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A proposal: Fearless Sunday – A Day for Theological “Outing” (Second Sunday in September – 9/9/2018)

So, Reverend: how many more Sundays, how many more years, how many more decades do your folks have to wait before you tell them the truth about what you really do and don’t believe?  If you think they don’t know that you are faking it, guess again.  People know more than they can or want to tell.  So get ready: Fearless Sunday is coming!

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak with a group of students who attend a fundamentalist Christian college.  This “collective” was organized by students as a safe space for grappling with spiritual and religious questions.  It meets in a “mainline” Protestant church building near the college.  The group cannot meet at the college, because the kinds of conversations they hold would not be allowed there.

The meeting began with students going around the circle to share their personal and spiritual journeys.  Every one of the twelve students present was well on their way into exile from fundamentalist Christianity, and having a very hard time in the process.  None could stick to the rigid doctrinal program that was being followed, at least nominally, by most everyone they knew – their fellow students, their families, their churches.  Each student was suffering confusion, exclusion, fear, ridicule, and at least some emotional distress.  And they revealed that many of their peers were suffering similarly, though in silence.  I was overwhelmed by their pain.  One young man was a student pastor intern, and he shared the story of how he had to give a talk at his church about a theological topic.  With relief in the telling, he described his inner turmoil as he said things in the church that he did not believe any more, in order to avoid being fired and shunned.

I learned that their Bible college is seething with this kind of turmoil, festering with dishonesty among faculty and students about the yawning gap between what they really think and what they are compelled to say they believe.

I was asked to introduce mindful Christian contemplative practice to them, and the students were enthusiastic about the exercise.  They seemed thrilled to experience an alternative form of Christianity.   At least some of these students may find their way into progressive churches.  But the dull, dusty, dirty sanctuary where we met was unlikely to be a place they’d go for worship.  The building and its signage gave no hint about the theological perspective of the congregation.  On the walls were wrinkled felt banners that might have been made in the 1960’s.

Very many evangelical and fundamentalists preachers no longer believe everything (or even very much) of what they are preaching.  And untold numbers of parishioners pretend to assent to preaching that makes little sense to them.  This is true also in many “mainline” churches that are more theologically diverse.  Pastors and members are afraid to rock the doctrinal boat, for fear that some parishioners – and their pledges – will fall out.

So I propose a new, annual tradition for churches of all kinds:  Fearless Sunday, the second Sunday of September.  The start of the “program year” of many churches is a good time for parishioners to hear preachers boldly share their truth about their theological and social perspectives.  It is a time for preachers to “out” themselves on matters of doctrine and practice, share the ways they have evolved spiritually, and to invite their listeners to do the same.

I am haunted by the time I preached for a big Congregational church in the Midwest, over a decade ago.  Arriving at the church, I was still a bit mystified by the invitation.  But after worship, the reason was obvious.  I was accosted after worship by a big cluster of people who were thrilled with my theologically and socially progressive Christian message.  “I waited fifty years to hear what you said today!” exclaimed one older gentleman.  I realized that the pastor had invited me to come all the way from California to say what he wished he could say every Sunday.  As a visiting preacher, I was not so threatening to the subset of the membership that believed in supernaturalism.  But I could give hope to the theologically progressive members that there could be a place for them in the church.

I understand the fear that holds pastors back from admitting that they understand the resurrection of Jesus to be a life-affirming myth and not an historical fact.  I can appreciate their fear of openly supporting gay marriage and LGBTQ sexuality, and their reticence to preach that God is Love and not a Guy in the Sky.  The consequences of being fearless can be devastating, personally and professionally.  Truth-telling can end pastors’ employment, wipe out their careers, and ruin their personal finances.  It can wreck their friendships and family relationships.  The new film, “Come Sunday, illustrates the price that Bishop Carlton Pearson, protege of the fundamentalist preacher, Oral Roberts, paid for his honesty about “getting the Hell out of Christianity”.

But the consequences of lying are just as devastating as those of truth-telling, even if the havoc might play out over a longer period of time.  Dishonesty from the pulpit infects the church with deep spiritual malaise that no one may be willing to diagnose.  The failure of pastors to be honest about their belief or unbelief is a major contributing factor in the precipitous decline in church membership in the U.S..  By continuing to preach stuff they don’t think or feel, they may temporarily keep the “quantity” in the church, but at the expense of its “quality”.   But over time, without real quality, the quantity shrinks to nothing.  In many cases, pastors discover that being absolutely honest about what they do and don’t believe results not in church decline, but in congregational renewal.  Some folks quit, but others join with enthusiasm.  Other churches with fearless pastors and parishioners shrink in size due to their forthrightness, but they adjust to their new reality with powerfully refreshed energy — smaller but mightier.

Fearless Sunday may be a scary day of reckoning for a lot of pastors and churches.  Simply hearing about it – or knowing that parishioners have heard about it – could put serious pressure on pastors and parishioners to “out” themselves.  I respect the choices that pastors make when faced with the devil’s bargain of being honest or being unemployed.  I once faced that bargain myself, and dealt with the tough consequences of speaking my truth.  So while urging pastors to get honest will ultimately do Christianity a lot of good, none should be “outed” without their consent.

If progressive Christians really care about the suffering that faces evangelical pastors who “come out”, then we’ll get serious about making room for them in our ranks.  This means eliminating or at least bending our outdated rules regarding ministerial “search and call”.  A few years ago, an evangelical pastor friend of mine, who led a growing church of mostly young members, was sacked for admitting to his higher-ups that he supported gay marriage.  This pastor was a rock-star leader.  But when I tried to set him up as a United Church of Christ minister, we hit multiple roadblocks that would have taken years to pass.  It should boggle our minds that in the era of LinkedIn, when you can sort through resumes and endorsements online in a flash, our denominational bureaucrats continue to make it painfully slow and difficult for pastors to get jobs and for churches to get pastors.  My friend ended up managing a bar, working for a nonprofit at pitiful pay, and finally getting a decent job outside of the church, four years later.  What a waste of talent!

Fearless Sunday is about rescuing the church from its delusions.  It is about saving Christianity from its enslavement to dead doctrines that block Jesus’ Way of compassion.  It is about assuring the survival of a faith that is threatened with extinction through dishonesty.  And it is about the huge sighs of relief that pastors will exhale once they’ve come clean.  Christianity must transform or evaporate.  In fear it disappears, but in fearlessness it can serve souls, far into the future.
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG   Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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