Last Thursday I got an email from my Dad: “Have you seen this?” The link was to Seven Days’ latest cover story, ambiguously titled “Good News? Evangelicals are ‘Planting’ Dozens of Churches in Vermont’s Rocky Soil.”
I was immediately interested. As both a Vermont native and the pastor of a more-or-less evangelical church (a rare combination), I pay attention to anything with “Vermont” and “evangelical” together in the title.
But I hesitated. Would the reporting be flippant? Condescending? Politically charged? Fair-minded? How would it paint the movement that has formed and nurtured me, the faith that gives my life purpose, and the pastoral calling that I have followed? I braced myself and clicked on the link.
I read with some relief. Despite some cynical undertones, Chelsea Edgar’s story was a sincere inquiry into the church-planting movement and, more broadly, the basic claims of Christianity itself.
I felt pride to read about the good work being done to serve small Vermont communities in the name of Jesus. I felt deep resonance as I read the words of fellow pastors articulating how Jesus re-forms our identities. I chuckled with familiar amusement at the unchurched’s perceptions of evangelical subculture. I winced as I recognized some of the quirky, off-putting, even ugly parts of my own tribe. I prickled with annoyance at the worn-out stereotypes of conservative Christian theology. (All these feelings were amplified reading the comments section at the end of the article!)
But what impacted me most of all was the author’s own experience. I imagined Chelsea Edgar, clearly an outsider to conservative Christian culture, taking up her notebook and entering this alien territory of praise bands, baptisms, and expository Bible-preaching. It must have taken courage. Reading between the lines, I sensed her discomfort, disorientation, dare I say fascination? with these Jesus people.
Ironically, what Chelsea criticized most is what made me feel most understood. While describing her experience at New King Church in South Burlington, she notes the apparent contradiction (with discernible incredulity) that the loving Jesus we preach would also insist we surrender the right to define our sexuality. Here’s when I knew she had struck oil. Yes, I thought. The message of Jesus is and always will be counter-cultural. The gospel—the good news that Jesus died and rose again to save sinners—sounds like “foolishness” to secular people and a “stumbling block” (literally, a scandal) to those who don’t believe (1 Corinthians 1:18-23).
So if it is the gospel that seems scandalous to Chelsea or any progressive people, I know they are on the right track. It is a commitment to the gospel, not a conservative political agenda, that animates the church-planting movement. It’s what inspired a group of Georgia residents in 1793 to “plant” the church I now pastor. It’s the message that I believe changes lives and restores communities.
Chelsea probably doesn’t share that belief. But that’s OK. She got close enough to try to understand it. In our pluralistic society, the temptation is to retreat into one’s own tribe for security and affirmation. This only brings out the worst in us all. We need more people who do what Chelsea did: get close enough to others to see and appreciate them, even to be shocked by their beliefs, and to continue to share this little state we all call home.
Thanks, Chelsea. If you ever want to talk to another pastor, my door is open.