A Southern Pastor: What Does It Mean To Be The Church

I write a Christian left blog. The site I write for is a far left, radically liberal site called Liberal America. It focuses especially on issues of the marginalized, poverty, corporate greed, bigotry, discrimination, and hypocrisy. It supports itself with Google ads, which often include ads for dating websites, Viagra, and other non-workplace-appropriate elements. Clicking on a link to one of my blogs often pulls up some pretty disgusting ads, and I am told that I should write for Pathos, or Christianity Today, or some other “more appropriate” site or publication.

But I don’t. And I won’t.

I didn’t do any of this on purpose. A friend who owns the site contacted me and asked me to be the Christian voice on their extremely non-religious site. I had no idea what I was agreeing to, as my first few postings were basically shortened sermons and didn’t get much of a response except for people who read Liberal America commenting that I was an idiot, and that I believed in a sky fairy. Then one day as I sat in front of my computer watching my Christian friends post hateful things about gun control after yet another college shooting, and then more hateful things about the LGBTQ community over legalized gay marriage, I became angry and wrote a blog entry. The internet went crazy with it and within two hours, I was the “Pissed Off Southern Pastor.” I had to shut down my personal Facebook page for a week because people were requesting to friend me, and sending me inbox messages, at a rate of literally one hundred an hour.

In the next few days, I reactivated my Facebook page, did a lot of praying, and discovered a world of “nones and dones” who were desperate for a religious leader to say some of the things I had said. I began to work my way through hundreds of messages and emails from people who had been moved by what I had said. Apparently, there were a lot of people who were pissed off, and they were relieved to have a religious spokesperson who had said publicly what they had been afraid to say themselves.

In the last 18 months since the “Pissed Off” article ran, I have posted ninety-two blogs, and I have been called out on them numerous times by others in the church who believe that I shouldn’t write what I write or where I write it. On the Liberal America page itself, I get called horrible names and made fun of by agnostics and atheists who think I am a joke. But the best part is what no one else sees. I didn’t intend to become an advocate for the LGBTQ community. I was outspoken in the original article about all kinds of radically unloving things, not just discrimination and attacks on the LGBTQ community, but that group of people reached out to me in ways I never expected.

Today, I pray with transgender people in France, lesbian couples in Belgium, and gay men in Texas. I have chatted with lesbian couples as they shopped in Barnes and Noble for the first Bible either of them had held in 20 years. I direct people to the Reconciling Ministries Network, so that they can find a church home where they will be loved and accepted. I message with teenagers trying to find the courage to come out, and with elderly people who regret that they never did. These are people who desired a relationship with the church but felt unwanted and even condemned. Just hearing a pastor get publicly mad about the fact that they were being made to feel that way by much of the Christian world was all they needed to reach out.

Colossians 3:12-15
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

I am no longer devastated by any backlash which might come from my writing, and when I am told that I should “rethink my relationship with that website,” I explain that Jesus didn’t open the doors of a building and say, “come inside;” he went to where the people were.

Luke 19:10
10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

People who have been left out or hurt by the church read websites which agree with them about the damage the church can do, so that is where I choose to write. I don’t mind the names I get called on the page itself, because I know the messages I receive in private are what counts.

There are many progressively thinking clergy in rural southern America, but when we were at a conference, and the Reconciling Ministries Network was passing out rainbow buttons which read “Y’all Means All,” several took the buttons, but put them in their pockets for fear of people seeing them and that being an obstacle in their appointments. As I sat that day and pondered it, I took my button out and put it proudly on. Either I am going to live my calling, or it isn’t real. It was four months after that when I wrote the Southern Pastor article which forced me to live into that fully.

When I am in the pulpit, I preach the Gospel. I don’t discuss politics, and if the Gospel upsets your politics, then that is between you and God. I am only trying to preach what Jesus taught. Then several times a week, I try to set aside time to manage the page I created on Facebook, and answer the ever-growing number of messages which I receive as a result. And therein lies the problem.

I only find the time once or twice a week to check in on my page and messages. And I only find time to write something new once or twice a month, sometimes not even that much. People need pastoral care and inspiration; they are facing life’s problems and issues in which they need to know they are not alone. They are searching for support and guidance through sanctifying grace all the time. As an appointed part-time pastor, in seminary full-time, and working a part-time secular job to be able to pay the bills, I simply do not have the time to be in ministry in this obviously, massive, mission field. But there is an answer.

