Rev. Dwight Welch

“The church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” — William Temple

John Shelby Spong recently passed away. He was the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, whose career was rooted in the effort to open the church to everybody.

It was his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism that helped me as a college student to rethink what I believed and why. So, this column is dedicated to Spong and his work.

Spong started his book, Eternal Life, talking about funerals. In them, he notes the services are not directed to members of the church. It is for those who are gathered.

And when it comes to weddings and funerals, the one thing you know is that most of the folks in attendance are not church members. They come from all walks of life. Many are part of what Spong calls the “church alumni association.”

To relate faith in this context means to relate to everybody.

There’s a value to this. It means that you must relate to the human condition, to those shared experiences that make us human. It means you must relate to the person, in their individuality as opposed to forcing them to fit the rubrics of your religion.

That does not mean you are not drawing from your religious tradition, but it is in the service of the person and their situation, not in defense of your church and your religion.

The closest thing I can think of to this kind of work is chaplaincy. When I was in graduate school, I volunteered as a chaplain at the local hospital. The important thing was not your tradition, it was the patients’ needs. You met them where they were.

It’s one reason religious exclusivists wouldn’t participate in this program. The volunteer chaplains came mainly from open churches. It was because they felt comfortable setting aside their religious notions to relate to patients’ needs, to do a referral if a specific religious rite was needed, even if it was not from their own tradition.

To pull this off, certain theological presuppositions are needed:

God is the God of the whole world, not just of the church. You cannot make divisions between insiders and outsiders.

Theology comes from the lived experiences of people, not the institutional needs of the church.

The church primarily exists for those outside of the church.

I’d suggest such a vision models the life and ministry of Jesus, who always related to people across the divisions of religion and society.

So. when I read the Pew report on the increased religious polarization of the country. That is churches, like every other group, are finding that people are sorting themselves based on their political alignments. that is recipe for further polarization and I think that is a shame and denies the gift the church can be in our society. When religion is an indicator of your political tribe, when it defines who is in and who is out it ceases to perform the role of what binds us together as human beings. To bind is the original meaning of the term religion.

One of things I’m grateful for in my work as campus minister at MSU Billings is that you can’t find that polarization with our college students. They have no interest in the culture war, in your politics or your church identifications. A Washington Post piece on high school students found the same thing.

They come into campus ministry fully open to community, to learning from each other, over food, games, discussions and more. It could be a model for what the future of churches will look like. And I draw strength from that.

Rev. Dwight Welch is a pulpit supply minister for First Congregational and Peoples Congregational in Savage and Sidney and campus pastor at United Campus Ministry at MSU Billings.

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