The liberal church and the front lines–where are we?

Duck Dynasty, the Nation of Islam and the failure of liberal Christianity

A good evangelical friend of mine predicted that I would fail at growing First Christian Church of Oakland not long after I started pastoring there.

I told her about what kind people were there, and about their racial diversity and their openness to all people and their belief in a God of great compassion. “Well, good luck to you,” my friend said not unkindly. “I’m not sure how you’re going to grow a church like that.”

Now, I had just described about the only faith community I could be with, so somewhat defensively I asked what she meant.

“I genuinely feel sorry for you,” she explained patiently. “Our task as evangelicals is really clear. We go out and invite people into church because we love God’s children and we believe that they will face hell forever if we don’t help them get saved. That’s a lot for us to be responsible for if we don’t do our job. You all don’t believe that. So what incentive do you have to bring people into the church?

I have an answer for that now. I might have had an answer for it then, too. But I’ve been thinking about her point a lot since then.

I (mostly) stayed out of the Duck Dynasty controversy a couple of weeks ago. But I did read an op-ed that (while completely wrong in its analysis of Jeremiah Wright) suggested a reason we should have compassion for Phil Robertson’s conservative theology because his religion came to him most powerfully in the midst of serious addiction and he had a deep salvation moment.

I don’t know about you, but I have more than a few friends in recovery who LOVE that they’re in churches that are open and tolerant and inclusive. In fact, one of the most famous in-recovery Christians in America is Anne Lamott, who loves her little interracial, open to gays and lesbians Presbyterian Church north of San Francisco like nobody’s business. But in my friends’ case, just like in Anne Lamott’s, they found a church that worked for them. The progressive church didn’t come looking for them. In most cases, the people really showing up in the midst of addiction (if anyone does) on the front lines are very theologically conservative, and they want to save the lives and souls of people trapped by addiction. (In fact, a good friend of mine was the one perky little White girl at a Missionary Baptist church in deep East Oakland as she got clean before she moved to a much more liberal church. She and I still talk about how while we love the theology of the churches where we worship and the cross section of people, we miss the music and the open celebration of Jesus that we find at more conservative churches.)


Bear with an apparent tangent for a minute: I recently learned that the Honorable Louis Farrakhan is getting the membership of the Nation of Islam into dianetics and “clearing” and encouraging White people to get into Scientology to avoid being “devil Christians” or “Satan Jews.” I mentioned my concerns about this on Facebook and got several quick quips from friends about the Nation (and a lot about Scientology, which I’m just fine with).

The thing is, a good friend of mine works probably more closely than I do with young men in Oakland just out of prison or still in the streets. He works for a prominent church that does really good work in our community, and I can’t remember how the Nation came up, but we were both quick to agree that the Nation does amazing work at giving young men in prison something meaningful to hold onto, and they stand with them upon their release. I have plenty of liberal friends who shake their heads in disbelief when they meet formerly incarcerated people with militant opposition to homosexuality. “How can they judge like that when they were judged so harshly by society?” my friends wonder, not asking who showed up for the people in jail and introduced them to Jesus in the first place.


My favorite book of the Bible is the book of James. It’s the activist’s book, and the ethicist’s book. It’s also the book that most clearly reiterates Jesus’ message that at the day of judgment he’s going to recognize the people who clothed and fed and healed and visited him in prison. James says, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “If you see someone who’s cold and say, ‘Stay warm, buddy! Jesus loves you,’ you’re not being a Christian; you’re being a dick. And if you treat your neighbor who’s right there in the flesh badly, you really don’t love this God you’ve never actually met in the flesh.”


I was pretty defensive about my evangelical friend’s criticism of the liberal church all those years ago. But I think she was actually getting at an issue we don’t take seriously enough; we’re in decline, particularly with poor folks and folks on the most serious margins of society, and I’m pretty sure it’s our fault. We believe the right stuff, and we usually take a lot of pride in that. But the people I meet most frequently on the front lines—actually at the AA meetings and not just providing classroom space for them, actually at the prisons and not just praying for an end to the prison-industrial complex, it’s not very often our folks (and when it is, we’re rarely vocal about how our God of Love for all is what brings us there, and that this God of Love for all can lead them to a more meaningful, hope-filled, stable and fulfilling life).

