February 24, 2013

An Open Letter to my Evangelical Friends

We go way back, you and I. My earliest encounter with an evangelical Christian was at a slumber party in elementary school. The lights were out, but instead of letting the darkness free us to confess which boys we liked, my friend confided in me that her family prayed that my family would get saved. I was dumbfounded. Saved from what? I thought. We're Methodists! She taught me all about asking Jesus into your heart, but when I prayed the prayer she taught me, nothing happened.

I tried it again at a Christian rock concert in junior high when the singer issued a passionate altar call. I still didn't feel anything particularly spiritual, but I did experience the salvation of my social life. I cherished the sense of belonging I experienced with my youth group friends, and jumped headfirst into our comfortable subculture of DC Talk and "Pray Hard" t-shirts and the Christian puppetry team. I cannot remember actually praying much, except for that one time before school when we circled up around the flag pole feeling proud of ourselves for being such courageous witnesses for Jesus. With so little depth to my spiritual life, my conviction wavered.

At the end of my eighth grade year Billy Graham came to town. I got saved yet again, but even as I stood with my friends on the football field of the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium, I knew my heart wasn't really in it. My role as a student liaison for See You At the Pole had landed me on a mailing list for a well-known conservative Christian organization. Even as a thirteen-year-old kid I was appalled when they sent me a letter encouraging me to sign up for their new phone company because secular phone companies were known to offer telephone services to gay families. I wrote a letter in protest, asking them to remove me from their list.

That was the first of our many fights. I spent most of my high school and college years arguing with you whenever I could. The fights only intensified after I rediscovered my mainline Christian faith at church camp. My camp counselors were seminarians who completely upended my understanding of Jesus. They talked about social justice and introduced me to the world of liberal theology. Though I still had a woefully superficial faith, I loved this new-to-me expression of Christianity. I routinely got into theological debates with evangelical friends that ended with them telling me that I was not, in fact, a Christian. I'm sure I threw my share of conversational bombs, but that always hurt.

The debates about evolution and biblical inerrancy were one thing, but they weren't what sent me running away from you as fast as I could. I remember the day a group of us were hanging out at a friend's house when she received word that her uncle had died unexpectedly. She was devastated. After a brief pause, one boy quietly asked, "Did he know the Lord?" I can't tell you how angry I was. It seemed to me that the last thing our friend needed was to be told that her uncle was headed to hell if he hadn't been a Christian.

And then there was the stuff that makes me blush (note that I did not participate in "impromptu sex  week"; I am not nearly as brave as the wondrous Sarah Bessey). For someone who no longer identified as an evangelical Christian, I had a tendency to date boys who did. I don't kiss and tell (especially on the internet), but I will say it was profoundly uncomfortable when that one boy always wanted to pray together for forgiveness when we "went too far." (Make out, pray, repeat.) And I was just plain confused when my girlfriend and I were visiting guy friends and one of them insisted we drive to church separately to avoid the "appearance of evil." I couldn't even begin to understand what on earth he was talking about. I ended up breaking up with a really nice guy because I could not handle that he believed Buddhists were going to hell.

By the time I was marrying a deeply spiritual yet non-practicing Catholic and heading off to seminary to pursue a calling to ordained ministry in the mainline Christian church, I wanted nothing to do with you. I chose a very liberal seminary to give myself an opportunity to grow as a Christian without constantly battling people who didn't think I even was one. Evangelicalism was only ever mentioned in withering, dismissive tones, like that time our worship class watched a recording of a contemporary worship service only to critique how bad it was. We would wonder to one another why any thinking person would go to that kind of church.

Then I was a pastor, and encountered a handful of evangelicals who only spoke of me and my clergy sisters in withering, dismissive tones. What goes around comes around, I guess.

But something started to change in me. Spending so much time in sermon preparation had a curious effect. Some of the ideologies that had been dear to me in seminary faded in importance as Jesus became far more vivid. I'd go looking for good cultural and biblical commentary and found that the more conservative sources were infinitely more interesting to me.

And then I made my first post-seminary evangelical friend, Suzie Lind. She had happened upon my blog and invited me to a local gathering of women in ministry. Every other woman there was serving in an evangelical church in some sort of women's or children's ministry. I was the only ordained mainline pastor. I had my hackles up the whole time, just waiting for someone to challenge my right to teach men. No one did. The group didn't take off but my friendship with Suzie did. We were only able to get together a couple times before I moved away from California, but I cannot overstate how great it was to have a real life evangelical friend with whom I did not debate theology. Instead, we spoke warmly and openly about our ministries, our families, our faith - and then we prayed together. Grasping hands with Suzie Lind and listening to the intimacy with which she spoke to God was incredible. I felt so encouraged and blessed. I felt closer to Jesus for having prayed with Suzie.

Nowadays I have a growing handful of evangelical friends, and I don't know what I'd do without you. I am not one of you; I will always be most at home in the mainline church, with our stained glass, liturgy, and open and affirming communities. Sometimes you still agitate me. Sometimes I'm just plain bewildered by the things that seem like a big deal to you. (I really like Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans, but they really aren't saying anything all that different than what mainline Christians have been saying all along; the big deal is that they are saying these things even as they continue to affirm that they are still indeed evangelicals.) I have absolutely no doubt that I still agitate you, and that you are just plain bewildered by the things that seem like a big deal to me.

Many of us seem to have fallen off of different fences into the same field. We're suddenly hanging out in the same places. So far, we seem to be getting along okay (it probably helps that we all seem to agree Mark Driscoll is a bit problematic). I'm honored to be hosting several of you here as part of the Women in Ministry Series. I'm even listening to your music again, which I think we can all agree has improved since the early 1990s. I'm learning so much from you these days. It just isn't the Church without you, and I hope you feel the same way about me, too.

Let's stay friends forever.

Better yet, let me quote Paul:

Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.

Love,
Katherine

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