#ThinkerThursdays: Jonathan Merritt (Part I)

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. 

This is the sixth interview of the series, featuring Jonathan Merritt. This interview is unusually broken up in two parts. Part I focuses on Merritt’s thoughts on the central challenge that the church faces for the next decade. Part II will dive more into what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of Merritt’s writing and thinking.

Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior columnist for Religion News Service. He is the author of Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.

Q. What is the greatest challenge for churches in the next ten years? 

It will undoubtedly be the issue of sexuality. The church, particularly conservative churches, are now attempting to find ways to maintain what they believe to be theological orthodoxy, while at the same time asserting themselves as a relevant and compassionate voice in 21st century American culture.

Q. How possible is that in a culture where you are immediately asked to take a side: Are you homophobic or not? LGBT-affirming or not?  Do you think that middle space between traditional orthodoxy and cultural relevancy, between doctrine and compassion, is viable?

Right now, Christians who claim to be in the middle tend to be on the right fringe with a quasi-compassionate view painted over it. So-called “middle-ground” Christians are changing their behaviors only in terms of method.

But it is not the ways that we talk that are primarily the problem, but the ways that we behave: there is a general malaise when it comes to Christian action about the suicide epidemic among LGBT Christians, the homelessness epidemic among LGBT Christians, and untold psychological effects that are experienced by LGBT individuals, oftentimes exacerbated by the rhetoric of the church. You know the apostle John was unambiguous when he said, “You can say you love someone, but if you do not do love, you are a liar.” The church is going to have tangible, visible and aggressive expressions of what it means to love LGBT persons. And we have yet to see that.

Q. Do you even think the middle ground is theoretically possible in our society? Or will sexuality become such a black-and-white issue that having a “middle position” would be equivalent to being a “nice racist”?

I do think its possible that individuals who hold to conservative theology could carve out a middle ground by coupling their theological proclamations with visible and tangible expressions of loving, inclusive and compassionate behaviors.

There is precedent in terms of the way that conservative churches have responded to the issue of divorce, another deeply personal issue that is connected to the sexuality issue because it touches on issues of marriage and family.

Thirty years ago, if a conservative pastor talked about divorce, he had to couple with that with sweeping condemnations of divorce itself. Today, there are a whole host of churches today that believe that divorce is actually something that God hates — and yet at the same time they provide opportunities for the divorced to participate fully in congregational life.

If the church can model a way forward in terms of sexuality that is similar to issues like divorce, I think that there is a middle ground that is not only possible but could be fervent soil for a new expression of what it means to follow Jesus as a conservative Christian.

Q. Are you hopeful that conservative churches will change?

I am hopeful. Because most conservative Christians I know are not people of hate. They have bought into arguments — fallacious arguments about slippery slopes — and they have been inundated with scare tactics about what the future will hold if they even consider welcoming LGBT people into their congregations.  

The church heretofore has had very little reason, practically speaking, to radically rethink the way it relates to the LGBT community. The American church - in particular the evangelical church - has been since the late 20th century relatively wealthy and well-populated. Both of those trends are moving in the other direction.

Evangelical churches, throughout history, are fiercely pragmatic. They will notice when people stop filling the pews. They are, at their core, evangelical. And so they will do whatever it takes to reach people and love people in the long run.  

Q. Where within the church do you see a particular beacon of hope?  

Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ & Culture, which is incredibly influential to this day about different relationships of Jesus - and by extension the Christian faith - to culture. There was the model of “Christ against culture,” “Christ of culture,” “Christ above culture,” and so on.

Niebuhr presented the idea that in communities where traditionalism is beginning to decline, and secularism or pluralism is starting to take hold, “Christ is against culture.” In a place like New York where those transformations are already complete, we are already to see Christ and the Christian faith in the model that Niebuhr believed to be was the most biblical: Christ as the transformer of culture.

New York is a place that makes me hopeful about the future of the Christian faith in an increasingly postmodern, pluralistic America. It is a place where social lives are given precedent over spiritual lives, and “Sunday Best” is saved for Monday to Friday. And yet, with trained eye, one can see God at work in the most astounding ways. There are incredibly vibrant religious communities here, where Christians, many of them young, are wrestling with incredibly sophisticated questions about what it means to follow Jesus in such a time as this.

It gives me hope because in some ways when you look at New York, you are looking at America’s future. New York is at least ten years ahead of the heartland and the fly-over state and the Bible Belt in so many ways — and yet we see in New York an incredible Christian resilience that I think reminds us that the faith will endure and perhaps even thrive in the most daunting of circumstances.

If that is the future of the Christian faith, we should be confident that the Christian faith’s best days in this country might be yet to come. 

Stay tuned for Part II which will be posted next Thursday.