What's Tony Thinking

Two Kinds of Churches


Someone said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that think there are “two kinds,” and those that don’t.

For the most part, I land in the latter camp. We are all of us a mix of saint and sinner.

But every now and then a “two-kinds” framework can be useful for thought and discussion. Here, then, some thoughts on two kinds of churches. Spoiler alert: the two kinds aren’t liberal and conservative, or another set of culturally derived set of categories, e.g. fundamentalist and progressive.

I once asked Jim Forbes, who was then the Senior Minister at New York’s Riverside Church, and who had been one of my professors at Union Theological Seminary in New York, if he could help me understand the difference between predominantly black and predominantly white churches.

There is quite a difference in the feel, the energy and, you might say, “spirituality.” “Why? What explains that?” I asked Jim (who is African-American).

He thought silently for a full minute then said, slowly, “In predominantly African-American churches, people understand that they need God; in predominantly Caucasian congregations people believe that God needs them.”

While this is clearly a generalization, and as such admits of exceptions, it holds up.

There is a deep sense, in African-American churches, of a need for, a calling upon, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Often in Caucasian congregations there is a sense that you are there to get your assignments, to be reminded of your responsibilities, or to celebrate your human community.

Each orientation has theological grounding. Each has value.

The pivotal Psalm 51, read each Ash Wednesday, reminds us of our need for God. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” In the presence of God, we all stand in need of mercy and grace. We need what God has done for us in the cross and resurrection of Christ, God’s victory over the twin powers of Sin and Death.

But other texts remind us of our responsibilities and of what God asks or requires of us. Deuteronomy 30 calls upon us to “Choose life.” The prophets cry out to, “Let justice flow down like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus reminds us of our responsibilities to “the least of these.”

So, it’s not that one is all right and the other all wrong. But it is the case that one without the other distorts things. This is a both/ and, not an either/ or. We stand in need of God’s grace and mercy. Repentance is the basis of faith. Always, we have made too much of ourselves, of our virtue, our knowledge or our strength.

And yet, we as redeemed people, are called and empowered for the work of healing and new life. Those who have known grace are to be gracious. Those who have been forgiven are to be forgiving of others.

In predominantly Caucasian mainline churches, where we tend to lean heavily on what we need to do — on God’s need for us — renewal lies in also acknowledging our need for God. There is a need for proclamation, the proclamation of God’s work on our behalf. That is the good news.

How do you know which kind of church you are in (apart from racial make-up, for which there are exceptions)?

In churches where people understand they need God, God is often the subject of the verbs. God acts. God moves. God frees. Jesus goes. Jesus comes. The Spirit moves. God lifts. Jesus breaks. God is an active subject. The first word, and the last, are about what God has done, is doing, and will do. It is mainly about God.

In churches where people believe God needs them, we humans are generally the subjects of the verbs. We are. We should. We feel. We must. We do. We don’t. Even though we may be being urged to be more self-less or loving or inclusive, it is mainly about us. This can become quite moralistic. It tends to morph from Good News to good advice.

If one orientation might err by placing too much on God and asking too little of us, the other errs by placing it all on us and overwhelming us. Moreover, in the latter setting, speech about God seems more habitual than confessional.

Of late, as some of you know from other blogs, I’ve been worshipping (when in Seattle) at Quest Church in Ballard. I think of Quest as a liberal evangelical church. This very multi-racial, multi-cultural congregation holds together our need of God — what God has done in Christ — with our call to be agents of change, of healing and of justice.

A both/ and and not an either/ or.

May this tribe increase!





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