StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 4: Homosexuality and Christianity

Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark

Part 3: Hell and Calvinism


Homosexuality, same sex attractive, same sex marriage

It’s unsurprising this is one of the topics covered… but it is surprising how gently and respectfully this topic is handled. It’s impressive that they chose a church planter who hold to a biblical sexual ethic and assume that this is normal among evangelical churches — rather than somehow claiming that this is a fringe, extremist position and that mainstream Christians don’t hold to a sexual ethic.

But what was curious about this part of the discussion was how the journalist, Eric, considered it a confusing inconsistency for a pastor to love and accept practising homosexuals, to welcome them to church, to even support their ability to marry in a secular society… and yet not believe that Christians ought to engage in homosexual sex.

This is revealing of a general disbelief that such a position is coherent, defensible or liveable. But again, as with other issues I’ve touched on in previous instalments in this blog series, it seems that this strongly reflects where journalist Eric Mennel’s own thinking is at.

At least as he’s quoted in this episode, church planter AJ Smith is not sharp and clear on key distinctions:

  • between sexual orientation and sexual practice.
  • Between accepting and loving someone and agreeing with their sexual lifestyle.
  • Between Christian ethics and civil law.

But it’s not obvious whether he said more in interviews with Eric to clarify his point of view, but Eric didn’t follow these further clarifications, or wasn’t persuaded that they were coherent, so left them out of the final episode.

This illustrates the difficulty that those with conservative moral views have now in communicating to many people in secular Western society. The concepts and distinctions we make in our ethics are no longer considered coherent or meaningful or useful.

The episode also raises the issue of how transparent churches are about their sexual ethics.

Sexual ethics and Transparency

One line this episode pursues, is the failure of churches to be clear about what they believe in general, and specifically about issues relevant to LGBT issues and women in leadership issues. The episode suggests that the church failing to be up front about these things is as best ambiguous and confusing and at worst actively deceptive. They talk with people from an organisation called Church Clarity that is lobbying for all churches to make their policies clear and accessible on their websites:

An organization’s website serves as a centralized location for the public to understand critical information about an organization. It is the main place that people turn to in order to find out what they can expect.

We believe that policies, especially those who have been historically marginalized, qualify as “critical information” because they directly impact people’s ability to participate, or not, in a church. While we recognize the pastoral desire to discuss nuances of a particular theology, actively enforced policies are much more straightforward. They can and should be communicated explicitly from the start (see the question below “Why do you evaluate church “policies” and not “theology”?”).

It’s a fair point. The podcast episode points out how people can get enmeshed with a church community over months and months before they realise where the church stands on some of these key issues that might be ideologically important to them — or painfully, personally relevant. That’s a rude shock to discover once you’ve already become a part of the community and its support systems. Of course, this is something that there is a decent amount of onus on the church goer or visitor to bother to ask. I don’t think it’s a surprising or shocking thing that Christian churches might have convictions on such matters, and it is strange not to think to ask.

This is an interesting issue, and a good demonstration about how churches are perceived. I don’t think it’s true or fair to say that churches are being deceptive on this matter. Rather, three things are going on:

  • churches want to be open to as many as possible, and want to have a simple core message for people to primarily engage with. They are more interested about people being clear on Jesus and his gospel, than being distracted by details of the Christian ethics or church practice.
  • Culture has changed rapidly, so that this would not have been a big issues even 3 or 5 years let alone 10 years ago. It would be assumed that people understand the basics of Christian ethics and theology.
  • Churches are also wary of how snippets from public documents can be taken out of context and interpreted unfairly, so are perhaps defensive for these reasons too.

But this is still a welcome challenge: by being cautious, and focussing on our core ‘pitch’… are we accidentally coming across as deceptive, ambiguous, confusing, hurtful.

It seems to make sense that our church websites would publish our doctrinal basis and key policy statements on these kinds of matters? I’m definitely keen to urge the organisation I’m employed by, AFES, and the local student ministry I work alongside, the University Fellowship of Christians, to be more transparent about these things.

