By Pete Shaw
Open and relational theology requires a change in our language, and this shapes our beliefs and practices.
“How are we going to get people to tithe without using fear?”
My fellow-pastor-friend was only sort of kidding when he asked the question. As like-minded pastors leading churches that operate from an open and relational theological perspective, his was not really a hypothetical question. Neither was it just related to financial contributions. Might as well add serving to the list (especially nursery duty). And small group involvement. And worship attendance. And even conversion. When fear of God’s judgment is off the table, a lot of our comfortable rhetoric is, too. We can’t say things the way we used to.
I grew up in the Baptist tradition. We are a tribe who take pride in the freedom to interpret the Bible as we see fit. Ironically, while this might cause one to assume there would be greater openness to varying biblical interpretations, Baptists have become associated with being rigid and closed-minded, even judgmental toward those who disagree with the established position. The certitude about doctrinal positions and whom God will surely judge has created great passion for evangelism yet brought with it some unintended consequences that became too much for me to live and lead with. My personal faith journey was motivated by what Thomas Jay Oord calls the uncontrolling love of God that has room for an open approach to understanding the faith and assumes that God’s love means relationship between the Creator and created is paramount. Was my language and leadership reflective of such love?
I was never very extreme in this regard thanks to my more moderate upbringing, yet I am certain that in my earlier years of ministry I used a degree of the fear of God’s retribution in my rhetoric to motivate people to make faith-related decisions about conversion, worship attendance, discipleship program participation, service, devotional life, and personal evangelism. The boiled down message was, “God loves you, but if you don’t do ‘X’, there will be hell to pay.” It’s not that there aren’t consequences to choosing not to follow God – of course there are. Jesus came to lead the way toward an abundant life built on love and grace that leads to all the fruits of the spirit available in every season. Not following in Jesus’ footsteps at least minimizes such a harvest, and at worst can result in a very self-and-other-destructive rendition of living that nobody wants.
There is surely FOMO (fear of missing out) that is worth lifting up related to the Christian life and its message. But when we, with great certainty, tell our audiences that God’s love is conditioned upon our allegiance, that God’s “control” means our life script is pretty much set, and that our eternity may be in the balance if we’re not careful to toe the line, I think we’re adding an element that does not reflect Jesus well. This articulation of Good News may be well meaning, but it doesn’t quite come off as “good” as we might think. If we really, really, really believe that God is love and is lovely, we can’t use fear in our rhetoric or leadership strategy.
Easier said than done. Language is powerful. It not only communicates what we believe, it shapes it. We might get into trouble as we change our language and strategy, because it will challenge the held beliefs it seeks to articulate. When we shift one, it can have a domino effect on the other. Open and relational theology is messy.
This reality reminds me of Peter, Jesus’ disciple and apostle. His humanity seemed always on display. Peter was a person in process. He identified Jesus as the Christ, and then told him how to be Christ. He proclaimed unshakable loyalty, and then denied knowing him three times. He assured Jesus of his love, then, after being restored (!), whined about whether or not he was being treated fairly given the grim news of his distant-future death. He refused to call edible the forbidden foods God was calling “clean” in the thrice-experienced lunch buffet vision, followed God’s instructions to go to Cornelius’ house, but then in good klutz fashion treated his Gentile audience rudely (I shouldn’t be talking to you people…). God bless, him, though – after seeing the Holy Spirit welcoming them into the fold, Peter authorized their baptism, giving them a rite of passage that had not yet been granted to non-Jews. Peter would eventually have to explain his actions to the other Christian leaders where he essentially said, “We can’t say and do things like we used to because they are no longer true.” His was an open theology! Three steps forward, two steps back, one foot in mouth is how it seemed to go for him.
Like Peter after baptizing Cornelius’ household, when he had some explaining to do with the Jerusalem Council, so I have moved forward in leadership, building on a foundation of grace, and sometimes facing unpleasant consequences in response, because the new challenges the established, and we generally like things to remain the same. Yet the beautiful example Peter offered was rooted in an open theology that allowed for ongoing discovery and change, fostered by love from God that would not let him go. Peter’s language shifted along with his theology, which then opened the door of grace to the non-Jewish world.
Refusing this kind of fear a place in my teaching and at the leadership table required the development of a different skillset, especially given the fact that the larger culture around us uses fear in its myriad forms of communication all the time. Fear is effective and efficient, after all. In very specific situations, using fear to motivate may be prudent (e.g., telling your young child not to play near the street). But leading a community for the long haul in the way of Jesus necessitates something more akin to Jesus’ approach. After all, he spent three years developing the disciples so that they would not depart from it once he was no longer physically with them. If all he offered was fear avoidance, he could have done that in ten minutes (with a tract?) and get back to heaven. The way of love and grace, however, was and will always be counter-cultural and counter-lizard-brain-intuitive. As was the case for Peter, for me, and for every human being (I think), the Micah 6:8 way of life modeled by Jesus takes time to work in and work out. Our hearts are changed, and so is our language. There are things we just can’t say and do anymore.
We don’t talk about fear in my church. Instead, we speak of opportunity, possibility, responsibility, and maturity as better motivation centers. We stretch in our thinking because God is bigger than any box and discovering more about God is really amazing and freeing. We kneel in service to others because we get to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others and, at the same time, grow from the experience as well. We offer words and expression of grace to others as a holy privilege, and find that when we do, we become more graceful and grace filled. We open ourselves to be the incarnate presence of God in the highs and lows of those around us and find ourselves more filled with the presence of God. We choose to connect with God to foster an ever-deepening relationship with God, and find God doing the same right back, which serves to strengthen our love for the lover of our souls. We choose to offer ourselves and resources for local and global service in ways that promote the larger vision of healing people and communities instead of trying to get them signed up for heaven.
Interestingly, all of these choices serve to create a greater confidence that we are a part of something eternal at work in us and through us, and therefore our hope for life after the grave increases. All of these choices are made without the fear of what God might do to us should we ignore God. All of these choices are made with an eye on the possibility of renewed, restored, resurrected life now. An open-ended script written with the help of a relationally driven God. Our invitation to follow Jesus, therefore, is given without a hint of fear. It relies instead on the genuine love of God. We can’t and don’t use fear rhetoric or gimmicks. For the love of God and God’s love for us, we simply can’t.
Pete Shaw has been the Senior Pastor of CrossWalk Community Church in Napa, CA, since late 1999. He earned his M.Div. (1995) and D.Min. (2006) from Northern Seminary and has consulted many churches seeking transformation. Pete and Lynne have been married since 1992, their two kids are their greatest joy and pride, and U2 his favorite band since 1984.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.