By Alan Bean
I stole the term “messy middle” from my daughter, Dr. Lydia Bean, who coined the phrase for a recent study of evangelicals and same sex marriage. Since I am briefly quoted in the article below, I thought I should elaborate a bit. The messy middle churches I describe aren’t moderate in the sense of being poised midway between liberals and conservatives. Unlike homogeneous congregations in which the majority of congregants hold similar views on theological, political and economic issues, messy middle churches minister to people who are all over the ideological map.
Some are economic conservatives but quite liberal theologically and progressive on social issues. Others are theological and social conservatives but skew to the left on economic issues (you see this a lot in African American and Latino churches).
Because the culture war fault line runs right down the middle of messy middle congregations, pastors and other opinion leaders within the church are reluctant to tackle issues that highlight the lack of message unity within the congregation or, worse yet, spark controversy within the body.
This explains the strange silence in most messy middle congregations on issues that affect poor people: employment policy, mass incarceration, immigration and homelessness. Generally, we just don’t talk about this stuff.
That makes sense if the goal is maintaining institutional stability.
But if we’re trying to follow a Christ who preached good news to the poor, we’ve got a problem.
And recent studies suggest that millennials (roughly folks between 18 and 32 as of this writing) are looking for a faith that makes sense of the real world while transcending the weary divisions promoted by the culture war. Millennials tend to be much more socially progressive than their parents, particularly on the issue of same sex marriage.
Below, a number of Christian leaders, including author Brian McLaren, Suziee Paynter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Curtis Freeman of Duke Divinity School, share their views.
By Jeff Brumley
Many are convinced that beyond addressing material and spiritual needs, moderate Baptist churches must become more vocal advocates for “the least of these” in society.
Some are forming congregational programs, while institutions like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are studying initiatives to help churches find their prophetic voices as Millennials moving into leadership voice dissatisfaction with congregations that remain silent on the burning social issues of the day.
In Texas, Alan Bean recently launched the Common Peace Community, a congregational initiative he hopes will inspire Baptist and other churches to move out of what he calls the “messy middle.”
Bean said he got the term from a recent Baylor University study, which used it to describe evangelicals ambivalent about opposition to same-sex marriage. He saw it also apt for moderate and progressive churches reluctant to be advocates for social-justice causes.
It’s understandable why some congregations — especially those burned in the Southern Baptist upheaval — want to avoid anything that smacks of conflict or politics, said Bean, a member at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I think pastors have dealt with that by simply not addressing these issues,” he said. “Faith becomes largely about being nice, being kind to people or even serving people who are vulnerable — giving them meals and shelter and clothing — but not asking how did they get this way.”
Action increasingly important
In July, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey showing that progressives are the fastest-growing segment in American faith, while conservative and moderate movements are headed for declines. While moderate groups make up the largest grouping at 38 percent, they aren’t growing. Conservatives are clearly declining from 28 percent and progressives are at 19 percent and growing quickly, thanks in part to the rise of the Millennials.
Christian leaders, like emergent church leader Brian McLaren, say the survey shows moderate Christians can no longer sit and expect Millennials and others to come to them. “This is not a choice between the religious right and the old religious left,” McLaren told ABPnews for a story published in July. “The ability to mobilize people for economic action will become more and more important.”
McLaren’s observations and the recent polling data have gotten the attention of leaders at CBF, said Suzii Paynter, the Fellowship’s executive coordinator.
Paynter acknowleged that some CBF churches need to become the action-oriented organizations that Millennials and the future demand, but moving in that direction requires a sense of calling for work on society’s most pressing concerns. Paynter said CBF is examining initiatives to help churches discern what forms of advocacy and action their existing callings could have in store for them.
Paynter said she avoids terminology describing such churches as being in the “middle,” because the issue isn’t linear. Movements like the Fellowship, she said, are not trying to avoid being conservative on one hand and liberal on the other, but rather seeking to find “a strong Christology and moving beyond the traditional lines to a gospel calling.”
‘Larger Christian conversation’
Other Baptist institutions are looking to move beyond those lines, too — and sometimes in unexpected places.
McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta sent Barrett Owen to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. The annual gathering of mostly progressive Christians featured workshops on topics such immigration, racism and ecology. Baptists had some of the strongest representation at the four-day event held near Asheville, N.C.
The roughly 2,000 who attended Wild Goose represent a population of Christian activists and thinkers who envision a church capable of being prophetic in society, said Owen, associate director of admissions at McAfee. “That is exactly what McAfee is looking for in a student,” said Owen, who also is the pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. “We want McAfee to be part of the larger Christian conversation.”
Churches that ignore the signs of change will undoubtedly, sooner or later, begin to feel the pressure, said Curtis Freeman, research professor of theology and Baptist studies at Duke University.
Freeman said leaders of congregations on the right and left usually enjoy full support for being outspoken positions on controversial issues, but that’s not the case in churches where there are mixed ideological and theological perspectives.“Trying to be in that middle ground is always a very difficult place because it requires all sorts of coalitions and compromises,” he said.
Freeman said it’s a position moderate Baptist and other churches and institutions struggle with, and the only true solution will come from leaders.
“We need great Christian leaders to stand up and call us to deeper principles that are beyond ideology and beyond politics,” he said. “I think we are in a vacuum on that.”