Blue Ocean’s fifth distinctive holds a crucial key to healthy, thriving faith

By Dave Schmelzer

[Editor’s note: I open this essay by talking about the Paris attacks as if that will be the big shooting atrocity on everyone’s mind. Of course, all of us now know that, only a few days after this was written, the shooting atrocities keep on coming at a lightning clip.]

Religion will be the thing that blows us all up. Or it will be the antidote to the thing that could blow us all up.

I write this a few days after the ISIS attacks on Paris[1] and it’s hard to avoid punditry that Makes Sense of It All. The conservative columns I’m reading tie the attacks to a failure of everything Democratic, from gun control to immigration reform to a weakling in the Oval Office who, among other things, won’t call out the evils of Islam. The liberal writers point out that many Muslims clearly denounced ISIS and that the attacks reflect radicalism rather than Islam en toto and that we should feel bad for ignoring other ISIS attacks just this week in Beirut (and Turkey and Baghdad) while we only highlight attacks on white Westerners.[2] Everyone is responding to a world that feels less safe today than it did before the attacks.

David Brooks, in The New York Times, uses the moment to promote a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. He says that Sacks debunks the thought that the upcoming century will be one of increasing secularization. Secular people have always had fewer children than religious people and so always find themselves swamped under by swelling religion. But Brooks tells us that “Sacks emphasizes that it is not religion itself that causes violence. In their book Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10 percent had any religious component at all.”  What religion promoted in these wars wasn’t itself—it was “groupishness,” the certainty that your group was all good and the opponent was all evil. More Brooks: “This leads to acts of what Sacks calls altruistic evil, or acts of terror in which the self-sacrifice involved somehow is thought to confer the right to be merciless and unfathomably cruel.” Well, I’m not sure that Makes Sense of It All, but as a starting point it seems to fit the facts on the ground, at least in these early days after the attacks.

I’ve experienced, first-hand, religion that reinforces this groupishness and other religion that pushes against it. Have you? But let’s say we concede that groupishness as described here is a bad thing, I wonder if you feel queasy about entirely leaving it behind. A good deal of the pastors I’ve listened to over the years would have strong cautions. Is the alternative to groupishness something we might call…compromise? Or relativism? I mean—these pastors might say—of course we don’t want to be monsters like the terrorists in Paris (and Beirut and Turkey and Baghdad) but, I mean, unlike them we’re not monsters and do we really want to suggest that God can helpfully be found outside of our group? If we concede that, have we betrayed Jesus[3], who is Truth in human form?

The six distinctives of Blue Ocean

This is the fifth in a series of essays about the six distinctives of Blue Ocean faith. Here’s a reminder.

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

Don’t label me.

Those of us in the church trade often chafe in the face of a very reasonable question from someone checking out our church: What kind of church are we? Evangelical? Liberal? Pentecostal? Liturgical? What?

I can dodge the question for myself if I want to—I grew up atheist. But I led a church in an evangelical group of churches, and I can attest that almost all of my pastor friends wrestled with that label. For one thing, the meaning of the word was no longer controlled by churches that used it—it was now a cultural label that, in the press, pretty much meant “conservative-Christian-right-wing-anti-gay-anti-intellectual.” Evangelicals—to the outside world—were the people who supported the most extreme Republican candidates, the candidates that had to drop out after the first few primaries because they were crazy. No matter how much my friends and I might be tempted to reclaim what to us seemed like a “more pure” meaning of the world (I’ll rehearse the argument for you: “ ‘Evangelical’ just means ‘Bible-person!’ The ‘evangel’ is literally ‘the good news of the Bible!’ All that other stuff is not at the heart of it. Evangelicals look to the Bible to guide them towards loving God and loving their neighbors. Evangelicals were at the heart of the abolitionist movement for Pete’s sake! Ever hear of William Wilberforce? And ‘anti-intellectual?!’ What about C.S. Lewis?![4] Tim Keller?! These are smart people!”) that horse seemed to be out of the barn.

But, whatever the chafing, churches do need to decide both how to market themselves and what other churches they’re going to hang out with. Other traditions might well have good things to offer—and my evangelical pastor friends do occasionally read books from those other streams—but we do need to swap resources with church friends and, I mean, it’s good to know who “our people” are.

Labels are really helpful. And they’re profoundly unhelpful.

