Magazine article The Christian Century

Ecumenism at Home: Mainliners and Evangelicals

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ecumenism at Home: Mainliners and Evangelicals

Article excerpt

I am member of a United Church of Christ congregation that prides itself on its theological pluralism and individualism. I was a drafter of my church's statement on including gays and lesbians and I am as close to being a card-carrying Christian liberal as one can be. So many of my friends were surprised to learn that my teenage sons are deeply committed to a Southern Baptist church. Was this parent so preoccupied that she hadn't noticed the direction of her sons' pilgrimage?

Although I was initially concerned about my sons' involvement, several factors have allayed my fears. First was the realization that my sons are learning a theology that is very close to what I learned in the Presbyterian Church in the 1950s and 1960s - far closer, in fact, than what they would learn in the UCC church I attend. The liberal church in the suburbs of New York City that I attended as a teen devoted most of the youth time to examining credos and doctrines. I remember going on church retreats and discussing long into the night how we were all going to be missionaries when we grew up and smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. I debated long and hard with my mother about the nature of predestination and the meaning of a triune. God. Now when I talk with my sons about the nature of evil and temptation, I realize that there has been a gradual change of position - the theological concerns originally addressed by the liberal denominations have been taken up by the more conservative ones. Although I have long been aware in an academic way of this shift, through my sons I have become aware of it in a dramatic way.

My sons were drawn to the SBC church because their friends go there. Taking the call to evangelize seriously, these friends invited my sons to attend. Also, they liked the youth leader who gives the teenagers all his free time. Finally, they found among members a deep commitment to seek the will of God personally. My older son had often complained that his UCC Sunday school class spent too much time on human relations, adding only a scriptural gloss, and that the teachers, although caring, were uneasy in talking about their own faith. He was at a point in life when he yearned to make a commitment, but no one was asking him for one.

I worried about the fascination young people seem to have with demons and the devil, and I also feared that my sons would be encouraged to regard their Jewish friends as unsaved and on their way to hell. In short, I was afraid of many things that liberals fear (with some good reasons) when confronted with conservatives. But I couldn't determine what the church was teaching without visiting it. I had to lay aside my own preconceptions and listen. So I began to volunteer to drive for the youth group; my sons held prayer meetings in my office; when a counselor was needed for a regional youth evangelism conference, I went. I even learned how to pray with my hands in the air.

Was I at ease with everything? By no means. But I recognized that liberalism is a learned stance, often learned the hardest way when one sees the terrible effects of zealotry. Evangelism, when unchecked by ecumenism, can lead to the dangerous dichotomy of the saved and the unsaved, of those going to heaven and those going to hell. But at the same time, young people need to believe in something specific. It is difficult to cut theological teeth on an amorphous, pluralistic sponge.

We reached an agreement in our family: Our sons had the right to attend the church, and my husband and I had the right to disagree with what they were taught there - if we explained our disagreements in an unemotional way. …

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