Last Friday, I posted a piece titled “Nine Blessings from the Non-Conservative Christian Movement.” I thought it would be interesting this Friday to swing that table around and write about things that non-conservatives can learn from conservatives. Keep in mind that when I talk about non-conservative and conservative Christians, I am talking about theology, not politics. While theological and political leanings tend to be in the same direction, they aren’t always the same.
1) The Importance of Community
Conservative Christians have been really good at forming a community where they feel welcomed and included. In this community they raise their children, do life together, form a theological understanding together, and have a place to go to be prayed for and supported when needed. They take seriously the biblical teaching not to forsake gathering together.
Lack of this kind of community is a real issue among many non-conservative believers. It doesn’t help that many of the leaders of the non-conservative movement have declared that they have left the church. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith” where she not only hangs up her priestly attire, but says she feels at home on Sundays now just hanging out on her farm or attending a variety of different denominations with no church community to call her own. Then there is Rachel Held-Evans who is just starting to “try on” church again after abandoning it for several years. Brian McLaren’s article for the Huffington Post titled “Why we are Leaving Church” spoke to how church has become irrelevant for so many progressives. And even Rob Bell left the church that he grew to mega-church proportions.
Granted, many non-conservatives have grown weary of being condemned by the church for their non-fundamentalist theology and have decided to go it alone. Sometimes, they’ve even left church because they were asked to leave. But it is time for non-conservatives to move beyond licking the deep wounds of exclusion and make “gathering together” a priority. No one can optimally follow Christ without the support of other followers. Community isn’t a nice to have. Community is necessary in order to experience a healthy and complete spirituality – a place to be baptized, a place to take the Eucharist, and a place to serve the world together. And even a place that will help you raise your kids and take care of you when you most need it.
I am not suggesting that non-conservatives return to the churches they fled. There are churches and whole denominations who want you just as you are. I think the best Christian communities are the ones that welcome both conservative and non-conservative theology. But don’t stop until you find a community where you are wanted. I’d advise you to keep looking if they don’t allow the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ in their leadership and clergy.
2) An Attraction to Bible Study
Conservatives place a high importance on Bible study. They often teach that Bible study is the primary way that church members experience spiritual growth. I don’t really agree with that line of thinking any longer. I think worship, the practice of spiritual disciplines, and prayer are every bit as important for spiritual growth – if not more important. However, I grieve that so many non-conservatives have been turned off to Bible study. But I can see why. So many Bible studies – instead of challenging the student to dig in and discuss challenging questions – just declare worn out dogmatic answers.
But the Bible is fascinating when one digs in. I love studying this ancient text and pouring over its mysteries – from five thousand year old accounts of encounters with God to the closest friends of Jesus recording their insights and impressions of the Messiah.
If you’ve perused the rest of my website, you know Bible study is my thing. When I grow up, I’d like to be the non-conservative, less well dressed, never in your face version of Beth Moore. Or maybe the more humorous, generator of questions with less hard and fast answers, hippie version of Kay Arthur. I am in the process of considering a contract offer on my first book – a parable that teaches the Epistle of James – so keep this in mind later in the year if you get the hankering for studying scripture!
3) The Necessity of Financial Giving
Conservatives have long taught that all members should give at least 10% of their earnings to God. I think we can debate the need for a hard and fast percentage, but we can’t debate that non-conservatives should be pooling their resources to serve God and others. However, studies show that when non-conservatives join a church, they do not contribute much of anything financially until they have been members for at least five years. It is likely that they feel the need to stick around long enough to be assured their money isn’t going towards buying the pastor a second home in the Cayman Islands.
It is important that you find a great church and contribute financially – otherwise there won’t be any non-conservative churches left! And support your non-conservative clergy by paying them a fair wage and providing benefits.
4) A Willingness to Call-Out Sin
Conservatives focus mostly on personal sins (think sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll) and non-conservatives focus more on corporate sins (think all manner of social injustices). Overlooking our different definitions of sin, conservatives aren’t afraid to yell “sinner” when they see one. Conservatives believe that certain people are evil and that it is their duty to name the offenders and beat them down.
On the other hand, non-conservatives tend to believe that humans are basically good. However, that doesn’t really explain slavery, human trafficking, 9/11, violence against women, poverty, the Boston marathon bombing, pollution, global warming, or Sandy Hook.
Non-conservatives might want to rethink the possibility of the existence of an unseen, supernatural, organized “evil” in the world. Perhaps evil does exist and, in fact, has an agenda to destroy all that is innocent and good. Non-conservatives need to learn to name evil (which is different from yelling “sinner”), identify its agenda, and fight it. Of course, non-conservatives would fight it using non-violent means like education and working justice out in the legal system. Even so, non-conservatives should never stop holding onto hope that all humans basically want to be good and do good.
5) Zeal for Evangelism
Conservatives (sometimes synonymous with the term evangelical) make it a priority to invite outsiders to become one of them, while non-conservatives aren’t quite sure what to do with Jesus’ command to “go into all the world.” Personally, I distinguish between being evangelical and being evangelistic. For me, “evangelical” has come to mean, “my goal is for you to become like me in my faith so that your salvation is assured.” Whereas “evangelistic” means “you have an open invitation to join with me in seeking the way of Christ together.” We may evangelize for different reasons, but non-conservatives clearly need to get better at unapologetically inviting the stranger into their communities. Non-conservatives need to start accepting that having the stranger join them is good for everyone. More friends and a richer life for existing members. But it’s good for the stranger too, because our communities are committed to accepting, loving, and serving them in the way of Christ. We need to believe that what our communities offer is valuable!
Well, that does it. Five things non-conservatives can learn from conservatives! Would love to hear your comments. In closing, whether you are a conservative Christian or a non-conservative Christian, here is a mystery for all of us to ponder…
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40 NRS).
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.