The coffee we were drinking was still steaming as he nervously clutched the paper cup in front of him and then looked at me across the wrought iron table. I could tell the conversation was going to move from weather and playoff hockey to something more serious. He was new to the church, not a church-shopper by any means, but rather happily a thinking-Christian. In those three seconds in my brain, I placed a silent bet on the question that was coming next.
“So, what’s your church’s position on ____________?”
Except the blank was filled in—and he was definitely wanting to hear the “right answer.”
As a pastor and church planter, I’ve had enough conversations like this one to form stack after stack of little paper coffee cups. In a polarized culture, the default reaction on issues of sexuality, gun control, abortion, and a myriad of other hot-button issues is to divide and make war—to move to the left or right, up or down, for or against, and then heave verbal and printed shrapnel across the DMZ we’ve created to the other side. The Church and her tribes are pulled into the thinking of false dichotomies, usually turning into internal battles of sorts, often at the expense of the outward-extending mission of Christ to all nations.
But what if there were a middle way of handling these divisive issues that could set us free to remain focused on that mission—while not ignoring the complexities of the world around us?
What if the way forward for the Church in these highly polarized and antagonistic times is less of a black-or-white answer or a decision made out of logical conclusions or a policy of protection, and more of a posture that holds an ear to all parties? In his book Loving God, Charles Colson says:
Life isn’t like a book. Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived out in the midst of that mess.
This middle way would mean being okay with not only wading into that mess, but standing there without swimming to a side of the pool. Perhaps it is possible—though difficult—to live in what I’d like to call the “Messy Middle” for the sake of God’s mission.What if there were a middle way of handling divisive issues like sexuality, gun control and abortion that could set us free to remain focused on mission—while not ignoring the complexities of the world around us? Click To Tweet
The Messy Middle is Not What You Think It Is!
Before we talk about what it means to stand in the Messy Middle, it’s important to define what the Messy Middle is not.
We often view someone who is standing in the middle through the lens of either a victim or a coward. It’s the flag in the middle of the elementary school gym’s tug-of-war rope, the child caught in the struggle between two parents, or the third point in a triangulated relationship or somebody who is just plain lazy.
While these are ways of being caught in the middle that we may sometimes find ourselves in, they do not describe a theologically considerate and faithful reason for assuming that place.
Here are three things I am not talking about when I describe an intentional positioning in the Messy Middle.
- A Place for Indecisiveness. The Messy Middle does not mean sitting on the fence, being indecisive, hesitant, and subsequently paralyzed to do or say anything. It’s a posture, rather than a position. While a position focuses on one’s own views, a posture is less about what conclusions you’ve come to and more about how to remain open, connected, and in a loving relationship to one another in spite of differences.
- A Place for People-Pleasing. The Messy Middle is not an excuse to make everybody happy, to avoid difficult meetings and stressful cups of coffee.
- A Place for Laziness. And the Messy Middle is not a place for those who have not done their homework. In fact, it should indicate a posture of in-depth exploration, intense conversation, and receptiveness to information from all sources and perspectives. Those in the Messy Middle should not only know what the “sides” stand for and how they got to their conclusions, but also they should be in relationship with real, living, breathing, coffee-drinking people who hold those views.
So…What Is the Messy Middle?
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
The Messy Middle means never losing sight of Christ’s mission. The Messy Middle is a calling that sacrifices the comfort of standing on the shore of clear-cut, even “correct” answers, in order to wade out to people on another shoreline. When we choose a posture of the Messy Middle, we choose to embody the difficult, uncomfortable, yet holy role of the eirénopoios—the peacemaker.The Messy Middle is a calling that sacrifices the comfort of standing on the shore of clear-cut answers in order to wade out to people on another shoreline. It is choosing to be a peacemaker. Click To Tweet
We have quite a range of perceptions regarding peacemakers: on the positive, people affiliated with the United Nations who help end wars, and on the negative, people who compromise their beliefs and lack a backbone. We understand that Jesus said they were “blessed,” but deep down we know they wouldn’t survive a Board, Council, or Elder meeting twenty centuries later.
But in Jewish rabbinic tradition, Aaron, the older brother of Moses and the first high priest of the Israelites, sets the example for the ideal peacemaker. The crowd listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would have been familiar with this language. In rabbinic law, a distinction is made between a judge engaged in the arbitration of right and wrong and a peacemaker engaged in the risky and messy relational process of conciliation or mediation. Aaron is portrayed as never reprimanding conflicting sides, telling one or the other that they are wrong, but rather pursuing peace between them. One of the primary roles of the local rabbi was to promote peace in the community by acting out of humility; his interest was not only in benefits, costs, and righteousness, but in the people. A peacemaker is one who sacrifices his/her own peace, willing to wade into the messy, and all the while, tracking God’s movement in the waves.
