From time to time, I get stuck in a rut. Truth be told, I get stuck in a lot of ruts. But the particular rut that’s on my mind now sounds something like this:
“Why don’t they…”
“I wish somebody would…”
“We need better…”
“If they just had the right leadership, they could…”
“They’ve got to think bigger…”
“They’re focusing on the wrong things…”
It’s easy to throw bombs from the sidelines. It’s even easier to privately harbor critiques and secretly think that we could do it better. I can be really good at that.
We can point a lot of fingers at the elusive “they,” but do we ever stop to wonder who “they” are? Well, “they” are the people taking the risk, putting in the effort, testing the hypothesis, and seeing if their dreams can stand up to reality. “They” are the ones exhibiting some measure of courage by putting themselves and their ideas on display for our quiet critiques.
We, on the other hand, are the ones on the sidelines not taking the risk or making the effort; the ones not willing to let our dreams get smeared and stained by real world grime; the ones not willing to test our ideas against actual benchmarks and the possibility of failure.
Moderate, traditional Baptist churches are in trouble. We’re small in number and getting smaller. A few bright spots notwithstanding, moderate evangelical churches are failing in their efforts to be a force worthy of Christ in their communities.
All kinds of reasons can be offered for what holds us back. We’re too bound by our traditions. We’ve been too slow to adapt to a changing culture. We lack boldness of vision.
But a more apt critique, perhaps, is not necessarily that we lack vision, but that most of us have lacked the courage to boldly share our vision(s); to bravely risk failure in pursuing our dreams for our churches; to persevere in moving forward when some say stop or slow down or that won’t work, or we’ve never done it that way before.
So instead we sit on the sidelines lobbing soft critiques at the elusive “they.” Or at best we offer half measures, half-heartedly hoping they might half succeed. We hesitate to borrow from the successes of those we’ve differed with in the past, fearful that admitting the success of others means admitting past misjudgments in ourselves. But it’s okay to admit our mistakes; it’s okay to acknowledge that we’ve fallen behind the curve while others have plowed fresh ground. It helps us move forward with grace and humility and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. It gives us an opportunity to laugh and learn.
What if we were more willing to borrow from the successes of others instead of constantly trying to create ex-nihilo our own way forward? Originality is over-rated. Harry Truman is quoted as saying, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” What if moderate Baptists said (GASP), “there are some more conservative evangelical churches doing some things we might be able to learn from?”
What if we turned from soft (and sometimes harsh) critique toward action? Not perfect action with perfect information and guaranteed results; but Spirit-inspired action based on God-given faith and passion and vision…and on successful models borrowed from other Christians?
Some made fun of President Obama for appropriating the line, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” in his first presidential campaign. They thought it was too naïve and simplistic for the complexities of modern day American politics.
But what if that sentiment is right? What if we have everything we need to be a re-energized force for God in our communities? What if “they” became “we?” And what if this new “we” included God?
In Mark 10 a wealthy young man went away disappointed When he learned that salvation was about more than keeping the commandments. Even the disciples were amazed at the difficult portrait Jesus painted for Kingdom success. It seemed nearly impossible, leading them to ask if anyone had any hope of succeeding in the quest for the Kingdom. Then Jesus reminded them that many things will be impossible if we rely only on ourselves, but that “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
I don’t want to sound alarmist, but we no longer have the luxury of silently critiquing the “they” who have chosen to put their shoulders to the wheel. Nor do we have time to hedge our bets with tepid efforts and hopeful trial balloons. We’ve reached an all hands on deck situation. It’s time to stop critiqueing the “they” and join them. “They” must become “we.” We who have God’s message of love and forgiveness, acceptance and belonging, self-worth and empowerment, direction and purpose, personal peace and confidence, promises fulfilled and futures assured.
The world doesn’t just need that message. It wants that message. It is desperately searching for the source of that message. And we meekly wonder if maybe someone might like us–and the God we serve– if we stand quietly at our doors and offer cupcakes as the world passes by.
For decades the moderate Christian message that includes openness to scientific truth, gender equality, a standard of biblical interpretation that moves beyond literalism and inerrancy, and an evolving understanding of God’s kingdom and God’s purposes seemed to put us in an uphill battle with our culture. But times are changing and tides are turning.
New generations long to hear us speak about a God who fits into our questions, a God who acknowledges and inspires and participates in human advancement and new understanding. The only question is whether we’ll be brave enough to reach them with an alternative to the narrow, judgmental gospel many have already heard and rejected.
I know every generation frames their own challenges as the greatest the world has ever known. And I know God’s kingdom is bigger than our present context and larger than our individual congregations—praise be to God. But I also know that God will use those who stand ready to serve when the timing is right. The timing is right for the “they” to become “we.”
God continues to take the risk and put in the effort. In Christ, God has tested the hypothesis, been subjected to the stains and smears of real world grime and put himself and his ideas on display for our quiet—and not so quiet—critiques. It’s time for us to join him.