Barrett Owen with McAfee School of Theology prepares a display at the Wild Goose Festival earlier this month. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Barrett Owen with McAfee School of Theology prepares a display at the Wild Goose Festival earlier this month. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Moderates seek exit from 'messy middle'

Individuals and institutions are beginning to seek ways to help moderate churches find their prophetic voice in an age when Millennials demand social-action churches.

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.”

Alan-Bean

“In my usage, the ‘messy middle’ refers to churches characterized by ideological pluralism that resolve the potential confusion by simply ignoring every issue that might spark disagreement within the body,” said Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for victims of the justice system.

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.

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“An issue within a church must come from the heart and mission of the church,” she said. “It’s not about how to be politically active but how to be true to an issue without becoming too political.”

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.

curtisFreemanMUGFreeman 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.”