Friday, April 11, 2008

Sojourn in LEO

From Stephen George in LEO...

A good piece-- especially considering that it's written by someone with a very different worldview than the group he's covering...

Two quibbles. First, the author is not as clear as I would like about "being gay" as identity vs. actions. But of course, those with that worldview rarely want to make that distinction. Second, it's not particularly helpful to lump all people who disagree with you into the "fundamentalist" bandwagon: it blurs important distinctions. While George is nuanced in his discussion, the labels serve to, ironically, point us back to (flawed) stereotypes and generalizations.

They’re young, involved and socially aware — and think being gay is a sin. How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas?...

It is in that last line of “In Christ Alone” — delivered here as a declaration, a defiant mass voice from a room of raised arms — that you begin to understand this ritual, which to an outsider may look more like a pseudo-Christian orgy of self-conscious hipness than an actual church service.

There is warmth here, yes, and an element of persuasion that’s surprising. Although this place, during this particular Sunday morning service, is about as vanilla as a public radio play list, I feel connected. To something. I cannot intellectualize it, because to do so would ruin it. So I just give myself over to its inventive conceit: conservative Christianity paraded as hip youth culture.

This is the shrewd brilliance of Sojourn Community Church, a youth-oriented church and ministry that began in Louisville in 2000 and, in the fall of 2006, moved into the former Isaac Shelby Elementary School at 930 Mary St. in Germantown. It is a three-level, 57,000-square-foot stack you probably know as The 930, the church’s art and music wing, which has hosted myriad secular events in its brief life.

Sojourn moved there because it needed the space: Over the past two years its congregation (average age range: 20-45) has quadrupled in size, from 300 or so to more than 1,200 over the four Sunday services, which members call “Sojourn Gathered.” That’s one of several details with a significance that can only present itself once you’ve spent some time talking with Sojourners: As much as they want to provide a safe place for young people to actively question and interpret their faith, as their pastors say, they are also trying to create a new church model, one a little lighter on the whole sacred/secular dichotomy. So, to start, they’ve changed the image. There are no pews, only cushy chairs, nor is there an altar. There is live, loud rock music at every gathering; in fact, with the exception of the sermon, music is the dominating component of a Sojourn service. The gathering place looks more like a heartily-financed listening room than a hall of God.

The Sojourn universe is impressive: Under its brand is Sojourn Music, a members-only effort to make Christian music better than half-wit nu metal or milquetoast alt-country, as well as Sojourn Arts, which applies a similar goal. Fifty community groups meet during the week, usually at members’ homes — some 70 percent of members engage in this. They have a full-time Christian counselor on staff, as well as children’s ministries.

The church also has its own urban renewal division. Seed, as it’s called, has partnered with Metro agencies, neighbors and the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association on more than 80 projects since March 2007, including beautification efforts and the winterizing of homes for local elderly. It goes without saying that swamped city workers and volunteer neighborhood association members welcome the extra hands.

But these are also many of the reasons Sojourn has attracted controversy amid its booming profile. In a neighborhood made up of shotgun houses, camelbacks and bungalows, the massive brick building is a looming physical presence, and its relatively sudden emergence as a cultural and political force has caused some unease among those who either disagree with or aren’t entirely sure of what they preach. In its purest form, Sojourn is a Southern Baptist church, and the message here is not a particularly progressive one. Pastors counsel a strict adherence to scripture, which means abortion is murder, men are the natural-order leaders and homosexuality is a sin from which gays need to be converted and redeemed....

George talks about the background and testimony of the leaders. And he details their initial connection to Highland Baptist Church and its pastor, Rev. Joe Phelps, in January 2000. Wow! I did not know that!

Phelps had been skeptical of Sojourn’s affiliation with SBTS. His church espouses a liberal Baptist interpretation: For instance, it does not condemn homosexuality, nor does it say that strict Protestant Christianity is the only way to know God. He said Montgomery and the other planters told him they weren’t like Al Mohler, the arch-conservative SBTS president. Phelps assumed that meant they didn’t adhere to Mohler’s wooden ideology.

“I would say their message is the more conservative, fundamentalist approach to Bible and church — men only in leadership, only Christians really know God,” Phelps said. “And so those underpinnings affect their teachings, control who teaches and what’s taught, and in some ways it has the danger of having a hidden agenda to what they do. I’m not accusing them of that. I want to be clear about that. I don’t think they’re trying to be duplicitous. I think they are very hip and progressive people, but their message is the conservative, fundamentalist brand of Protestant Christianity.”

