My former youth pastor, now bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA, blogged today, and his post has had a high level of "virality."
Here's the link: http://tlgcconnections.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/insiders-and-outsiders/#comment-85
Everything I say next will make much more sense if you read his blog post first.
First, I loved this post. It tapped into something deep inside of me, perhaps because like a lot of people I'm into the idea of getting down to one basic focus and living out of it. Bishop Rinehart indicates this is the hill he will "die on": that the turnaround in the mainline churches will happen when we love the outsider as much as we love the insider.
His hunch is that our current practice is that insiders trump outsiders virtually every time.
As I sat with his blog post for a while (I have already sent a link out to our congregation so we can read it together), I started to have some sideways thoughts. First, nothing that he says in this blog post is particularly new or edgy. You can find similar insights in many books, and spoken by many leaders. Perhaps I responded strongly because it came from a bishop, and my former pastor. But as I mention, his post went viral, so it must have tapped into something wider.
Then I started to have more sideways thoughts. I realized that this "focus on the outsider" gig is kind of like a silver bullet. We actually are dying as a denomination and as mainline churches, and so we know we need to get more outsiders inside our doors if we are going to survive. It makes sense we would focus on this idea, as it is our last great hope (other than having more babies).
I think it is very possible Bishop Rinehart's blog post could be read as applying mostly to the "worship wars" or inner church conflicts. I think that would be regrettable. If I think about "outsiders" to our churches, I think especially of ethnic communities who feel uncomfortable in our churches (I just had lunch with a Latino mission developer from Springfield, MO, yesterday, for example, and he talked a lot about how behind the ELCA is in reaching the Latino population in the United States). I also think especially about class issues. If a church is primarily middle class, how is it doing at reaching the upper class, or poor neighbors. Often our churches are incredibly class stratified.
I can also imagine the outsider being people from other religions altogether, although he does not mention that in his post. In that case, our traveling out to meet our neighbor will require an even greater commitment and sacrifice on our part than even his blog post indicates.
This is where I would like to add something (and tweak) Bishop Rinehart's argument. He seems to imply that churches need to make changes so that they can attract more outsiders to become insiders. For example, he writes, "So here’s the plan. New policy. Every decision, every single decision made by staff, council and every committee is made on behalf of those not yet here." Fair enough, but what if they never come? Shouldn't our concern for the outsider be for them pure and simple, not conditioned by whether they will eventually join us? We are called to reach those outside not because it is pragmatic and will accomplish something for us, but purely because we are called to love our neighbor (and the scriptures are clear that love of neighbor is especially love of our ethnically and religiously different neighbor) as ourselves.
That is my first tweak, a reminder that missional thinking is not attractional thinking under a new guise. If the church is going to be a "sent" church, it may perpetually remain out in the world rather than in house.
Second tweak, which is also a confession. I think the first time I read this blog post, I assumed it was addressed to other people, as if I already get this message, and I need to share it with others who don't yet get it. However, the truth is, I'm an insider-insider. I'm so insider I don't remember I'm an insider. So his post needs to apply to me and my actions as much as if not more than anybody else. I'm very comfortable inside the walls of our church. I even have an office and a special closet where I hang my stoles. If there is going to be change, it needs to begin with me, the pastor, who is so very insider.
And I'm not nearly as comfortable with change as I like to think I am. Mea culpa. Like many people, I like change that benefits me. I do not prefer change that makes my life more difficult, uncomfortable, etc., even if it is on behalf of the gospel and love of neighbor.
Finally, I am a little uncomfortable with his notion that everything the community does to nurture itself has to be for the outsider. I don't think that makes complete sense. The church needs to be a centered set, not a vacated set. If there is no center into which to invite those outside, if the center doesn't hold, then there will be no place to invite into, and no community that can engage in the kinds of practices he hopes for.
Or another way of saying it, as much as I care about reaching the outsider (and I really do, and try to put practices in place to reach them often), I also believe I am called to love the insiders, my parishioners, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Bishop Rinehart indicates this as well in his blog, by noting we are called to care as much about the outsider as the insider.
The point for me is this: the way forward is not an either/or, pitting care for the outsider against care for the insider. The way forward is for the insiders to love each other up so much that they are so strengthened as a community that they simply will find (Spirit-willing) themselves loving the outsider as much as themselves. The church really is, when it lives at its best together, the institution that exists to give itself away.
p.s. Thank you to the many parishioners who wrote me today and offered wise insights, many of which helped shape this blog response.
p.p.s. Thank you to Bishop Rinehart for initiating the conversation. Even if I'm tweaking some of his thoughts, it is his initial post that got the conversation rolling.