 

 

StartUp Podcast on church planting — Part 3: Hell and Calvinism

Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark


Having made some more general comments, now in part 3 I want to consider the first ‘Big Question’ that gets raised in Episode 4 of this StartUp: the question of Hell.

Hell 

When asked about his view on hell, church planter AJ Smith gives a typical soft, Tim Keller-type description about hell as God handing us over to our rejection of him. It’s the hell-as-separation idea, that is a true, but incomplete description of the Bible’s teaching. On its own it removes the concept of hell-as-punishment and hell-as-wrath. It can run the risk of reducing hell to ‘God respecting our personal choice and giving us what we want, in a way that makes him sad, and might make us miss out on some lovely spiritual things, but isn’t all that bad’.

There are two legitimate parts of an apologetic on hell:

  1. To explain how sin is much much worse than we think it is.
  2. To explain how hell is not bad in the particular caricatured way we think it is.

Both have a place, but #1 is extremely important, and skews theology a great deal if it is left out. I think AJ makes this mistake. Nevertheless I don’t think he’s entirely wrong in what he does say.

But the way journalist Eric Mennel summarises AJ’s teaching is quite odd in its misinterpretation: ‘Ooh baby, hell is a place on Earth’. I find it hard to see how he could have come to this interpretation from what AJ said. All I can think is that AJ was sufficiently vague and ambiguous in his care not to sound like a hellfire preacher, that Eric kind of tuned out and drew his own conclusion. Or perhaps, this is a case where Eric’s own opinions trumped a fair representation of what AJ actually said?

Calvinism

The other odd thing in this part of the discussion was how inadequately and clumsily Eric described and assessed various Christian concepts of predestination. For someone who is stepping in deep to important matters of theology, and is presuming to speak as something of an insider, this was really lame. Important distinctions between Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, infralapsarianism were fudged badly.

Eric claimed that by AJ believing in genuine human responsibility, that somehow the idea of predestination was being denied or eroded. He didn’t have to explain all the finer points, nor even understand every detail. But a bit more care in research, and running his summaries by others, might have possibly avoided the fogginess of this section.

I am so thankful again for all the good points about this season, and the way Eric Mennel has put it together, so I don’t want to be a pedant. It’s a tricky thing to get right — and to package it all so it remains interesting to a total outsider listening in.

But I’m just reflecting as an evangelical Christian pastor on how it could have been even better still. Because on some of these points these Big Questions are not really handled well.

 

StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 2: General ways it misses the mark

Part 1: There’s lots to like

—-

But doesn’t get everything right, as this great review of the first few episodes on the Gospel Coalition website makes clear. This podcast season implies that the whole idea for church planting as A Thing was borrowed from and inspired by Silicon Valley startup culture. This is just not true. A real glaring historical inaccuracy, that is a nice hook to tie this podcast in to previous seasons, and to give an ‘in’ for non-Christian listeners… but bizarre nonetheless. It would have been just as good to have said ‘Similar to Silicon Valley’ rather than ‘Inspired by Silicon Valley’. Strange.

Also, the Gospel Coalition review points out, the season so far has really focussed on launching a church service rather than the larger dynamics of planting a church. This is more a matter of emphasis than error, but it still is odd. At least up to Episode 4, you don’t get much of a sense of the wider life of a church community, beyond Sunday service attendance.

But where things get really fascinating, strange and off-the-mark is in Episode 4: The Conversation where the journalist zeroes in on big points of controversy.

The Big Questions of the Day: Hell, Homosexuality and Women in Leadership

Firstly it’s just interesting to note the 3 questions that Eric picks. Not science vs Scripture, not historical reliability, not miracles, not the Trinity, not the problem of evil and suffering: Hell, homosexuality and women in leadership.

That’s an insight into some of the big issues that an educated secular Western person want to ask Christians about and challenge them on.

