It’s tough having opinions. I love to write this blog, and I use it to share my perspectives — for what they’re worth. I try very hard to say that these are my views and nothing more. I often try to write in provocative, and sometimes controversial, ways for no other reason than to stir people to reaction. Sometimes it comes back to haunt me. For example, I went to a meeting the other day with people I am getting know pretty well, and with whom I am on very good terms. One person, though, gave me a very frosty and curt reception. I finally asked the person why, and they responded, “I’m teaching The Shack in my church and the people there love it. You make it sound like anyone who likes The Shack is stupid and a poor theologian. I’m so mad at you I don’t know what to say!”
I replied, “You could try, ‘I disagree with you.'”
The person goggled at me, and said, “But you explained how it doesn’t align with good theology and The United Methodist Church!”
“Yes, in my opinion it is a book we should avoid and explain to people why,” I answered. “There is no way I would waste my own time teaching the book because there are so many other books I think have more value. This is the way I feel. Other people can feel however they want to.”
“But you sound so sure,” the person said.
“Well, I know what I think and what I feel, but I never claimed that anyone who thinks and feels differently than I do shouldn’t. Many people have shared their thinking that The Shack is a great book. I know pastors who are preaching on it. I can disagree with them if I want to.”
It is amazing to me how contentious and competitive we have become. We seem to struggle so hard with holding opposing views on important issues. Somehow everything gets boiled down to good or bad, right or wrong, smart or stupid, spiritual or worldly. Why is it we do this to ourselves? If every issue is either/or, then everything is a debate at best, or a fight at worst. All a person has to do to push another person’s hot buttons is to disagree.
What does this do when it enters spiritual community? Well, if the spiritual community is strong, it does very little. But where spiritual community is weak, it is amazingly destructive. The weaker the faith, the stronger the negative passion. People who feel assurance in their beliefs are rarely threatened by someone who disagrees with them. I find this to be especially true about ecumenical and interfaith engagement. When Christians are strong and secure in their beliefs, they joyfully and gladly engage with people of other beliefs and faiths. The weaker the personal conviction, the more hostility, distrust, disrespect, fear, and judgement define the relationship. Same goes with secular phenomena as well. Evangelicals got all up in arms about Harry Potter swaying the weak and spiritually immature. However, it seems that this was little more than projection — raising the alarm from their own weak faith. Those who were strong in their faith and intellectually rigorous saw the stories for what they are — stories. Only those who believe that the devil is as strong as, or stronger than, God had anything to fear. Doubt is not the antithesis of faith; fear is. Where people scream loudest against opponents, it is fear that motivates them, not faith.
I got a phone call a couple years ago from a lay person who told me that their pastor said I wouldn’t help them because I was against church growth. This person read a couple of my books and was confused. He said the pastor told them that I believed the only “good” church is a small church. After reading my writing, this person couldn’t figure out what the pastor was talking about. I don’t have that problem. I know exactly why that pastor thinks I am against church growth. I am dead set against superficial, consumeristic, populist, celebrity/entertainment centered church growth — which I believe accounts for 75% of fast growing congregations. I have no use for churches that boast big numbers (including big numbers of inactives) but make little impact. However, I love churches of transforming Christian disciples that are grounded in sound Christian values and the practice of the means of grace. These are rare, and they require a lot of work and they take time to grow and they seldom get huge. So, sure, I do not promote what most people want and value. My definition of growth simply doesn’t align with that of most United Methodists. To question the wisdom of numeric growth in this denomination pushes all kinds of buttons.
When I shared dozens of impressions of ReThink Church — both good and bad — I got letters and phone calls from church leaders deeply offended that I would question the wisdom of the denomination. However, the positive responses I got — from bishops, agency heads, conference leadership, and over 170 pastors — far outweighed the 20 negative ones I received. Sometimes it is worth pushing buttons just to see how people really feel. I knew it would be unpopular to challenge one of our “branding” efforts, but being popular just isn’t my thing. I think our church is making a big mistake trying to figure out how to be popular instead of making a difference. I’d rather we made a difference.
It saddens me that having an opinion, raising questions, disagreeing, and pointing out flaws in thinking, acting, or core values is no longer acceptable to many within our church. I will continue to raise questions and push buttons — not from any malicious intent, but because I believe that open dialogue is essential if we’re to have any kind of future.