The Messy Middle involves seeing people over seeing their position.
Jesus himself dared to give up comfort and resolution for the sake of his mission. He answered questions with better questions, he stepped into conflicts that included death penalty situations, fights among his disciples, and theological debates. He refused to be neatly categorized and labeled in a manageable box or list of stances on the issues of his day. He confused the heck out of both religious and irreligious people.
But he loved them enough to help them wrestle. Instead of making policies, he made conversation. Instead of writing black-and-white proclamations on paper, Jesus attended meals around tables.
The Messy Middle is where new possibilities are seen. Eugene Peterson said:
It is by the grace of catastrophe that people sometimes come to themselves and see what is before them as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable our own sovereign seeing.
When we seek to resolve what feels like chaos on our own or when we step to a side in our own power and distance ourselves from those on the opposite shore, maybe we are missing out on what God wants to show us—a new way of seeing.
There will always be a tension in the Messy Middle. Besides what feels like swirling, murky waters while being in relational proximity to those of different conclusions, this is one of the ways you know you are in the Messy Middle. Ingrained in each of us is the desire to resolve the tension the same way a pianist adds an additional chord to resolve a coda. How do you remain in this unresolved posture? Is it possible to live in the Messy Middle when your denomination is in the middle of or has just left the wrestling match, or your congregation is pressuring you to take a side, wave a flag, or write a statement for the church website?
My answer: I don’t know. That’s part of the messiness. But I do know this: I hesitate for that to be the reason to go polar.
Let me share with you one of the practical ways I navigate messy conversations.Is it possible to live in the Messy Middle when your denomination is in the middle of a wrestling match, or your congregation is pressuring you to take a side, wave a flag, or write a statement? Yes! Here's how... Click To Tweet
A Tiered Approach to a Messy Middle Conversation
Ideas and theological conclusions are wonderful, but as a practical theologian and pastor, I always want to know “what do I do with that?” So let’s revisit the coffee conversation I had with the gentleman at the beginning of the story, in the hopes that it may fuel some imagination for how we can all minister in the Messy Middle.
Before we even began, I knew three things as I entered this conversation with him:
- Regardless of whether he was a Christian or not, the first was that he valued me (a Christ-follower who happened to be playing the role of pastor) and the church. He wouldn’t be asking if he didn’t care.
- The second was that he had an either clear or nebulous position whose ingredients included some (unknown) percentages of reason, life experience, tradition, history, and scriptural investigation. That meant I valued him, what he thought, and the process by which he had arrived there.
- The third—and perhaps the most important—is that his question was really about alignment (“Are our responses the same or different?”) and belonging (“If they are or are not the same, can I belong?”) For me, those are the questions I’m answering in his fill-in-the-blank question.
- “I value you.” Before I declared anything, I reflected back to him that I valued him and God did too.
- “Help me understand why this is important for you.” Then I asked him why he was asking so that I could adequately answer from the right direction (i.e. he might have held a job at a place with a certain reputation or stance, he might have had a close friend or family member or even himself who had been treated a certain way). Most of the time, at this point, the person responds with a story that reflects a belief, position, or nebulous belief or position, helping me frame my response. If I sense this person is willing to wade into the Messy Middle with me, I will then share a three-tiered answer.
- A Three-Tiered Response: Our Congregational Context, Our Congregation, My Own Current Belief
First, this is the story of our denomination on the issue (or church association or larger governing body if there is one). We recognize and respect that our church and myself are under that body’s authority.
Second, this is where our congregation (local church) is on the issue. We have people across the spectrum of every issue and affiliation, all who are learning and growing in their faith and relationship with Christ, some still even skeptical. But the folks on the edges of the spectrum are “okay” with worshiping and being in community with people who don’t share the same. Our church’s motto is “You Belong Here, “ and I tell people we actually mean it. We see this diversity as a good thing, also recognizing that some people have “deal breakers” and in that case, I can recommend and put them in touch with another area church and pastor for them.
Third, this is where I am, my story, and how I got here. And these are the things I wrestle with too. I also share that I am more than willing to walk together and go into depth scripturally at a later time. I loop back around: “I value you.”
I’ve chosen to assume a posture in the Messy Middle because this has been a seedbed for conversations and relationships—with LGBTQ people who were sent away to camps and had churches and families disown them, the parents of a transsexual daughter, a prosecutor who had been involved with seeking the death penalty for a suspect, a woman who had never heard a female pastor preach, gun control marchers, an NRA executive, Democrats, Republicans, a woman who had an abortion, a pro-life grandmother, an agnostic marine researcher, and dozens more.
The Messy Middle—while messy, uncomfortable, and often unpopular among those who demand dichotomy—sets us free to focus on mission.
For me, I believe that’s a worthy price.