Churches Shouldn't Be Think Tanks

By Austin Thomas 6-10-2013
church front doors, natamc /
church front doors, natamc /

I remember the first time I met someone without papers. They were 12 or 13, like me, and pretty unremarkable and brown. I can still feel the tension between my intense curiosity about this boy and my disappointment about him. Going from “I wonder if they have feelings like us” and “he doesn’t have a green card but does he have a mother who loves him” to “he’s kind of normal” and “this is not what I expected a real-life outlaw to look like” in a few quick minutes. 

As life moved on and I made more friends, I met more people who were undocumented. I met grandmothers and little children and some college kids. My relationship with this issue kept transforming, from “I can say I have a friend who’s undocumented SO I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, OK?” to “I have friends, some of whom don’t have papers, and I’d like to government to be nice to everybody.” The more undocumented immigrants I met, the less they seemed different at all.  

It happened that way with abortion, too. And gay marriage. Start out with a simplistic interpretation of the Bible and a black-and-white opinion, befriend somebody at odds with that opinion, the opinion changes. Time after time. I was against women pastors —thanks to Paul and bad exegesis — until I realized that my mother had been spiritually leading people for 20 years and most of them had turned out OK. 

I’m sure that if I run for president in 20 years, somebody is going to find a paper I wrote for my Biblical Interpretation class decrying the moral state of our socialized medical system, contrast that with my current view, and label me a flip-flopper. And they would be right, which would have worried me three years ago. But I’ve met some flip-floppers since then, and they’re pretty decent people. So I’m okay with that now. 

To be honest, I don’t really trust people who have had the same opinions their entire lives. Which is probably why I don’t trust much Evangelical theology, these days. I think it’s natural to have your views about the world change as you experience more of the world, and I wish it were easier to be honest about that when it happened. I wish it were encouraged. 

We live in a world full of contradicting ideas, and the church is a great example of this. There are open and affirming churches with lesbian pastors, and there are reformed churches where women can’t teach. There are small churches where little old ladies do radical things for teen mothers and homeless people, and there are churches in the hood by my house where it’s okay to be poor but a sin to be gay. We’ve all got our ideas about who Jesus is and what he came for and how we should go about making him proud of us. And unless you’re crazy, or maybe even if you’re crazy, it’s easy to find a bunch of people who agree with you about most things.

But here’s the thing: We can’t just avoid the people we disagree with. I mean, we can, and actually most of us do. We stare at them from far away and then sneak off to talk about them behind their backs, like little kids whispering in cafeteria during lunch — only confronting ‘the other’ when we have the security of our church family or the anonymity of the Internet behind us, pushing us forward, cheering us on. In love, of course. Christians have become known for this, and we can keep going in that direction if we want. Facebook makes it really easy. Blogs do too. But it will cost us something big if we do. 

I can’t talk about immigration these days without faces popping into my head — faces of people I love or care about or just met last week. There’s my neighbor who cooks me dinner sometimes and the kid who started coming to our afterschool program a couple months ago. They are there with me, listening, every time I open my mouth to make some witty comment about how our government should deal with ‘those people.’ Because of that, I’m more sensitive; I’m more careful — which is progress for somebody with a big mouth, like me.

I am not suggesting that we take up a policy of tokenism — seeking out gay friends or black friends or poor friends simply to validate our opinions and the way we express them. Rather, I’m asking that we, as a church, stand back for a second, take a deep breath, and look around. Look at those people we are talking about and arguing about, and work to see them for what they are. They are people, just like us. Kind of boring, kind of hurt, happy, sometimes. I’m asking that we see these people, we reach out, and then we talk when we need to. Not as advocates for God and God’s Truth (whatever that means), but as advocates for those whom God cares for. As advocates for God’s children. Let’s let God worry about God, while we worry about those God tells us to worry about — our neighbors, even the offensive ones.

I wonder would happen if we decided to befriend people first and talk about them second. If our theology was informed by God’s kids and our relationships with them, in addition to the Bible and our feelings about it. If we stopped picketing abortion clinics until we started adopting kids, and if we stopped yelling about gay marriage until we had a real friendship with somebody who is actually gay. I bet our views of these problems would change a little, and some of these problems would stop looking like problems at all. I bet more people would listen when we talk. I bet we’d find God there, and that God would look different than we think.

Austin Thomas lives in Los Angeles, Calif. He writes at, and has also written forThought Catalog and the Burnside Writer’s Collective.

Image: church front doors, natamc /

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