So labels are reductionist. Think about your own religious label. Does it define what you believe? Or are you a more complex person than that label suggests?

And let’s think about the most-basic label among Protestants. Are you “conservative” or are you “liberal” (or the preferred related label “progressive”)? Interestingly, even those most-primary labels are quite new categories. Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Luther and Theresa of Avila would not have known what to do with them. Those labels showed up in the late 19th century when educated people were saying that truth was defined by the scientific method. They increasingly saw religious people as gullible and stupid. Religious people believed in virgin births and people being swallowed by big fish (and living to tell the tale) and the sun stopping its rotation around the earth at helpful times. In response to this disdain, some religious people adopted a scientific-method-like religious term: “fundamentalist.” This new kind of person was someone who looked to the “fundamentals,” to the atoms of truth that you couldn’t split. To these people, the unsplittable atom was the Bible—Truth itself! Churches with “Bible” in the title popped up. Fundamentalists emphasized Bible teaching even over, say, the work of a living God, which could seem subjective (the thing modernists mocked[5]). On the other side of the spectrum, newfound “liberal” churches conceded the point that, sure, the miracles in the Bible were a little embarrassing, but it was unassailable that Jesus was the epitome of a good citizen. His ethics certainly were worth our emulating over anyone else’s.

Both of these choices are what, in a previous essay, we’ve called bounded-set. Conservative churches focus on the boundaries, on what separates them from the godless people outside, and so preachers spend a lot of time looking at what is or isn’t personal sin. Is porn-viewing sin? Drinking alcohol? Going to an R-rated movie? Believing the wrong thing about a current hot-button topic? Liberal churches do the same thing—preachers focus on societal sins, on not loving the poor and weak, on problems like racism or sexism or ageism. These two bounded sets fight with each other over which sins are really sins. What can get lost in either conservative or liberal churches is centered-set, is helping each other turn our arrows towards the living Jesus who then will give us living feedback, living connection, living help, living relationship.

On a related note, my Blue Ocean pastor friends seem to have abandoned any interest in reclaiming a word like, say, “evangelical.” Yes, it’s a bounded-set word[6], but even trying to reclaim it for our allegedly-higher purpose focuses us on how we fit in with this one group of religious people as being “our people.” Most of my Blue Ocean pastor friends seem to be finding a different group of people who feel like “their people”—quite a large group of people called “all people.” A bounded set label doesn’t help connect us to that group.

So, just for a moment, I’ll assume you’re sympathetic to this perspective. You don’t even particularly feel conservative or liberal—at least as the thing which best defines your perspective. Sermons which focus on who are good people and who are bad people—from either perspective—seem limiting to you. You’d rather focus on how to connect with God or others than on whom to separate from. But here’s the dilemma. Without a label, are you…anything? Words can actually be helpful.[7]

Labels in the church world also tell us where to hunt for particular repositories of wisdom. So, if you’re willing to wander a little beyond your own group, maybe you learn from the social justice people about how to think about a church’s place in the wider society. Maybe you learn from the renewalist people about how to experience the Holy Spirit. You learn from the liturgical people about how to pray when you don’t know what to pray. You learn from the evangelicals about how to get the good stuff from the Bible.[8]

Let’s try thinking about it as a swirl.

We quoted the late Phyllis Tickle in the Solus Jesus essay. Here’s another idea she proposes.[9]

Imagine a page in which those four labels—“social justice,” “renewalist,” “liturgical” and “evangelical” each occupy a quadrant. Situate which of these traditions would be your starting point. Now imagine following a swirl through the other quadrants, then back through your starting-point quadrant, all the time moving closer and closer to the center. In this swirl, we’re encouraged to take a tour through the wisdom embodied by the other, historic, Christian traditions to the point that we’ll increasingly embody all four in large measure. Most of us will by no means lose our starting point, the tradition we grew up with or which connects best to us. But nonetheless, in this swirl, we become “ecumenical” in that we recognize that each of the great Christian traditions has something important to offer us and we’re as proactive as we can be in learning what that is.

This does a few good things for us.

First, this prods spiritual growth.

You’ll remember the childlike faith essay in which we took a thorough look at a spirituality of childlike dependence on a living God. This God speaks to us and guides us and, as a good shepherd, can be trusted to guide us through great times and times of real suffering. This connected, adventurous journey of faith is at the heart of what we understand spiritual growth to be.

This swirl can help us on that journey.

