River-city Reflections: Thoughts on the Role of the Church

Nathaniel Nelson   |   December 17, 2018
Nathaniel NelsonNathaniel Nelson

We are near to closing the pages on 2018, the rush of the holiday season punctuated by moments of piercing joy and warm thanksgiving, and inevitably my mind turns to New Years resolutions, holiday imaginings, and long-term plans.  I’m also thinking about the role of church in building heaven on earth, and the role it has in my own life.  I want to take some space to reflect on my complicated relationship with church and offer a picture of how I’m navigating it in this XPLOR program.  I confess it’s often difficult at times to connect with worship experiences and believe in our current models of organized spiritual life.  On the other hand, I believe the body of Christ is a manifestation of the fully realized humanity we are to become, and that people of faith who care about justice have a unique and powerful role in bringing about the redemption of all things.

My frustration with the church today has roots that are old and deep, and have to do with my gay body being treated as less than an image-bearer of the Creator God.  It also stems from the disconnect I’ve often experienced between faith and works, theory and practice, the talk and the walk.  For those who haven’t grown up in diverse church circles, it only takes a cursory look at our political landscape to see the extent to which the church has misrepresented Christ.  When upwards of 81% of white evangelical voters supported our current administration, and when evangelical churches and megachurches in general are growing in numbers while mainline Protestant congregations dwindle (and everyone forgets our Orthodox siblings), it’s plain that something has gone wrong.  More personally, I remember being inspired as I grew up (in youth groups as well as family and friend circles) with the grand vision of the kingdom of God, a perfect and perfected world, a fully redeemed humanity in a fully realized creation.  I was ingrained with a sense of urgency in our mission as Christians in bringing about this heavenly reality, and I remain convinced of this calling as people of faith to bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

However, there were discrepancies.  When we were told “God can use anything to reach people,” what we saw was street-preaching, colonialism, and depressingly incompetent Christian media.  When we were told “sex is sacred, your body is a temple,” what we saw was purity culture, patriarchy, and gay-bashing.  And it always came in mixed bags: summer and winter camps provided robust opportunities for young boys and burgeoning adolescents to connect with our peers, our mentors, and sometimes ecstatic spiritual experiences and revelations.  I distinctly remember my youth leaders naming the problem of “spiritual highs” as part of camp life, and discussing in earnest how we might take it down the mountain into our daily lives.  It never worked, of course, and thank goodness it didn’t.  Beyond that, no one thought to question the basic model that created these “highs” and subsequent crashes in the first place.  We were also provided a detailed and meticulous script for why good Christian men aren’t gay, and often in not so many words, anything gay effortlessly associated with everything heathen or pagan or atheist or “of the world.”  For the girls, it was time to remember not to dress provocatively, and to explore a worthy life of submission to the rule of your husband, which you can practice doing by submitting to the men in your life right now.  They were included in worship of course, the women joined in the dance, the girls prayed right by our side on the tall hill under the stars.  In the dim light, gender was blurry, gray hoodies could cover anyone, and soft giggles and furtive touches could slip under the sound of the guitar and past the star-bent gazes.

These strange paradoxes marked the first great conflict of interests in me: the desire to live a good Christian life in the church, and the desire to live an authentic life true to who I knew myself to be.  These apparent desires in conflict came crashing together when I went to college and discovered affirming theologies and other lovely people who had traveled over the rainbow before me, returning with bright jewels, bedazzled with the kind of self-assurance I so longed to exude.

So what of the church?  By the end of my exile in Holland, Michigan, I am proud to say I wore my colors out and loud, rallying like-minded people around me, church-goers and not, to demand a more transparent and representative faith from my alma mater.  Returning to the world of black and white from a foray into vibrant technicolor was no longer possible.  And yet not only could I not escape my past, I in fact never wanted to.  I still don’t.  I still catch my breath whenever I visit my high school or elementary school again, still slow down in a car or on a bike when I pass our old house on 29th Street, look at pictures from those summer and winter camps, those fall and spring and rain and fire and pain and laughter camps.

I speak of camp so much because it offers church life condensed, a dozen weeks of Sunday worship time rolled into one.  And because many people recognize something about weekly Sunday worship is not connecting with young people in most cases.  I’m not sure how to approach this disconnect, but already I have been encouraged by what I’ve seen in various church models, both contemporary and ancient.

Here at Country Homes, I’m exploring worship in a Disciples context with a congregation that is full of charity and kindness.  I’ve been welcomed into the fellowship, befriended families and gotten involved with the youth, and caught a glimpse of the togetherness that this church community both exemplifies and strives for.  Churches always fascinate me with the degree to which they can live both so intensely in the present moment and so adamantly in the future.  This is a juncture I hope to explore in greater depth in the years to come.

With the Spokane Alliance, a local broad-based organization representing churches, unions, schools, and other community actors, I’ve been privileged to learn the techniques and tales of those who have been long in the fight for justice.  At the close of a two-day leadership training institute, most participants used words like “optimistic,” “hopeful,” “impressed,” or “excited” to describe how they felt moving forward, which was a surprising and much-needed change from the easy pessimism I can sometimes fall into while contemplating the state of our world.  Justice work is tricky: it demands more from us than charity, and even takes issue with the single-mindedness of advocacy in many contexts.  Justice work, as I’m learning, involves organizing people to address the root causes of pressures that people and communities face, which are often systemic.  Justice work declares truth to power as we demand accountability from our decision-makers.

I’m not sure what a synthesis of church and community, faith and justice, looks like but I have found the beginnings of a middle-ground between what I’ve left and what I’m discovering: not a compromise, but a composite picture.  Both/and not either/or.  I can affirm the best of my roots, the culture that birthed and formed me, while also attesting to the grace and truth I’ve found in progressive movements across the faith and political spectrum.

For a people who lay claim to a universal God, this makes intuitive sense to me: that we should expect reality to break forth from a myriad of human expressions, transcending any singular historical-cultural narrative.  And if we also lay claim to the eschatological hope of Christ’s return, when all things will be made new and therefore returned to their original goodness, then we believe that the best is yet to come.

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