While recently attending a writing workshop, the presenter offered some advice that hasn’t left me since I first heard it. “If you want to write well, if you want to connect with your audience,” she offered, “You always must tell the truth. There’s nothing that can spoil a good story faster than a character who the readers know is not forthcoming in their words.”
Similarly, when I think of the local church and what its hopeful future means to so many of us, I can’t help but think of my writing teacher’s advice. In the age of decline, division and discord of modern Protestant life, we also need to tell the truth.
How many times have you heard such whispers in church life: “I am not sure my church is willing to invite a woman to be senior pastor yet” or “Could you please not mention gay people when you come speak at the conference?” or “Could you not bring that loud music into my worship service?”
And then the conversation goes on: “You just don’t understand how things are. You can’t ask me to change that right now even if I wanted to . . . ”
But this is what I wonder: is the real problem our biblical understanding of a women’s place in ministry? Is our real problem with what God thinks of gay and lesbian people? Is our real problem standards for what meaningful worship looks like? Or, is this all about what makes us afraid?
This is what I think is true: we are afraid. I know because I was once afraid of all of these things too.
We’re afraid of what the church might look like if more women, especially younger women, started preaching from our pulpits, dedicating our babies and baptizing our children. All that estrogen in church council and deacon meetings might just lead us in unknown directions of ministry.
We’re afraid of the new paradigm that would come from sermons in higher pitched voices or the need to create pastoral maternity leave policies.
Some of us fear what the church might look like if we openly welcomed gay and lesbian members into our congregation. For, without that “sin” to label as most hated in the eyes of God, we might have to look deeper into our own hearts and see that we too have fallen short of God’s best.
We’re afraid of how we might feel if we were wrong about God’s inclusion policy.
Some of us fear what the church might look like if we lived more authentically with one another. Instead of blaming the change in the church music program for causing a scene at choir practice or making us unhappy, we’d actually be able to say, “My marriage is in trouble,” “I don’t know how I am going to get through the teenage years with my son” or “I think I am going to lose my job.”
We’re afraid to let people see the broken parts of us, the parts that make us human.
But, do we want our fears to stunt our growth as communities of faith?
Do we want our church families to be even more divided simply because we are afraid to listen to something new?
No matter where ongoing discussions about “What is the future of the church?” take us in all the places we are having them, I hope more spaces are made available for us to be honest.
We need to “Tell it like it is,” as my grandmother used to say.
We need to speak our fears aloud what we are questioning or searching for answers about without fear of judgment.
We need to know that change is hard and doesn’t happen overnight, but at the very least we have to start by listening to each other, listening to what is underneath what we are saying, and make space for one another to be heard.