Something I find incredibly moving about the liberal church is when someone stumbles in our doors, we bend over to include them and honor their dignity and foster them into leadership. I’ve seen it with recovering addicts and homeless people and formerly incarcerated people. I’ve seen it with LGBTQ people incredibly wounded by church. But they have to find us first.

I’m not ready to unpack the role that class plays in religious communities right now. I will note that the history of the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches and the Nation of Islam emerged among poor people who might not be as prone to unconsciously adopting middle-class filters or a “politics of respectability” that would make them on a subconscious level reluctant to reach out to people from a different class experience. Someone smarter or braver than me might want to look at that particular issue, but I do want to acknowledge that it probably plays a role in this conversation that we don’t talk about very much.


Obviously I can think of exceptions to the gross generalizations I made above. I can think of liberal churches with strong ministries to nurture people in prison and help them when they get out. I know a PHENOMENAL church doing recovery ministry that includes recovery from the dominant paradigm and heterosexism alongside recovery from meth and crack and alcohol. And I know plenty of evangelical churches that don’t show up on the front lines.


But the question my friend posed to me is one I want to reframe and ask my own people—the “love wins” universalist Christians who don’t think people go to hell for not believing in Jesus:

Is there anything powerful enough about our theology to get us on the front lines? Is there anything powerful enough about what we offer that could be lifesaving to people who are otherwise ending up in a church that teaches homosexuality is a sin or in the sometimes anti-Jewish Nation of Islam?

And if so, why aren’t we showing up on the front lines?

10 thoughts on “The liberal church and the front lines–where are we?

  1. Excellent thoughts and questions. It seems like if us liberal/progressive/etc had a better theology, we would be motivated to share it more or at least be far more creative with it. If our theology doesn’t motivate us and address the real needs of others, then it’s not necessarily better, right?

    (Reposted from Facebook)


  2. apparently, I’m too complacent to come up with a meaningful response. that’s not true …at least, not entirely. but my response needs to percolate.


  3. great stuff, Sandhya. Poignant questions, lucid self-reflections, and convicting theological paradigms for praxis.

    Having emerged from an evangelical methodist church in my youth, I have always loved Jesus. The singing of hymns was usually my most favorite part of worship. Yet, even at a young age, I thoroughly enjoyed the divine drama, the theological pageantry that was evident to me in weekly worship, the reading of scripture, communion, and liturgy, etc. It seems that the liberal Church often misses on much of this, even as we get theology right (as I understand it!).
    As an adult, I have observed in myself that I am at my best when I engage in weekly worship, do my spiritual disciplines, pray daily, and so forth. I am a better human being with God and the Church in my life. I need both God and Church; they help me to be more loving, more compassionate, more caring. My salvation (from my ‘-isms’) is dependent upon the grace of God. And, I have found that my salvation from my ‘isms’ (sin) is best helped by liberal theology that claims that all persons are loved by God and that I must work hard to love. I found that the ‘judgmentalism’ theology I grew up with made it too easy for me to keep on hating; made it too easy for me to keep others at a distance. The theology of liberal Christianity convicts me to think again. When I think again, I open myself up to love, compassion, inclusion. When I engage in loving kindness towards others I am a better human being, I feel better, I experience a fulfilling life. To say it simply, I am better with liberal theology. And, I think lots of other people would be better too if we simply share it with them. The question for us liberals might be, why do you hoard the love of God for yourself? Why not share it? Why not?


  4. We “progressives” and activists seem to focus great amounts of our energy on institutions and policy changes, and not so much on bringing change to individual lives. While institutions and policies need our involvement, they are also easy and removed from the dirt and discomfort of daily life at the street level, in an ivory tower sort of way. That walks hand-in-hand with the class thing.


  5. Very thoughtful post, Sandhya. Pertinent questions. I’ve often thought that we went into decline the moment we moved away from the centrality of relationship.

    Go watch “Sister Act” and think about what changed when the sisters when from the cloistered life within the walls, to going out into the streets with Whoopi. That was a very prophetic word amid a comedy, to the “mainstream” churches.