What’s interesting as the conversation unfolds is:

  • how measured and generous the journalist is. He doesn’t escalate and get shrill and aggressive. He points out his questions and problems, but doesn’t switch gears into condemnation and shaming.
  • The ways in which the journalist misrepresents or under-explains the underlying theological issues, and rewords the answers of the church planter and his wife.
  • The areas where the AJ Smith, church planter, and his wife Leah are honest about their discomfort with the teaching of the Bible.

I’m want to zero in on this episode in the coming instalments to this series of blog posts.

StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 1: There’s lots to like

I was amazed to discover that a podcast I’d followed since its inception — StartUp Podcast — was going to be doing its latest season on church planting! And focussing on an Acts 29 church plant in Philadelphia, no less! The trailer itself is intriguing, hearing church planting talked about seriously by a secular narrative journalism source.

It turns out the reporter himself, Eric Mennel used to be an active Christian, involved in church plants, although its unclear exactly how he’d describe his religious beliefs now. There’s a bit more about this in the final episode of the season, where he ponders why he stopped going to church a year ago… about how he still would call himself a Christian but he struggles to ‘surrender’ himself to God.

He had actually featured in an earlier season of the podcast, talking about how the secular podcast company could be strangely intolerant of evangelical Christianity. That’s worth listening to… or even reading the transcript (I LOVE transcripts!) — here’s a short excerpt:

ERIC: I was sitting outside the studio listening, as is my job for these things. And you guys started talking about religious diversity in the workplace, which was fine and interesting, but you started talking about basically writing off populations essentially because we just have to decide like who are we gonna, what we value as a company and who are we gonna target as our audience member and what are we going to develop contents around and that..that worried me, a little bit when you guys started talking about that. You know Alex, you said you don’t think we have any Evangelicals on staff..I grew up going to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and I am still a practicing Christian, and I go to church every Sunday, I have like a life group that meets in the middle of the week and half of us are StartUp listeners, a lot of StartUp fans….

ERIC: But I think I don’t know that you want to cater to people who have the same beliefs as Rush Limbaugh, you don’t wanna to cater to radical beliefs in any sense like that’s not what we are trying to do, but like the thing like 71 percent of Americans identifies as Christians and  there’s a large variety of Christian out there.

ALEX: How many people in the office know that you go to church every Sunday do you think?

ERIC: Probably a handful.

ALEX: Do you ever feel strange telling people?

ERIC: No less than 3 times did I stand outside with my headphones on listening and think about knocking on the door and then, like, no no no I’ll sit back down. When you said we don’t have any Evangelicals on staff or anybody who could..I almost like walked around almost to the window here so you can see me. Thought about waving but like, no no no, not right, not right. There’s always a tinge of discomfort like there’s always a little bit of discomfort when it comes up.

ALEX: What is that discomfort, are you worried about like incurring judgement on somewhere or is that something that you are worried about?

ERIC: I guess there is a fear about not being taken seriously to some extent. Because you believe in something that like some very smart people discount as complete hokum, you know? That you are therefore associated with that. As a Christian for me there is a feeling of responsibility to be open about your faith and to not cower when it’s easier to coward. Because it’s much much easier to deny Christ, you know, it’s much more comfortable.

There’s so much to like in this podcast… the same high production quality and skill at narrative journalism and hipster quirkiness that marks most Gimlet stuff, but also an amazing honesty and reality in the kinds of issues that the church planter and his wife (AJ and Leah Smith) talk about. They do a whole episode on the struggle between faithfulness and fruitfulness, God’s sovereignty and our responsibility that is really close to home!

Given that Eric Mennel himself used to be a very active evangelical Christian, it’s not surprising that he is very generous in his manner of reporting, really letting Christians speak for themselves on their own terms. Gosh, it’s refreshing! And it’s a great example of how helpful it is to be represented by your own community. Outsiders, no matter how well researched they all will just get things wrong in millions of little ways. So much of this StartUp season, by contrast, gets things right.

Mikey Lynch is one of the directors of Geneva Push and regularly sharing his thoughts here on this Christian Reflections blog.

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