Poking our head into these different repositories of wisdom jolts us into understanding the richness of life with Jesus in a way we can’t access if we stay camped out in our starting point.

Second, it breaks us out of groupishness.

In centered-set, we’re hoping to connect with the living God and to encourage and learn from others trying to do the same thing. Yet we all naturally gravitate towards groups. We’re social creatures! When I root for the Red Sox and against the Yankees, I can imagine a given Yankees fan who’s a lovely person and whom I’d very much enjoy getting to know.

But, in my groupish self, I actually can’t imagine that, because that lovely Yankees fan doesn’t exist as an individual but only as part of a hated group.

Being ecumenical (the mildly-archaic noun form of the word is “ecumenism”[10]) in practice, not just in attitude, helps break down this groupishness, and—if David Brooks and Rabbi Sacks are right—that’s a very, very, very important thing in a volatile world. It goes back to the insight in the centered-set essay that perhaps we’re all not just one “arrow” which is either turned towards or away from Jesus, that we’re actually more like a hundred arrows, any one of which every person we ever meet can help turn towards Jesus. It goes back to the insight in the third way essay that, with just a few ground rules in place, we can and should learn about Jesus from very different people than we find in “our group.” Ecumenism among Christians starts, understandably, with the great Christian traditions that have each thrived over millennia. But, with that as a base, it permits learning from all people, all in service towards learning more about following Jesus.

Third, it opens the door to diversity.

You’ve figured out by now that I’m just finding different ways to make the same point. But this phrasing does offer a shade of difference. We’ve recently learned a lot more about how churches interact with ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.[11] Namely, they almost always reinforce homogeneity. Because churches offer such unique opportunities for intimacy and friendship, they profoundly sift out who is and isn’t “like us.” We feel most at home among people with similar life backgrounds.

But, increasingly, younger churchgoers are pushing for diverse congregations. Once they leave home, colleges and workplaces are diverse in ways that the suburbs or neighborhoods they grew up in weren’t. Diversity, learning to work and befriend and follow Jesus together, becomes important to them. Ecumenism teaches some of these key skills.

Fourth, it treats us like adults.[12]

In our groupishness, insight that comes from other groups is suspect. In its most-extreme form, we get the message that there’s only a limited set of insights that are safe to learn. Ecumenism tells us that, of course, others have insights about following Jesus that we’ll be served to learn from. Pastors in these traditions aren’t parent figures keeping young children safe from corruption. They trust that, as they encourage congregants to turn their arrows towards Jesus and get the wonderful feedback Jesus gives them as a result, these congregants can be trusted to find further encouragement towards turning towards Jesus wherever that encouragement can be found. The God of these pastors isn’t eager to condemn us if, in our sincere desire to turn our arrows towards Jesus, we get some item of doctrine “wrong.” This God is about actual, experienced connection, not abstract “rightness.”[13] So a congregant from an evangelical congregation might well find a good deal of liturgical wisdom to be dull or off-topic, as might be true in reverse. But this congregant will be keeping their eyes open for how God is speaking to them from this new quadrant. In the big-circle, little-us world of what we called Stage 4 faith in the last essay, we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about God.

Jesus is excited about this.

As we’ve talked about in earlier essays, a center-point of Jesus’s mission on earth was to “break dividing walls” between people[14], to blast through groupishness. When Jesus’s disciples run into related but differing groups, they get pretty groupish—they want to call down fire from heaven to burn those people up.[15] But Jesus teaches “whoever is not against us is for us.”[16]

But let’s revisit our earlier question. For all these benefits, does this sort of ecumenism qualify as “compromise” of our faith?

Again, if we live in a bounded set, “compromise” is finding wisdom outside of our set. By definition, what’s outside is beyond the boundary of sin, and so it can only corrupt us.

In centered-set, all we’re looking to find is anything that helps us direct ourselves towards the living and interactive Jesus. Any wisdom that does that is wonderful. Certainly we might find ourselves intrigued by perspectives that we come to realize are dampening our connection to Jesus and to the abundance he promises, in which case we’re most certainly advised to repent, to “turn again” to the things that bring us life in God. We’ll discover that experientially. As a category, “religion”—which we might loosely define as “looking for rules to determine if we or others are good or bad people”—does get characterized as the kind of false lead that will hurt our connection to Jesus.[17] It’s another word for groupishness. So we’ll want to avoid this as we swirl through the quadrants, each of which will have their own form of it. But we’re keeping our eyes quite wide open for fresh, connecting insights.