    I have a chaplain friend who doesn’t like to use texts or emails. He is either on the phone or in person…. in the face of whomever he speaks with. And I watch him make a profound impact upon young people who have little or no church background who have never experienced such connectivity – even from parents.

    When I think of my own spiritual walk, it wasn’t church that made the impact… it was specific individuals along the way who noticed me outside, who showed interest in my life and demonstrated friendship. If I grew up in the Disciples and my father was a pastor, it was outside of worship and Sunday School… and the building, that I truly encountered Christ. Whether it was in a stranger always making sure there was a carton of chocolate milk for me (I found out who some 40 years later), or a postmaster asking me how I was doing and engaging me in sometimes deep conversation, it came down to relationship. As someone who has worked in 4 substance abuse treatment programs, I notice the impact of true empathy… and connection.

    I think we in the mainstream fail people not because of our theology – but the lack of practical application of our theology outside worship. Loving people isn’t just an intellectual expression of the Gospel… it is getting into the face of them wherever they are in life, loving them, and identifying what their needs are. If we aren’t facilitating their relationship with Christ through genuine care, we are failing them… and Christ. At least that’s my take… And it cannot be done as a quid pro quo, because that ain’t grace. I can assure you that folks, for instance – dealing with addiction – know all about manipulation. They know the lies and what BS looks like, so give… do… freely… without expectation of return. That is something that too many churches do not get… give not to increase the offering and/or the church attendance. Give…. period. That’s my take, for what it’s worth. 🙂


  6. Thank you. This is a VERY live question for me right now. I offer my response with all humility. I apologize for its length.
    I don’t think it’s a liberal-evangelical issue. American Christians of all stripes created the religious marketplace and are now dealing with our own bubble. I found this helpful from Skye Jethani We all made evangelism about church membership. There were enough Christians for us to all have memberships and swap members as people either decided to look for something more [insert favorite value here] and less [insert loathed characteristic here]. What all congregations are now facing is an increasing number of people who don’t want church.
    The question that “Christians who don’t believe you’re going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus” have to answer is: why believe in Jesus at all. That is the most important question in the ministry context I currently serve –and we are not liberal. Our leadership retreat revolved around it. Our first real initiative in 2014 will revolve around it. And we are all feeling woefully inadequate. We are finding this blog post really helpful in giving us a way to think about it without talking about salvation in terms of heaven/hell
    You wrote, “James says, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “If you see someone who’s cold and say, ‘Stay warm, buddy! Jesus loves you,’ you’re not being a Christian; you’re being a dick.” I agree. Words without works are hollow. But if you promise warmth and hospitality and fail to show that it derives from faith in Jesus Christ. If they know you love them but don’t hear “Jesus loves you” in the process, your works without words will be easily misinterpreted. When we show love without pointing to the source of love we set ourselves up as the answer rather than as humble recipients of God’s grace doing our best to reflect it. The church is a lousy savior and we’ve got to stop presenting the church as the end of faith.
    C.H. Dodd made the distinction of two messages of early Christianity. Its kerygma that was the preaching it offered to nonchristians and its didache or the teaching it gave to people who were baptized. I think New Testament scholars have fairly well abandoned his dichotomy. But, I wonder if it’s helpful to think about. I think that much of what you offer is didache. It’s prophetic didache. It is a message that believers need to hear. But, you assume you’re talking to believers. What would be your message to nonbelievers? If I could, I’d like make a humble request. And, it really is a request. I’m not trying to challenge you. What would your evangelistic sermon look-like if you took James 1:17-18 as your starting point? How would you preach the good news of Christ to people who have not heard it or who do not believe it? I’ve offered my own attempt at this and can share it some other time perhaps.


