Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Loving the Outsider and Silver Bullets

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:

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.


  1. The blog post was interesting, along with your tweak.

    The insider that was drawn in my mind was the one's holding the purse strings over the church leadership. The outsider are the one's we want to come and worship with us so that they too my receive Jesus as their savior, and join us to hear his words on Sundays.

    What is the congregation left in the pews that get's caught in the crossfire between the insiders and outsiders called?

    As one of the one's caught in the cross fire; I do like the opportunity for change, but sometimes feel that once the change has taken place that a swing backwards would be a change also that might be in need.

    The mention about the insiders trying to hold on to a childhood dream perhaps when things were different back then and maybe made a little more sense. Was perhaps more on target then he realized. Feeling the way you did when you sung or heard the familiar sound of the older hymns that made you remember that you are saved can be a warm feeling that can keep you warm for 7 days.

    As the topic lead toward the music played during the services along with the flow of worship. The two services that are offered at Good Shepherd fits many of the needs for not only the insiders but the outsiders. BUT, (here it comes) for the one that may be caught in the crossfire to be able to sing along with the worship or hymns we have, it would help if one had a education in the art of music. Some of the hymns are hard to follow along with the flow of the congregations response's during the service are in a hard to follow their musical rhythm, which can turn away one from responding during the service which then leads to the feeling as if one has not partaken in the worship on Sunday.

    I appreciate all the time and effort that is put into our music selections; but a little mix might be a welcome tune for some that can't carry a tune. There are some great hymns that no matter how may times they are sang (on key or off) that still move the soul closer to God and leave you wanting more. (just like that one great golf shot or one great strike in bowling which keeps you coming back for more).

    Wishing you a great day, and look forward to your sermon on Sunday.

  2. Duane, thanks for your articulate and thoughtful response. I agree that creating a dichotomy between "outsider" and "insider" leaves little room for imagining a spectrum, which is why I think "centered-set" thinking is more helpful. People find themselves in many different places on this issue, including in the crossfire.

    I think you make a great point about worship. I myself prefer "blended" styles of worship that incorporate "contemporary" music, ancient chant, etc. Since I like a wide variety of worship music, that just makes sense to me. But I know that many people are very committed to their own style, and so worship services tend to get designed for that style. Your point, though, is that whatever the style, the selections should be easy for the congregation to sing, or there should be some training to help sing them?

    Again, thanks for reading and responding!

  3. Great thoughts, Clint. Thanks.

    To answer one question you raise, no, it wasn't really about worship wars. I just happened to use hymns selection as an example.

    I agree that we don't forget those inside. My Belief is that couldn't happen. Therefore, focusing obsessively on the outsider might, maybe, almost balance things out. At least that's my hunch.

    What if they don't come? Then we come at it from a different angle. Once church I served didn't put in wheelchair ramps because, "We don't have any handicapped people." and they never will.

  4. Mike, I agree with you that we probably need to obsessively focus on the outsider to even get to some kind of balanced level. Hence the necessity of stating things in the strong terms in which you stated them. That's a good hunch.

    As for the "what if they don't come," I'm thinking of something a little bit different, like a dispersed or scattered church. Perhaps they don't need to come. Perhaps we need to go where "they" are. That's the missional insight, in any event. :)

    Thanks for sparking the dialogue!

  5. Thank you, Clint, for moving the discussion to the center. Or maybe to the "boundary." Influenced much by Paul Tillich, I have tended to see insider/outsider issues as boundary issues. We discover ourselves essentially within the polarities of individualization/participation, dynamics/form, and freedom/destiny. If we push to any one pole, we lose authenticity. These are the primary polarities for Tillich, but there are many more, e.g., insider/outsider or center/perimeter. Only an insider can go to the outsider. Tim Wengert has written about centripetal worship, worship that throws us to the outside; but worship has to be simultaneously centrifugal. There is no church without the assembly. When we move out of the dialectical tension of insider/outsider losing sight of the center, we become defined by the perimeter.

    In more theological terms, the church formed by the gospel in the assembly is called, gathered and enlightened and kept in the one true faith forming a center whose very nature is "apostolic." We are a centered (inside) people sent to the edges of creation. God loves God's creation and claims all things in Christ, who is one with the Father, and who propelled by the Spirit goes "outside the gate" to endure suffering in order to make holy all that belongs to God.

    The Church does not make one journey to the outside. We are constantly driven to the outside by the very act of assembling and forming an inside, a center through the hearing of the word, the washing with the word and the eating and drinking with the word.

    The writer of Hebrews gets at this when on the one hand s/he writes,

    "Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. Hebrews 10:23-25 NRSV)

    And then on the other hand, s/he writes,

    "Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come." (Hebrews 13:12-14 NRSV)

    If we are going to wager our lives, we should die fighting on the boundary, in the tension of insider/outsider.

  6. Thank you, Roger. Your added nuance is helpful, and I especially find helpful your references from Hebrews. Those are very appropriate. I recently finished reading a book that argues that Priscilla is the author of Hebrews, so your use of s/he was also fun to see.

  7. Clint, I most experience the "worship wars" in my own congregation as one set of insiders against another who like/hate liturgy, and who like hymns/like 'songs'. The problem is that there is 'worship evangelism' literature out that that suggests that only praise choruses and no liturgy is welcoming to 'outsiders', whoever we think they are. I also like what you say about not just trying to get people inside, where we are. When the Pat Keifert stuff about "welcoming the stranger" came out, my brain immediately went to the idea that mission isn't just about "welcoming the stranger", but also about "being the stranger." at least, that's what I experienced when I was a missionary.