The movement of the Spirit that is stirring moderate and progressive congregations, whether they have historically identified themselves with evangelical or mainline Protestantism, is taking form as emergent and missional communities of faith. These terms denote the reality that empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, parts of the church are bursting through old boundaries, emerging from their shells so that they might engage in world transforming ministries. As this happens, these communities are looking again at their core identities and practices, to discern whether they can support this new work of the Spirit, so that both church and society might be transformed.
As the church adapts and moves forward, it will need to stop and engage in acts of introspection. In the course of this work of self-study, the church might be well-served by considering what the stranger might see in our communities? Consider what the person, who doesn’t know much if anything about the God church folk claim to worship, sees and hears if they should walk into the typical mainline Protestant church. Will they feel welcome and safe? Or, will they find the culture and the environment of the church to be foreign and strange? Beyond the person who has little exposure to the church’s theology and practices, we might consider other persons who venture into the community. There are any number of boundary issues that need to be considered -- gender, age, ethnicity, language, socio-economic, and cultural differences that impact one’s experience of God and the church.
When the stranger enters the community of faith, does what they hear and see suggest that the denizens of the church are, in the words of Paul, “out of your mind?” Or, do they hear and experience a message that discloses the secrets of their hearts, so that in response to their encounter in this place they fall before God in worship? Or to put it a bit differently, is it possible, that the stranger might enter into the church and declare: God is in this place (1 Corinthians 14:20-25). For many progressive/mainline churches this might seem like an odd expectation, but why is that? Why can’t we expect God’s Spirit to move in such a way that lives are changed dramatically due to their encounter with God?
This is the question that haunts the church in an age of wars and rumors of wars, an age of hate speech, drive-by shootings, growing intolerance, terrorism, bombings, and kidnappings. How do we bear witness to God’s grace and love and presence in this context? The questions become even more daunting because religious people seem to be stirring up much of the heat, while more moderate and progressive voices seem to get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, the news that is heard from pulpit and pew isn’t always good. Whether it’s “fire and brimstone” or bewailing lost influence, it often seems as if the church has lost sight of its mission. And yet the church possesses good news. This is news that if it is shared will resonate with the hearts of people who face such a wearying barrage of negativity. There are people out there, some who will enter and some who will never enter – at least not without a gentle invitation – into our houses of worship, who are looking for words of hope and peace. They want to worship a God who will open up the secrets of their hearts so that might find in God a source of healing grace. And so the question remains, if the stranger walks into the church what will she or he find? What will it take for them to say: God is in this place?
Excerpted from The Gifts of Love (unpublished mss.)