The “open” Church

Following through today with a few more thoughts about the “open” church… just some ramblings as I multi-task today…

The “Open” Church

One of the great aspects I love about our particular denomination (I promise to share more at a “later date” [I won’t promise “tomorrow” anymore!] about the UMC’s desire to “open hearts, minds, and doors”) is the fact that both Hilary Clinton and George W. Bush are active United Methodists.  I love this because, to me at least, it is a contemporary illustration. Like some other mainline denominations, our Church includes both liberal and conservative theologies (though the tendency is for particular regions to lean in one or the other direction), living, as Buzz Stephens said yesterday, “in the same house.”

Granted, living in the same house has its difficulties. I have seen turmoil, difficulties, and pain associated with the fact that we have “competing” theologies present within the denomination. However, if we can keep in mind John Wesley’s advice, we might know the true beauty of openness.  Wesley, in his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” gets to the root of what should be foundational for us when we consider our differences: our beliefs, our theologies, even our perspectives and world-views may be different, but if we possess a “catholic spirit” than we seek to “love alike.”

I believe that the best contemporary alternative, when it comes to living as communities of disciples, is to embrace a degree of openness that not only allows for, but actively highlights and celebrates, open-ness. Jesus called a variety of individuals to “follow me,” but his expectations of each individual were not always the same; his invitation to each individual was not always the same; the call is not always the same… why would we expect that our experience, or our perspective, of Jesus would be the same? At root, the four Gospels share four different perspectives about Jesus of Nazareth. They have much in common – as, I would hope, we will find we do when Jesus calls us and works within us to transform us – but each one has its own distinctiveness and emphases… One of the beautiful things about our Christian Scripture is that there is a great deal of variety within them, even as they point to One central person and experience…

Although I firmly believe the Church needs to be “open,” I do not suggest that we accept and preach all perspectives and viewpoints as equally true or valid. However, we should never be afraid to talk about perspectives; we should never be afraid to talk about differing experiences of God’s Spirit and Word. When we allow for such conversation, we may not agree; but we might all be transformed. The UCC recently started using a tagline to their national advertising campaign that I believe is true: “God is still speaking.”

In Wesleyan churches, we also believe that God continues to speak. When we reflect theologically we do so not only with a “closed” canon of Scripture, but through a living and dynamic understanding of God/theology that is rooted in Scripture, but also influenced by tradition, experience, and reason. Alternative theologies are a part of our ongoing conversation to hear, know, and live in accordance with God’s will for us as Jesus’ disciples…

The Dilemma of “Open” Dialogue

There is a large dilemma we face in the open church. If we truly want to encourage and foster an open environment, we want to invite and encourage open dialogue. But to do so, particularly around some controversial theological or political issue, how do we include voices that may not be open? How can you invite someone to an “open dialogue” when in reality you don’t want them to share their perspective so much as listen to others (that they currently reject without hearing)? Ultimately, to truly be open means that each of us must accept that we have something to learn from everyone, not that everyone else has something to learn from us!

I think this is the attitude Jesus asks of us in general. To be a “disciple,” after all, means to be a student; to be a learner; to be an apprentice… John Wesley once commented to his preachers that “you have something to learn even from the worst preacher in Britain” (paraphrasing [and I cannot say for sure if he’d say the same of America!]). In order to create an open church, then, we have to be the first ones to model open-ness. (There is a lot of related wisdom that one could draw from Stephen Ministry, which all boils down to listening deeply, to such a degree that you truly understand the other.)

If we can find a way to encourage openness, by modeling it and inviting others to understand it as an important part of discipleship, it contributes to a healthy humbleness. We don’t become so convinced or conceited about our own perspectives. In addition, it demonstrates our love for others and the world (for, once again as Stephen Ministry teaches, for many people listening to them is equivalent to loving them!).

I believe in the importance of the church being “open.” I believe we have to allow for individuals and groups to express themselves, to share their perspectives, and to engage in dialogue. I do not believe that we need to convert everyone to any particular viewpoint; nor do I believe that all dialogues should be debates, with a “winner” and “loser,” but am convinced that if we are not open to listening and learning from all around us, we may just miss the Word of God for us…

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