mold conservatively enough? You don’t fit the “liberal” mold liberally enough. And yet, you also wouldn’t say you’re a “moderate.” It seems a difference of category, not just degree.

You find yourself wanting to be more theologically faithful in the way you do ministry, even if the results might suffer. And you have a gut feeling that in the long-run, the results will be better. That we’re stifling the much greater growth that could take place if we would truly live according to the calling of Christ, even when it’s unpopular or ignores what Jim Collins would say we should do.

If this is you, you’re not alone. I talk to so many who think they’re nearly alone in this. Everywhere they look, they’re surrounded by people who just don’t “get” them. Indeed, all of our denominations seem overrun with utilitarians and conservatives, or utilitarians and liberals, or somehow in the case of the UMC, all three at once! And so wherever you are, it means you’re likely in the minority if you don’t fit nicely into one of these groups. But you’re not alone! There are others. Many others!

Perhaps you’re speaking up and making it known how out of place (out of line?) you are. Perhaps you’re staying quiet because you know it won’t go well if you speak up.

Is this you? I’d love to hear more about your experience, your thoughts, your stories, where you’re finding like-minded people, where you’re finding hope that this odd form of Christianity you represent can spread and grow.

How are you navigating situations where you know your position won’t be received well? Where your job might be at risk if you act on your beliefs? Tell us more in the comments. And if necessary, feel free to tell us anonymously.

See my follow-up: Liberal and Conservative theologizing — a caricature using song lyrics

And for more like-minded conversation, you should JOIN my e-mail update list.

15 thoughts on “You are not alone…

  1. I really relate to this feeling: I find myself to be about the most conservative person at my seminary, the most liberal person at the church where I serve as pastor, and too concerned about theological considerations to fit into the pragmatic structures of my annual conference. However, I find hope in all three of those places with people who seem to get it. Whether it’s a group of lay people at my church who shocked me by being all for a move to weekly Communion in Sunday worship, or a DS who supported me in a different decision that was driven by theology but flew in the face of all the church growth conventional wisdom, there are glimmers of hope all around me.

  2. Brother, that’s me. I’m about to graduate from seminary (where I’m one of the more conservative), and am heading to my first appointment (where from what I hear, I’m bound to be seen as a liberal). I’m nervous about it, but I am what I am. And I’m going to be looking hard for others walking in my shoes.

  3. I am interested in helping foster more of this kind of conversation, perhaps even gathering some folk together to talk, pray and think (not necessarily in that order) about how we negotiate the current situation in United Methodism. Forgive what may seem like a shameless plug, but I am an older UM elder (Chaplain at Southern Methodist University) and I have been on Boards of Ordained Ministry quite a bit. I really care about helping younger clergy deal with these stresses and challenges. If you want to email personally, my address is rankins@smu.edu

  4. Pingback: Ray: You are not alone | John Meunier

  5. Great essay, Teddy!

    And you have a gut feeling that in the long-run, the results will be better. That we’re stifling the much greater growth that could take place if we would truly live according to the calling of Christ…”

    I think you hit on something important here. We’re all pragmatists in a way, but our pragmatism has different timeframes and points of reference. I’ve never met a historically minded theologian who isn’t interested in practical outcomes, and I’ve yet to meet a pragmatist who wants to do something ENTIRELY new as it relates to Christian piety.

    One thing I am learning is to communicate my theological and historical commitments in ways that pragmatic people “get.” If we speak consistently about the vision of our approach it tends to become more attractive to the pragmatists among us. So, for me, emphasizing the sacraments, catechism, worshipping by the order offered in the hymal and BOW, wearing an alb, etc… are all pragmatic convictions even as they are tied to our theological and historical convictions. I practice historically and theologically because I truly believe that the result will be amazing, and it will become a movement that can sustain itself.

  6. Great and provocative essay, Teddy! Could part of the problem be that both “liberals” and “conservatives” have become more polarized and uniform in their self-definition? Years ago, one could be a pro-life Democrat, for example, but no more. So on both ends of the spectrum theologically, perhaps there are more “boxes” that need to be checked in order to qualify as a “pure liberal” or a “pure conservative.” I think it is a great mistake, for example, for many theological conservatives to believe that a conservative political agenda is inherently part of theological conservatism. Theological conservatives have become too identified with the political right, such that if a person does not agree with conservative politics, one doesn’t “fit in” to the theologically conservative community. (The same is true on the liberal end.)
    The challenge is to define what it means to be “liberal” or “conservative” or “moderate” theologically, without importing all kinds of extraneous issues into the definition. Then one could “major on the majors”, while allowing more diversity on issues that are not essential to that theological self-definition.

  7. Ubuntu– I am because we are.

    I think your post and several of the comments actually illustrate this. In one community your role may be as a conservative, in another as a progressive, in another as a voice of pragmatism. In the body of Christ this is not an outlier phenomenon, but part of what it means to be a member of the body. The body needs all of these angles and gifts, else it loses some vital capacities, and maybe vitality and life itself. How I function in any given context isn’t dependent solely on my preferences, but on how the body and I together interact so that we function as one body.

    The question is the degree to which we are ready and willing to be part of the body and in service to its common good, whatever that body is, rather than to insist on our own preferred (or most deeply enculturated or habituated) way. This is true both for individuals and for existing communities.

  8. I’ve felt this way for years. Most of the people I share my political convictions with disagree with me on theology and most of the folks I share my theological convictions with disagree with me on politics. Where people met me largely determines what they assume. I may not join you in one area though, I often feel like one of the pragmatists. 😉

  9. Pingback: Liberal and Conservative theologizing — a caricature using song lyrics « teddy ray

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