Even though I prefer hymns and an organ to Christian karaoke with a guitar, even though I am pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, and even though I lean so far to the left I am pretty much a socialist, for as long as I can remember, I identify as an Evangelical Christian. I’m not about fire and brimstone, but I claim the faith. When I admit this to people, I usually get a crumpled-forehead frown.
Why would I claim a tribe I am at odds with?
I label myself “Evangelical” to indicate that my faith is a personal practice, not a box I check when admitted to the hospital. My label has never made this clear to people who aren’t Evangelical.
While it doesn’t roll off the tongue and no one knows what I mean when I say it, I am also a centered-set Christian. In centered-set Christianity, the focus is on movement toward Jesus. We leave the judgement up to God instead of burdening ourselves with it.
Centered-set Christians believe they can be pointed to God’s truth by anyone. In the Bible (from Rahab to the Magi), all-star Jews (from Joshua and the wandering Hebrews to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) weren’t fussy about who their God spoke to and through. If God spoke, they listened.
(Centered-set Christians are partly defined in contrast to bounded-set Christians. Bounded-set Christians believe you are in or out, saved or damned, part of the tribe or wandering. Because of this, there is a good deal of focus on the boundary, what it takes to be part of the body of Christ. Sin must be defined and categorized. Rules are enforced.)
In the last twenty-five years, as I moved from New York City to Phoenix to Oakland to London to Boston and finally landed in New Orleans, I attended or was a member at ten churches: one Covenant, two non-denominational, one African Methodist Episcopal, three Episcopalian, one Vineyard, one Vintage, and one Presbyterian Church of America. Some were bounded-set and others were centered-set.
These congregations run the gamut of worship styles, leadership structures, and political leanings. Some of the services ended promptly at the 58-minute mark, others spent 10 minutes passing the peace and 20 minutes on announcements. Most of these churches were small, but a couple had almost a thousand members. Some were racially diverse, some were predominantly white. All served coffee after the service. None were perfect. Or even close.
To be a part at each of these churches I compromised. Non-dairy creamer instead of half and half, PowerPoint instead of liturgical tradition, random sermons on one verse instead of a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, and Christians who are only comfortable with Christians, unsure of how to handle the rest of my family.
Many times, I overlooked denominational policies I openly disagreed with in order to find a home where I can pray with others. I am pained when I see no women in leadership, no affirmation of LBGTQ+, and, most recently, silence on issues relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and immigration policies. Many Sundays, I want to give up on American Evangelical Christianity altogether.
I have seen two centered-set churches that I belonged to prayerfully search and shift their policies—opening their doors to all people not just in name (“we welcome gay folks but they cannot be in leadership unless they are celibate”), but in practice (“we embrace gay marriage and gay families”). I have witnessed predominantly white churches began to stand at the front lines of DACA and BLM movements. In my view, churches leaning into God will be nudged towards God’s vision of reconciliation and action.
Centered-set churches preach “let’s just look to God.” They are trying to say: we don’t care if you wear a red hat or a pantsuit. The body of Christ doesn’t register your voting record, we love you no matter what. This is true. But a fear of offending other Christians can lead to paralysis and missed opportunities to share with our fellow believers the richness of the story of a guy we call a savior, who came to free the oppressed.
I’m not saying, “You in the red hat with the NRA bumper sticker, you’re out. If you don’t love God by toting a witty protest slogan on poster board and march with me in the streets, you’re out.” I will admit I think this and grumble that we are not aligned, but I should probably repent for that. I think centered-set folks shouldn’t be afraid to share our convictions and act on them in the name of God.
Do we want to be peacekeepers (at the cost of the oppressed) or can we boldly be peacemakers (making some noise to fight for God’s justice here one earth)?
I’m looking for a church. As I search, I dig deep into denominational policies so I know what compromises I’ll be making this time around. When I scour what each sect professes at the highest levels, I grow frustrated. Often core positions stand in stark contrast to the warmth I experience as I sit in the pew.
At one point, I clicked on a video created by a white, male leader of an Evangelical denomination. He addressed his congregations, urging white Evangelical Christians to listen to stories of Evangelical people of color, urging them to hear their brothers’ and sisters’ stories of oppression. He wrote a letter emphasizing “all lives matter.” I am going to email this leader and ask him to go further, to speak for those he’s heard and urge action. The guys in the red hats will listen to him.
I want to see his message as progress, hopeful. At least he’s listening. But today, in this climate of rising hate and oppression, it is not enough. White Christians need to go beyond listening and take action. Silence on issues of injustice in the name of “just focusing on Christ” rings as false as the televangelists who preach about giving generously while hoarding funds for their mansions.
Silence isn’t neutral anymore. Silence is part of the problem. Jesus listened to the marginalized and took action. We should too.
Christian communities need to educate themselves and engage in tough issues they don’t understand. We shouldn’t do it so we can tolerate one another on Sunday morning, but so we can stand up against hatred and oppression. I am so grateful for the pagans, Mormons, Jews, atheists, Hindus and others who point me toward God, toward Jesus’s truth. I wish more of the centered-set Evangelicals pointed me there too.