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Finding the right church

 

Question & Answer

 
Q: By Susan

I have been an on and off member of a Assemblies of God church  15 years –  the pastor is more liberal in his style of message giving. They can’t and don’t speak to the issues of gayness and they would say that Jesus is the only way to God. This pastor has meant so much to me. He introduced me to the person of Jesus, which has led to my graduate studies in theology. Problem is, I am much more progressive than they are. I’ve had a troubled childhood, so my journey to God has been fraught with questions, which theology school is helping me to investigate.

I also have a child who dislikes Sunday school at this church, which makes me sad. I want her to feel excited about knowing God, but the language they use sometimes is a bit unapproachable–even reading the Bible to a kid with words like “righteous” means nothing–even to me.

I was going to try the Universalist Unitarian church, but it seems to denounce God and lessen Jesus. I want to be a Christian and I want to show my daughter who God is and can be, but I’m at a loss. Do I stay where I am or do I join a less Christian church? Either way I will feel like an outsider.

A: By Rev. Jim Burklo

Dear Susan,

You are in excellent company in your quandary, and in your quest to find your way into a faith community that serves the souls of you and your dear daughter.   I pray that you won’t despair, and that you will find the church home that is right for you.

Your story resonates with my own.  Jesus captured my heart in a conversion experience when I was sixteen years old.  But I was that kid who asked questions that the youth leaders and pastor could not answer.  Finally, the pastor told me:  “If you keep asking all these questions, you’re going to argue your way into seminary!”  And that’s exactly what happened.   What a relief it was to arrive at seminary and find other progressive Christians who valued the questions even more than dogmatic answers!  It took a long time for me to “find my people”, but I’m grateful I did.  And I really hope that happens for you and your daughter.

Good news!  In your area there are many wonderful progressive Christian churches: open-hearted, open-minded, Jesus-loving communities.  Look them up here.  And if you otherwise appreciate what you find in the Unitarian community, you might also explore the network of Christian UUA’s.  UUA congregations differ substantially:  some lift up their Christian heritage, others do not.

As you “church shop”, ask about the curricula in Sunday Schools.  A Joyful Path is the wonderful new curriculum produced by ProgressiveChristianity.org, used in many churches in our network.   Some otherwise progressive churches continue to use denominational Sunday School curricula that are not in “synch” with what is preached and taught to adults, so it’s important to inquire about the details.

I urge you to abandon shyness about asking hard questions about the churches you visit.  It will save you a lot of time and heartache!  Many churches seem “cool” because they have rock bands and the preachers wear designer street wear.  But upon further examination, they turn out to be fundamentalists in skinny jeans!  More and more evangelical churches make a big deal about welcoming gay and lesbian people, but in fact they do not affirm their sexuality and do not celebrate same-sex marriages.  Before suffering disappointment, it’s good to discover reality up-front.

Here’s a “cheat sheet” of questions, to get you started as you visit a congregation:
1.  Can I make great new friends there?
2.  Does it have meaningful worship?
3.  Does it offer Bible study?
4.  Will it help me grow in my relationship with Jesus?
5.  Does it practice meditative prayer?
6.  Can it help to get me involved in activism for service and social justice?
7.  Do its members take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally?
8.  Does it take scientific and intellectual exploration seriously – for example, does it accept the validity of the theory of evolution?
9.  Are women given the same opportunities for leadership positions in the church as men?
10.  Does it fully affirm LGBTQI sexuality, and celebrate same-sex marriage?
11.  Does it teach that how we treat others is the true test of our faith, rather than belief in a fixed doctrine?
12.  Does it respect and celebrate other faiths?  Does it teach that other religions might be as good for others as Christianity is for us?
13.  Does it teach that because God is love, nobody is going to hell?

If “yes” is the answer to all of these questions, you’ve probably found a solid progressive church.

Here’s a “next-level” set of questions to pose to pastors and lay leaders of the churches you are exploring:
1.  Who or what do you mean by the word “God”?  Do you experience God?  If you say you believe in God, what do you mean by “belief”?  (For a list of different understandings of God, see my blog article, “Varieties of God”.)
2.  Is the Bible the Word of God to humans, or is it humans’ words about God?  What is your relationship to the Bible?  How literally do you take its miracle stories (walking on water, physical resurrection, etc), if at all?  (See my “musings” blog entry on “How to Read the Bible” to explore this topic.)
3.  Who was Jesus?  Who/what is the Christ?  What is your relationship to Jesus and/or the Christ?
4.  Can people be “saved” without Christ or Christianity?  Are there ways to experience God/Ultimate Reality outside of Christ or Christianity?  Can other religions possibly be as good for other people as Christianity is for us?
5.  Do you think it is okay for LGBTQ people to have sex?  Under what circumstances?  Do you support same-sex marriage?
6.  Do you support women as leaders in all roles in church and society?  Do you support a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion?
7.  Does your faith lead you to take political action for economic justice and peace?  (Lots more on such issues at ProgessiveChristiansUniting.org .)
8.  What other questions should I be asking?

Let me know when you find the church home you’ve been yearning to discover!

~ Rev. Jim Burklo
jtburklo@yahoo.com

About the Author
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained United Church of Christ minister, he formerly served as a community organizer, director of a homeless services agency, church pastor, and campus minister.  He is a member of the board of directors of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and an honorary advisor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.  Jim is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, including TENDERLY CALLING: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus, which will be in print in early 2021.  His weekly blog, “musings”, has a global readership.

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