September 10, 2018

Planting Liberal Churches?

The nation’s capital, whose population is now growing after decades of decline, has enjoyed a decade or more of remarkable urban church planting. These churches collectively attract thousands of millennials who’ve moved to thriving Washington, DC. Most of these churches are Reformed in theology, and more power to them.

But as a Methodist I’ve wondered why there’s little representation from the Wesleyan family of churches. Shouldn’t Wesleyans want to reach young people in the city? So I was interested in a new United Methodist church plant in a close-in suburb popular with millennials. It’s very close to where I grew up, to my original home church, and to numerous other popular church plants.

My heart sank when I read its online mission statement:

Jesus embraced and empowered all, so we work to do so too. We strive to be lgbtq+ affirming, creation caring, pro-immigrant, peace-making, community-building, racial-justice seeking, all-ability welcoming Christians.  Doubters, seekers, atheists, agnostics and committed people of faith are all welcome. Bring your hopes and your questions–most of all bring your whole self.

So is this new church plant liberal? At the very least it seems to want to convey that impression. Of course it’s correct to welcome all people. But does it welcome them to hear the whole historic Gospel? Or will it proclaim a truncated Mainline Protestant message heavy on political correctness and light on orthodox theology and ethics? If the later, it’s sadly fated to fail.

By comparison, here’s an online self-description from a successful theologically Reformed evangelical church plant at the same location, which is a university campus:

One of the most remarkable things about Jesus was how much he liked people, whether they were alienated and broken or influential and resourced. Our church is likewise here for others, by demonstrating hospitality, authentic witness, mercy and justice. We will identify with the community we are called to serve, seeking prosperity and peace across its diverse cultural, social and economic landscape. Our dependence on grace means we will appreciate and respect others for who they are, while extending the promise of the gospel to change us into what we can become.

It seems pretty welcoming without implying any compromise of historic Christian belief. All the successful urban church plants of which I know are theologically orthodox. Interestingly they attract lots of socially liberal Millennials in ways that older socially liberal congregations do not.

Recently I discovered a nondenominational church (pictured above) planted in 2013 in one of DC’s more hip neighborhoods. It meets in an old Methodist building. The young pastor, who came from Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical Wesleyan denomination, is presumably politically liberal as he formerly worked for Jim Wallis’ Sojourners. No doubt much of the young congregation is socially and politically liberal. Yet it appears theologically orthodox.

This church’s website includes an orthodox statement of faith about the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, about the full authority of Scripture and about the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for the sins of the whole world.

It also declares: “To follow this path of Jesus is countercultural. It is a radical movement of limitless forgiveness, extreme hospitality, peacemaking, abundant generosity, and sacrificial love.” Based on photos of the worship services, it appears the congregation is young and vibrant. Some of the invited guest speakers are Evangelical Left types, but their politics don’t appear to be necessarily outside orthodoxy.

Nearly all successful urban church plants are evangelical. One of the most successful is Tim Keller’s Redeemer Church in Manhattan, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation that has inspired scores of other urban church plants. Another in England is Nicky Gumbel’s Holy Trinity Brompton in London, which inspired the global Alpha Movement, and is a rare pocket of vitality within the Church of England.

Both these churches famously attract young professionals. The pastors are orthodox but they also usually avoid hot button topics like sexuality. If asked, their answers are biblical. But they don’t emphasize these issues as they appeal to socially liberal audiences.

Arguably their strategy has been effective. But I’m told consequently there’s often even among longtime lay leadership in those churches a lack of deep catechesis in historic Christian ethics. This strategy of careful avoidance recalls early Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury’s going silent on slavery so as not to lose access to Southern audiences. Thousands were reached with the Gospel but was the compromise worth the price? Only God can fully answer.

Two of DC’s most successful evangelical church plants, one Anglican and one Presbyterian, are full of young social liberals. These churches don’t stress divisive hot button topics. But after the Supreme Court mandated legalizing same sex marriage in 2015 pastors at both churches dutifully shared their own and their denominations’ orthodox views on marriage. Some apparently surprised church members left but the overall trajectory of growth continued.

Catholic ethicist Robert George at Princeton has stressed that the Gospel is incomplete without the church’s historic teachings on marriage and sanctity of life. But to what extent should these issues be included in evangelistic outreach? The answer maybe prudential. But the truth of these teachings is not.

New church plants maybe strategic in their emphases but they cannot, if faithful and effective, deny the core apostolic witness central to the church universal’s mission and identity. I hope this new United Methodist plant outside DC realizes this mandate and enjoys a fruitful ministry.

5 Responses to Planting Liberal Churches?

  1. Dan says:

    I’d be interested to know about the liturgies in these churches, in particular the confession and the creeds. When I was in the UMC, we rarely, if ever, said the prayer of confession, and we were always using some new trendy creed from the UMC hymnal (if I was still there I’d either take a knee or raise my fist when they did the Social Creed). The church I now attend begins each service with a prayer of confession and the pronouncement of absolution by the pastor, and we always say either the Apostles Creed or the Nicene, whether at the traditional or contemporary service. It seems to me that there is very little emphasis on sin and absolution anymore in services. I recently attended a large Wesleyan church, and there was no liturgy at all, just 15 minutes of contemporary songs, a 45 minute sermon, an offering, and a dismissal.

    • Dan W says:

      Dan, when she was our Pastor she loved a lot of the traditional Methodist creeds and liturgy, but also tried a lot of trendy stuff. It was usually a pretty interesting mix. I can honestly say never boring!

  2. Dan W says:

    I know the Pastor and think very highly of her. She is VERY liberal – probably a very good fit for this particular area. If she is making Disciples for Christ let us not hinder her.

    • John says:

      Amen, Dan. I know the pastor of both the UMC and Nazarene congregations, and see a deep faith in Christ, evidence of the Holy Spirit, pastoral love, and leadership gifts in both of them. Thank God they are ministering in the area.

  3. William says:

    Can any church “make disciples of Jesus Christ” without preaching the Good News Gopel that results in the individual sinner repenting, confessing of his/her sins, asking for forgiveness, and turning and beginning the walk with Jesus in a new transformed life? Wesley called this Justifying Grace and Sanctifying Grace.

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