Traverse City Record-Eagle


August 21, 2010

Perspectives: Lose 'church,' gain community

A church in west Michigan recently decided that it is no longer a "church," but a religious community open to all beliefs.

Many are responding by declaring this a tragedy.

Now there is certainly something to mourn when a community seems to turn its back on its original tradition. Yet I wonder if the common reaction that this is a horrible and tragic event is the only way to view this. Perhaps our own response is in some ways the tragic one. We see this development and fear. We fear the unknown. We fear different beliefs. We fear unbelief.

But maybe there is a bright side here. This community is not turning its back on Christianity so much as openly welcoming people of various beliefs. There is something to admire in this, I would think.

Too many of us instantly invalidate any belief systems other than our own. We hear the words "Jew," "Muslim" or "atheist" and assume there is nothing useful or valid in such perspectives. That itself is a tragedy.

Perhaps in our Christian religious communities, we have become like some of the Pharisees of Jesus' day, who had no space for anyone who had a thought or perspective that didn't line up with their own. Jesus spent time with those who were marginalized in his society. Perhaps these people are the marginalized in ours.

In that light, maybe a church that decides to open its doors to such folks is not descending, but ascending. How? By acknowledging the image of God that is present in all of us — and being honest enough to engage and respect people with the positions they actually hold, rather than make sure they submit to a full doctrinal examination before they even are allowed in the door. One would hope that becoming more like Christ makes you more Christian, not less.

I wonder if this community, in making space for more than Christianity, will facilitate more honest interactions and conversations between Christians and those of other faiths than will ever happen in our traditional churches.

Some of you are thinking, "A worship service is really a gathering to worship God, and a Christian worship service is a gathering directed toward the triune God of historical Christianity, so clearly it is entirely appropriate for such a gathering to be strictly 'Christian.'"

Yes. I agree. But the truth is, most people of other faiths would likely never even contemplate showing up for a gathering at our churches, and I can't help but think that Jesus, in all his Jewishness and lack of proper attire, might not be welcome there either.

The communities I grew up in were not lacking in such churches.

What they were lacking were places where the religious space is open to honest dialogue and interaction, where people can be respected — whatever their views.

Far from a tragedy, I would say this change is a welcome addition to the spiritual landscape.

Bryan Berghoef is the pastor of Watershed Church, located at the Village in the Grand Traverse Commons. He also facilitates weekly Pub Theology conversations at Right Brain Brewery and is a member of ACORD: The Area Council on Religious Diversity.

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