  7. Thanks so much, Sandhya! As always, you cover it all and get us to think! Having grown up as a Southern Baptist, and now, most of my life as Disciples of Christ, I still have hopes that conservatives and liberals will be able to truly love and respect one another, and come together. I don’t know exactly how, but truly we should all be one. That is what Jesus wants, as I see it. I will never forget Don Shelton speaking at the Table during a Pacific SW Assembly – that we are all welcome at the Table, conservatives and liberals, fundamentals and progressives, gays and straights, Democrats and Republicans – all of us who lift the name of Christ. I continue to refer to myself as an “open” evangelical in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). People believe, but they are embarrassed, or timid, or whatever it might be (in this culture and at this time) in sharing their story of connection with Jesus Christ. As a conservative, I have a voice and an invitation to the Table too. Someone from Calvary Chapel would say that I am probably not a conservative. But just last week I was visiting with a UCC member, and former Disciples member, that seemed to put down others that were not liberal. I am certainly not a universalist, but I don’t put down those, including you, who believe in universalism. I remain open that God can still, and will, do what He (or She) decides to do, even changing what He (or She) has allowed us to have in the Bible. God will have the last call, even if Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I truly believe all of us need to just begin respecting those who are different than we are. I know you have an Anti-Racism weekend coming up, but having grown up in Mississippi, I believe racism is exactly this – trying to get everyone else to be and to believe just like we are and we believe. We’ve got to stop doing that (even your evangelical friend from years back), and to start respecting and loving one another. And, of course, it is all easier said than done. I can worship at a Dobson National Day of Prayer as well as a city-wide Interfaith Day of Prayer – as long as their is mutual respect and love for one another. That I have a right, and that they, too, have a right. I think that is what Jesus would do. As an evangelical Disciple, I choose to “err,” if I must, on the conservative side, but that is just a personal choice. In so choosing, that does not mean that I can’t attend a Pride Rally. I am going to choose to love others – people of all colors and races and lifestyles – not alienating. I personally believe in “Biblical” marriage, but that does not mean that I don’t believe that LGBTQ human beings should not have that same privilege. For me, it is terminology. I believe all human beings have the right to marry. My reservation is terminology. Well, I didn’t mean to preach a sermon here – haha – but let us all embrace our diversity – our differences, with mutual love and respect… Thank you again, Gene 🙂


  8. I love your questions and insights; and while I also love that you are reflective even amidst hurtful criticism, I sincerely doubt that your “friend” who sees the the role of the church and evangelizing as saving others from going to hell does any sort of self-reflection in their prayer and/or mission life. I’ve found liberal Christians very engaged when salvation is understood in more broad terms (i.e. liberation theology – Jewish and Christian) that move us toward salvation in the here and now. This understanding often leads to our being practitioners of social justice and advocacy in hopes of bringing peace on earth. In my own experience, and having been witness to others, I believe there are times in life when we need to cling to God, making the simplicity of conservatism that much more appealing. This is often an incredibly rich time in faith when we feel closer to Christ than we’ve ever experienced before; however, I wonder if we don’t also deny a piece of ourselves as we’re so drawn to that rich spiritual experience.

    A close friend of mine became more conservative and highly engaged amidst her denying her own sexuality for well over 5 years and used the conservatism of the church to help her perfect her faith, but a year ago finally accepted herself for who she is and now finds herself worthy of being loved in a meaningful and long term same sex relationship. Amidst my own divorce and four years in seminary I clung to the safety and rich experience of spirituality, but is it possible I idolized that experience? Do we perhaps “over consume” religion the way we sometimes over consume and/or replace what we miss with food, drinks, money, friends, etc? What if Christ calls us into relationship with others and to participation and practicing our faith in the world to help us strike a balance and not turn our faith, our church life, and our spirituality into our Tower of Babel?

    That vertical and horizontal walk with the cross hopefully reminds us that we all can meet at the center, but instead of hanging ourselves there, we’re to keep moving, deepening, and growing with Christ and others in ways that bring about God’s plan rather than build up our selves and our ideals. Thank goodness we have both God and one another to discern about church and world; and I thank you Sandhya for your posts that both challenge and inspire me to keep the faith.


  9. Thank you for putting into words the tension that continues to plague me on a regular basis. Being in a small town agricultural community like Selma, we are surrounded with evangelicals and conservatives and it is a tough line to walk every time I attend the Ministerial Alliance. However, I am a big believer that if I withdraw, then the divisions only grow stronger and wider. There are days, however, when I want to run away from it. I so appreciate your thoughts and for giving me “food for thought and meditation.”


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