Christianity is About Addition Not Subtraction

I rarely miss an episode of Shields and Brooks on PBS Newshour. I learn something each and every week and these two commentators are exemplars of constructive political discourse.

A few weeks ago Mark Shields was reflecting on the recent political fiasco in Virginia and though I’m not sure exactly what the relevance of the following comment was to Virginia politics it struck me as a profound reflection on the dangers of doing theology as an exercise of boundary preservation.

Shields was unusually lucid during this part of the show and his well-known vocal tics seemed to vanish for a few moments. He first quoted the late Mo Udall, “when the Democrats form a firing squad they first form a circle”, and then offered this commentary:

“Politics is about addition and not subtraction. It’s about a party that welcomes people to its ranks, warmly embraces newcomers, accepts converts happily, and finds common ground. A losing party is one that spends time, energy, and effort hunting down heretics, and banishing them to outer darkness because they don’t subscribe totally to the received wisdom.”

He is not proposing of course that Democrats jettison all their ideological identity and become a party with a big front door and nothing distinctive on the inside of the house. But, I took him to mean that a political party focused on purification — “hunting down heretics” as it were — is a party in decline, a “party about subtraction.”

The 20th Century Church has been marked by an over-focus on doctrinal purity, and while this emphasis isn’t solely to blame for the decline of Christianity in western culture this instinct creates additional sustainability problems. While it’s true that there are simply fewer and fewer people in American/European contexts who have interest in any kind of religious faith, over the last decade we’ve seen a sizeable number of Christians “voting with their feet” and leaving the church often expressing their disenchantment with the church’s contentious nature, its overly-cognitive and belief-oriented orthodoxy, and purgative and preventative measures against LGBTQ and others lacking doctrinal bona-fides. These “dones” ostensibly want to follow Jesus but the institutional church is often seen as a hindrance to this.

Portland is a city awash in people who have left the church. Our city is also full of people who may have some interest in or curiosity about Jesus but rarely would they consider a local church to be an amenable place to explore these interests for the very same reasons as the “dones” give for leaving.

Intown’s vision in this context is to provide a “safe place for people to explore, find, and grow in faith”, to be a church about “addition not subtraction.” And this is not because we have jettisoned doctrinal commitments, but instead because we see in Jesus a God of radical embrace.

  • For newcomers this will mean that Intown will likely feel very different from what you expect church to feel like. Here you are not only allowed, but invited to belong before you believe. We know that when you visit on a Sunday morning you’ll be bringing all your idiosyncrasies with you - just like all the rest of us do. We hope that overtime you would feel more and more at home and that the “real you” would be the person who shows up rather than a projection of the person you think this community wants you to be. At the same time we hope that you’ll come to better understand who Jesus really is and in so doing want to connect your life to his.

  • For Intowners, whether members or regulars, our “being about addition” will in practice mean that our community will be continually-dynamic and that none of us should ever grow too comfortable with a particular season of our church’s life and say “that’s it.” With new people consistently coming in the front door our family dynamic will consistently change in the same way that a newborn changes a biological family’s dynamic. New people bring new needs, questions, and perspectives and if you are a part of Intown expecting it to be a community of confirmation-bias, please know that you too are welcome here, but you will experience discomfort…which probably means you’re exactly where you need to be.