Not THAT kind of church

Last night I had dinner with a high-ranking naval officer and her wife who works in an optometrist’s office–a mixed race couple–and heard about the challenges of working at Guantanamo Bay from a woman’s perspective. This morning I had breakfast with a teacher and her wife who’s a drummer–also a mixed race couple–who discussed Paulo Freire and liberation theology with me. Later in the morning I had a conversation with a 20-year veteran of the military about the challenges of not being allowed to be honest about his relationship with the man in his life. This afternoon, I sat on the porch with a man whose mixed-race daughter works for poor workers’ rights and got arrested during the protests of Disney hotel workers’ mistreatment. (As an aside, when he and his wife first met, he spoke no Spanish and she spoke no English–it was “Love, Actually,” but for real.) And this evening I talked with a half-marathon runner as another mixed race couple chatted with each other about vacation plans in England.

This weekend, I was at a church retreat.

But if I started out by saying “This weekend, I was at a church retreat,” most people (including people in church) wouldn’t assume I’d be interacting with the people I just mentioned (or getting to have such deep conversations with relative strangers). Honestly, once in a while, I was surprised, too.

University Church in San Diego is a gem. It’s inclusive without being oppressive in its commitment to inclusivity. It has membership that loves and respects other religions while really loving Jesus. It has members who really help to carry one another’s burdens. It’s a church that’s willing to have complex conversations about hard issues, but it’s also a church that loves to have fun. It’s a church that really is striving to be exactly the kind of community Jesus described. While I love that FCC Oakland (my church) is a little more political, that’s really born of the fact that we need to be in order to be the community Jesus would create in Oakland. (We call that context-driven ministry.)

I do a lot of work on congregational transformation, and I was talking technical jargon with another pastor friend of mine down here, when she kind of called me on my formulas and statistics and structures that make for healthy church. She threw up her hands and said, “But Sandhya, I really think if they’d just BE CHURCH, the other things would fall into place.” (In my defense, some of the unhealthy churches I work with need those formulas and statistics because they’ve strayed so far from just “being church” that they couldn’t get there on their own.)

By her definition and mine, UCC San Diego is “being church.” But for so many of my friends, the church is a place of exclusion, of judgment, of gossip and political machinations.

Which is why those of us who love our progressive, inclusive churches full of interesting and beautiful and compassionate people don’t say “You should come to my church–we really ARE church.” We say, “I know church can be awful–but we’re not THAT kind of church.” As if churches that preach love and justice are exceptions to the rule.

And sometimes it feels like we are. Sometimes it feels like most churches fall into the category of either biblical literalist or “try-not-to-offend-anyone-and-end-up-inspiring-no-one.” When my friend says “being church,” I think she means a church that is courageous, that responds actively to the needs of its community, that is rooted in radical hospitality. But that’s definitely not what many people mean by “being church,” those inside or outside.

So how do those of us in the radical inclusivity churches change the paradigm from describing ourselves as “not THAT kind of church” to creating a culture where OUR kind of church IS THAT kind of church? Answers gratefully accepted.

Comments (4)

  1. Rick Schlosser

    I think we would do well just to hang around you for a while. You are amazing and always inspire me!

  2. Another Pastor Friend of Yours

    You are correct. My understanding of church requires courage (which is a huge need since so many people are paralyzed by fear within the church), response-ability for the community’s needs (also smothered by the paralysis of fear), and radical hospitality. There are probably other things, but that does cover a lot of it.

    I think sometimes the biblical invitation of “Come and see” is the best way to explain ourselves. It’s not the kind of thing people will really believe in until they’ve experienced anyway.

  3. Bill Shive

    We here in Oakland are fortunate to have Sandhya with us (most of the time), Rick. And, guess what? She is leading us into “being church.” And it is a wonderful adventure!

  4. Rachel Rev

    Another Pastor Friend, lack of courage and living in fear is why so many of our churches are dying. As Over the Rhine sings, “Obsession with self-preservation / Faded when I threw my fear away / It’s not a thing you can imagine / You either lose your fear or spend your life with one foot in the grave”.

    Sandhya, you rock! Thanks for your inspiring courage.

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