I think differently about my shared experience of talking/doing theology in a congregational context than I did when I came out of seminary. I think then my goal was to move folks, there was a point-of-view I had in mind, a place on the theological spectrum where I was, where I was headed, where I wanted to be. Even if I wasn’t there yet I knew that was the gold standard, and therefore my studies, my preaching, my conversations in pastoral visits, my writing, my approach to church life, was to move folks. There was a promised land and I was Moses, albeit a liberal/progressive/social justice Moses.
I don’t think I can be faulted for this world view. In seminary my professors created charts, templates that included a template of theology, from conservative/traditional/right-wing on one end, all the way over to liberal in the middle, to liberation/left-wing/social justice on the other end. We were on the move, the implication was clear, we clergy were moving with our congregation in a clear direction. It was indeed pastoral and a sign of good listening to be aware of where people “were”, we might even affirm them for thinking through this perspective, but it was clear that POV was not sufficient. We had Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong to take us to the Promised Land. There was no mistaking where we were going…
But then I began my work with persons living on the streets, people living with addictions, people struggling with mental illness, people isolated by a variety of challenges. It was obvious to me that my good liberal theology did not help everyone and in many cases it only served to undercut the theology a person in trouble had leaned on for support and survival. I had been led to believe that such theology was holding people back, and in some cases it was. In cases of persons struggling with gender issues and abuse liberal theology did seem to be the magic bullet. But in cases of addiction, poverty and mental illness removing the foundation stone that many relied on for their strength and hope seemed counter-productive. “Knowing the Lord is in my life” made the difference between death and life, whom was I to plant seeds of doubt even if the theology being articulated was not to my liking.
I am still a liberal theologically, progressive for the most part, someone who favours social justice themes in worship, studies and outreach programs in the church. But I no longer feel it necessary to be pushing that agenda with everyone, all the time. I now see that many people are moved in faith to experience the Holy Spirit in a way that bring them life and life in abundance. My liberal theology does not move them but their evangelical theology brings them into a covenantal relationship with God and this brings life and life in abundance. I cannot argue with a theology that brings out the best in someone and makes her/him more open to acts of justice, caring and support.
In the end I am now a different Minister than I was then, I openly encourage people with more evangelical and conservative (but NOT fundamentalist!) theologies than me to be heard in the context of church life. While those messages might not move people like me they do move many others that save lives and impacts people in such a way that what was once lost is now found. And new and restored lives are the best evidence I know for a healthy and vibrant church.