We, as the church, must begin to view and approach ministry in its current context, and stop attempting to fit 21st century ministry needs into 16th century ministry models. We can’t keep wondering why people are not coming to church on Sunday mornings, and yet keep pouring our funds into building more and bigger church buildings for Sunday morning attendance.

In Henri J. M. Nouwen’s book, A Spirituality of Fundraising, he beautifully explains the idea of creating space in which to discuss a real need for financial stewardship and a concise understanding of how money and ministry are really one. Nouwen explains that we must stop equating money with power and thinking that funding something in any way takes away existing power in the church. By withholding financial support from newer and more relevant mission fields and approaches, the church hierarchy isn’t holding power in the already existing church organizations; they are blocking the investment of many others who are unable to find a comfortable place to give in the existing structure. (pp. 29-31) People who have never experienced church, or who have been hurt by a previous church experience, or who simply don’t feel comfortable in the traditional church building setting, can be brought into fellowship with the larger church organization by offering them a place and a method which is more appropriate and comfortable to them. When they connect with the church as a whole, it doesn’t take away from the existing church hierarchy or structure, it simply brings even more gifts, talents, resources, and witness into the church as a whole. (pp. 36-41)

Christians want to reach the unchurched. They want to find the “nones and the dones” and speak to them about Jesus. They obviously want to, or we wouldn’t be able to raise billions of dollars a year to build more church buildings. What we have to do is break away from the idea that the unchurched will come to us if we have a big pretty door to open, and begin to realize that it is our job to go out and find the unchruched, and in many cases, minister to them right where they already are.

It seems the thinking is that subsidizing a coffee shop ministry, or an online ministry, or any other alternate setting, is a threat to the budget which is already stretched, and in some cases, failing. We must let go of this type of thinking. Spreading the gospel however, wherever, and whenever people need to hear it simply must become the focus. And for that to be the focus, we have to let go of the idea that a church only exists as long as a building does. Church is an idea, a belief, a commission, and a covenant, and Jesus never once said it required a building.

We do not look at the theology of sexuality to purposefully start some sort of argument. And I did not write about the LGBTQ community because I wanted to start some sort of revolution in the church. But if we are really trying to be a prophetic voice, it is our job to continually be delving deeper, and reinterpreting in original and relevant ways, or we are just repeating the missions, needs, and ministries of a bunch of German philosophers from centuries ago. While it would certainly be difficult to take attendance and keep records the way we are accustomed to, reaching the people must take precedence over stockpiling numbers and maintaining the status quo.

Sometimes I still get told that I am a divisive element, and the church is concerned about my choice of writing. But any night when I have the time to answer the messages and emails from people I have never physically met, I am convinced that this is a new place of ministry which will become more and more relevant in the near future.

I am not sure of the answers, just that there are questions we should be asking, and it is our job as Christians to ask them. I am not afraid of what we might find by looking at the Bible in new and necessary ways; my faith is stronger than that. And I am not afraid of accepting that bigger and more opulent buildings may not be the future of the church. We cannot think in only old ways and expect to get new results. It is time to rethink and recommit the way the funding of the church is handled. It is absolutely imperative that we do. It is scary, but it is necessary.

I propose that less building projects be approved, and more non-building appointments be created. The money is already there; the question is will we be brave enough to use it in new ways to reach God’s people wherever and however they need to be reached.

Only through committed prayer and trusting cooperation can the church open its eyes to the future. We must fund online, on the street, and in the neighborhood appointments, and stop building structures, which not only are not attracting the “nones and dones” to God, but are a physical and lasting testimony to our lack of commitment to go out and seek those in need where they are in this wounded world.

Melanie Tubbs is a professor, pastor, mother, Mimi, and true Arkansas woman. She lives with nine cats and one dog on a quiet hill in a rural county where she pastors a church and teaches history at the local university. Her slightly addictive personality comes out in shameful Netflix binges and a massive collection of books. Vegetarian cooking, reading mountains of books for her seminary classes, and crocheting for the churches prayer shawl ministry take up most of her free time, and sharing the love of Christ forms the direction of her life. May the Peace of Christ be with You.