They were different in terms of style-- and delivery of the message. Phelps seems to focus on the former instead of recognizing the latter as well. There is a difference between fundamentalism (accepting the broad label as useful for the moment) and what Sojourn does. There is a vital difference in saying X is wrong-- and how one says that it is wrong.

Realizing the two churches were philosophically incompatible, the parties agreed to end their arrangement. Sojourn would bounce around a couple more times before landing in its current home....

Then George goes into great-- and great-- detail about their community outreach. And then he returns to the church's approach to homosexuality...

Fast forward to Feb. 10, when Montgomery gave a sermon entitled “God’s Wrath Revealed and Deserved.”...About three-quarters through, he said this, referring to God’s righteous anger about sin:

“There’s something about pushing away the truth of God, exchanging the truth of God for a lie that not only leads to sexual perversion but a loss of sexual identity. A loss of what it means to be a man, and a loss of what it means to be a woman. And Sojourn has always been a church that has sought to have a balance. We want clarity and strong conviction regarding homosexuality and all sexual immorality outside a marriage — that’s what sexual immorality is — as sin. We try to set that forth very plainly. And yet, at the same time, we want radical compassion to those that have same-sex desires and attraction, we want to have radical compassion to those that are homosexuals that want to explore the truth of the Bible, that have questions about the God of the Bible. We want that balance. My hope, and the reason that personally I have such strong conviction about being clear about homosexuality, it’s not a conservative issue for me at all, it’s a Biblical issue. And listen, it’s a Biblical issue and it’s a gospel issue, because I believe that God can change anyone. I believe He can change anyone. I believe He’s making all things new, and that includes our sexuality.”

I appreciate George reproducing this long excerpt, especially it underlines the nuance with which a/this difficult topic is covered. And he seems conflicted in the next two paragraphs (while still using non-conflicted labels). He concludes that...

The pastors hold fundamentalist views about topics like homosexuality and male leadership — all of Sojourn’s leaders are men — and such facts distort the easy perceptions: These gregarious, sincere guys don’t look like weird mutant-children of Billy Graham.

But Sojourn is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that waited until 1995 to formally apologize for its endorsement of slavery. And while in some respects the SBC has come to view the world more inclusively — just last month, the president of the 16,000-member organization declared global warming a cause worthy of Baptists’ attention — most are fundamentalist when it comes to the big three: abortion, gender roles and homosexuality.

Then, back to Phelps, who seems unable to draw distinctions between fundamentalists and those who more properly balance love the sinner and hate the sin-- just because Phelps disagrees with them.

Phelps, the Highland Baptist pastor, said that in some ways the message doesn’t appear to fit the messenger.

“It’s not intentionally disguised, but it’s surprising to discover that such a contemporary, progressive context has such a conservative underpinning to it,” he said. “That’s an observation, not a criticism.”

Then, to George's credit, he asks and reproduces a conversation with Sojourn leaders about this tension:

I asked a group of four Sojourn pastors — Montgomery, Cosper, Ivey and Kevin Janes, who handles booking for the listening room — how they square the idea that their church is open and community-centric with their belief that homosexuality is a sin and gay people can be “changed.” That is, whether they think they can have it both ways: Gays are free to come to Sojourn, but only after they acknowledge that they need to be saved from the sinfulness of being gay.

“We don’t see them as antithetical to one another,” Montgomery said. “It’s all people walking the earth — gay people, people who are gay are welcome at our services, are welcome to partner with us on urban renewal initiatives. There’s no barrier in any of the ministries we offer and so forth.”

At the same time, he said, they also believe humanity has been marred by sin, “and one of the expressions of that fallenness, of what is shattered, is intimate relations in same-sex relationships. But all people are fallen sexually and in need of redemption.” Montgomery said they’re not calling out gays specifically, although he and the other pastors acknowledged that it appears that way to some. Over the last year or so, on balance, Montgomery has preached with the same ferocity on issues of pride, atonement and lust, for example.

Cosper said their unapologetic views on homosexuality should be taken on balance with those beliefs. “I think part of what’s important for the church is to be faithful,” he said. “Again, it’s been made into the issue, the conversational issue. I think that what’s important for us as the church — and part of our effort is to be upfront and honest, this is where we stand, but to realize and to be faithful to call out other sins, you know, to call out other things that the scripture calls sinful with the same intensity, with the same weight. So somebody who’s greedy should hopefully be every bit as offended by the way we talk about greed.”

The wrap-up:

There is a lot to chew with a complex situation like Sojourn’s...


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