Are there, then, any actual words we can use to describe this faith? If firm labels limit us, are any descriptions safe to use?

I don’t know. I tend to like descriptions rather than labels: “I’m trying to follow Jesus” rather than “I’m a [whatever category] Christian.”[18] But I also find myself wanting to take note of my audience. In some cases, “I’m a Christian” might be just the right answer to a question. And so I am! Biographical approaches to the question also seem fair enough to me. “I pastored a church in an evangelical group of churches” is flat-true in my case. “I grew up atheist, but had a powerful encounter with Jesus” would also be true in my case.

The heart of the insight in this fifth Blue Ocean distinctive focuses not so much on how we label ourselves as on our heart to learn from all traditions of people trying to follow Jesus, to grow together as we, with Jesus, break rather than reinforce dividing walls.

Will we be groupish? Or will we be the antidote to groupishness?

Our answer has high stakes.

[1] I’m hopeful that, by the time you read this, you won’t be asking, “Which ones?”

[2] It would add: Do you know who sounds just like the hard-line Republicans who speak against immigrants and want to impose religious litmus tests to determine which people you can trust? ISIS!

[3] Scriptures that would quickly come up would be John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) or Luke 9:26 (“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels”) or any number of great passages that tell us to stay away from error (just one for our purposes here: Isaiah 32:6—“For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord”) or 2 Timothy 4:3 (“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”) or… I’ll stop. It’s a defined way of looking at the world!

[4] Yes, absolutely, I’m with you—C.S. Lewis was not an evangelical! He was Anglican! The man smoked like a chimney and liked his alcohol! He never attended an evangelical church in his life! But try telling that to most of my evangelical friends.

[5] “Objective truth”—now there’s a good modernist idea that no one before 1650 would have known what to do with.

[6] To say the least.

[7] Here’s a related story. Some years back, I’d seen several hundred previously secular people experience faith in Jesus as a part of a class I helped develop called Seek. The church I was leading was called “Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston”—a long name and one that, I wondered, might be a little bounded set. (And, since I’ve left, it has a new name: “Reservoir Church.”) Were these secular people who’d come to Jesus happy that we used even the broad category of “Christian” or would it have been easier if we had a different name? We got a couple hundred survey responses from these folks, and the response entirely went one way. They liked “Christian.” They liked that we called the thing we did on Sunday mornings “church.” Why? Because these labels made them feel safe, even if they were secular and just checking the church out. Those words seemed straightforward to them.

[8] And a whole lot more, in each of those cases! Even those quick compliments are reductive.

[9] As before, this is from her mega-influential late-period book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

[10] This was a thing in the Christian world 70 or so years ago. The World Council of Churches was founded in 1948 to encourage ecumenism. Famous leaders like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer pushed for this. Vatican II (1962-1965) nudged the Catholic Church this direction. Evangelicalism has often operated as a protest against ecumenism (the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1943 as a protest against an earlier ecumenical group and anticipated what was soon to come with the World Council of Churches). If you want to learn more about this history, this article would get you started.

[11] Great places to start in this would be early books in the field like Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America or George Yancey’s One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches.

[12] We absolutely want to pursue a connection to God that’s childlike. But we don’t want to cultivate dependent relationships towards other people that keep us as perpetual small children. One friend and I have wondered if a certain sort of religion works to “infantilize” congregants, to make them less mature than they were before they showed up.

[13] In other words, he’s centered-set.

[14] Ephesians 2:14

[15] Luke 9:54

[16] Mark 9:40. In Mattew 12:30, Jesus also teaches the inverse—“whoever is not for me is against me”—in which he’s seeming to talk about spiritual opposition. So it seems there are ways in which we can assume good will while at the same time recognizing that we’re also looking for partners in Jesus’s mission.

[17] 1 Corinthians 4:3 (“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.”) is a particularly intriguing case study along these lines.

[18] One evangelical church movement, feeling that even the word “Christian” had taken on bad popular connotations, encouraged replacing “I’m a Christian” with “I’m a Christ-follower.” That struck me as weird jargon, though clearly when we phrased it as a process (“I’m trying to follow Jesus”) rather than as a noun, it worked great for me. Proving that we each need to find our way here.