Temple BaptistThis is Temple Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas. It is just an empty building now, no longer a church. The church disbanded years ago. It was the church I grew up in during my elementary school years. I had the chance to see it when Judy I went to Tyler for a funeral about a year ago. I was surprised to see that it still stood on the corner.

I peered through the windows of the sanctuary and even got inside to look around. As I walked around inside I was flooded with memories. My dad had been pastor here. I recalled childhood friendships and moments of delight, deep sadness, and utter confusion, all those intense feelings that go with childhood.

Someone obviously intended to renovate it but only got as far as taking the inside walls and ceiling down to the studs. They must have run out of money because the building seemed abandoned. It sat empty, dirty, dark, and silent, with random building materials scattered on the floor.

This image came to mind as I prepared these thoughts about the church in our world today.

These are tough days for the church. The numbers are diminishing in every mainline denomination. Some of the reasons cited in surveys include:

  • our youth don’t return to the church once they leave home,
  • the church can’t compete with the many other demands on people’s time, and
  • the church is seen as increasingly irrelevant in the face of recent social changes.

Some of the most recent examples of the church’s response to social changes have been in watching events unfolding after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, after the horrific murders in South Carolina, followed by the offering of forgiveness from the victims’ families, and the subsequent debates about the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments.

Some of the most hostile responses have come from churches, pastors, and “good Christian folks” like you and me. Some of the most compassionate responses have also come from pastors, churches, and “good Christian folks” like you and me.

How is the church to respond to events that prompt such intense reactions on both sides of an issue, and when people on each side of the issue can justify their position with “Christian” reasons?


The church in its infancy had some of the same problems we experience today. The earliest groups that gathered were Jewish converts. The apostles and earliest followers were devout Jews, as Jesus had been. It was a slow and painful evolution for the apostles and other devout Jews who had become followers of Jesus to accept Gentiles into their group.

These people had learned from birth that Gentiles were unclean and inferior. They had been taught that they should avoid all contact with Gentiles. This had been part of Jewish teachings and traditions for centuries; Gentiles were unclean not because of anything they had done, but because of who there were by birth.

Likewise, it was a slow evolution for Gentiles to fully join the ranks of the converted. They too had been taught all their lives from the dominant culture of the region that they were unclean. They knew their place and knew not to step out of it. When you hear something like that all your life, you can go about your business, raise your family, live your life, but the message gets internalized nonetheless. Unclean.

Indoctrination runs deep. It damages the oppressed and diminishes the oppressor.

It was a painful but necessary process for both Jews and Gentiles to challenge the internalized, ingrained message they all, on both sides of the oppression, had accepted as normal.


Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we find ourselves facing a similar situation.

How can we be the church, the hands and voice of Jesus, in a society that strives to polarize people on every issue? How can we be the church in the face what we’ve been taught all our lives about “these” people and these issues? How can we be the church when we have our own personal fear, confusion, and prejudice?

I want to offer 3 suggestions for how the church, how this church, how you and I as the body of Christ may respond to the many pressing issues that so easily divide us. And I have to admit; I am speaking from a position of hypocrisy. I firmly believe these principles, but I fail miserably in living them out.

1.  First, it seems to me that it is not the church’s place to land on one side or another of such issues. That’s too simple. To advocate for or against is to take one side and alienate everyone on the other side. The church’s mandate is far greater than any one issue, any one political party, or any one government.

The church’s mandate has to do with reconciliation, with restoring relationships, whether it is a relationship between two people, two groups, two countries, or between a person and their God. Reconciliation is not about agreement or even compromise. It is about recognizing that that which binds us together as children of God supersedes any differences.

“In the church’s view, the political left is not noticeably more interesting that the political right; both sides tend toward solutions that are only mirror images of the status quo. That which makes the church radical and forever new is not that the church tends to lean toward the left or right on social issues, but rather that the church knows Jesus (and follows his teachings) whereas the world does not.” (Resident Aliens, Hauerwas & Willimon, 1989).

The teachings of Jesus are neither reasonable nor rational nor do they make sense to the average person who has not experienced grace. In fact, they are teachings that turn reason on its head and speak of being the last, making sacrifices of self, blessing those who curse and persecute you, and losing rather than winning.

I become wary in any presidential race when the candidates start competing for “best Christian” endorsement. It’s like competing for most humble. Following Jesus, taking his teachings seriously will put the church at odds with the world, not in the seat of social or political acceptability.

The cross is our reminder of that. Jesus was not executed for saying and doing what made sense to everyone.

2.  Second, in following Jesus, the church influences the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and can never be. Our most credible form of witness is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith, a community that embodies the teachings and the example of Jesus, who knows that their mandate is from God, not from Caesar.

It is a community characterized by a compassion toward one another, even though we realize we are petty, selfish, judgmental, retaliatory, stubborn and short-sighted, but we nonetheless engage with one another in a community that is so compelling that others will either be drawn to it, or they will reject it, but they will know it is something not available anywhere else.

That’s our work. To be the flawed and floundering body of Christ for one another.

3.  Finally, the church must show the same compassion toward those outside the church, particularly those who are marginalized, oppressed, and forgotten, the ones Jesus called “the least of these.”

And what will allow us to do that, despite our disagreement with them, our fear of them, or even our revulsion toward them? The place to start is: Before we judge the morality of anyone else, we must first judge the morality of our response to them.

We must adopt the attitude of an astronomer I heard being interviewed on the radio a couple of days ago. She was describing the photos of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and its moon and saying that the photos were presenting them with stunning images they had not anticipated. She said, “We don’t understand, and that’s a great feeling!”

As Christians we must start with the admission, “I don’t understand. But this presents me with some great opportunities to learn, to grow, and to expand my reach as part of the body of Christ.”


William Barclay, the Biblical commentator I always go to, sums up this chapter of Ephesians by writing: “The Church will realize her unity only when she realizes that she does not exist to propagate the point of view of any particular group of people, but to provide a home where the Spirit of Christ can dwell and where all people who love Christ can meet in in that Spirit.”

It is imperative that we examine our own personal and religious indoctrination that we have taken as “normal” and “Christian” and filter it through the words and deeds of the one whose name our faith carries.