Jesus invited disciples to put down their fishing nets and start hauling in believers. The catch was a motley crew of outcasts and sinners: tax collectors, prostitutes, cowards and doubters. Yet he was willing to die for them.
This lesson is lost on many of today’s Christian churches. Instead, they slam their doors in the faces of would-be members. The issue is sex. A loudly assertive minority of Christians has shrunk the grandeur of God to the narrow space between navel and knee. No 13-year-old boy was ever half as fixated on sex as the God of modern Christian conservatives — be they the United Methodist leaders who have voted to crack down on same-sex marriage, or the traditional Catholics battling at the crumbling ramparts of a discredited hierarchy.
The good news from Kansas City is that some Christians still read Chapter 8 of the Book of John. That’s where Jesus met a crowd of first-century bedroom police as they were preparing to stone a woman to death for violating scriptural laws against adultery.
“He that is without sin among you,” Jesus said, “let him cast the first stone.”
That’s the sort of humility I encountered here one frosty Sunday night at the Church of the Resurrection, the world’s largest United Methodist congregation. COR is an example of the churches succeeding at Christian evangelism while steering away from right-wing politics. Founded in 1990 in a funeral home chapel, the church now has more than 20,000 members, with average weekly attendance above 10,000 at four locations in and around Kansas City.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, the soft-spoken, bespectacled founder, reminded more than 1,000 of those members who had braved the cold that night that their mission is to show a welcoming face of Christianity — not the narrowly judgmental version he encountered as a conservative college student. COR’s phenomenal growth proves that a lot of people continue to seek such a welcome.
Some of those seekers are homosexual; most of the others almost certainly have friends, relatives or neighbors who are gay or lesbian. COR’s membership includes at least 20, and as many as 100, same-sex couples, Hamilton said, and over the years the pastor said he has “baptized their kids, I gave them their third-grade Bibles, and I’ve confirmed them.” These families, legally formed under the U.S. Constitution, will be condemned under the strict discipline embraced at the recent United Methodist General Conference. A pastor who celebrates even one same-sex marriage will be subject to a year’s suspension without pay — a punishment more severe, Hamilton noted, than he would receive if he cheated on his wife.
To single out monogamous, loving homosexuals for condemnation is cruel, Hamilton observed. “I am not going to be a pastor in a church that treats gay and lesbian people this way.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
A few miles away, more than 1,200 signatures have been collected from local Catholics by parishioners at St. Ann’s church in Prairie Village, Kan. They’re questioning their archdiocese’s decision to block a same-sex couple seeking to enroll their aspiring kindergartner at St. Ann’s school.
The petitioners politely point out that “the decision to deny a child of God” in this way “lacks the compassion and mercy of Christ’s message.” In response, the archdiocese issued a statement regretting that “same sex parents cannot model behaviors and attitudes regarding marriage and sexual morality consistent with essential components of the Church’s teachings.”
Model behaviors of sexual morality . . . how long after the pope’s emergency meeting to address the worldwide scandal of child abuse by priests was this statement crafted? A few years back in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn became the first church leader criminally convicted for failing to report a child-molesting priest. Finn covered up for a man whose computer was loaded with pornographic pictures of parish schoolchildren. Put down those stones, padres, for heaven’s sake.
It’s not as if the faith is teeming with recruits. The share of Christians in the U.S. population, which has been sagging for some 50 years, plunged nearly 10 percent just between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.
Other than success stories such as COR, the rare signs of growth today are mainly among Christians no longer aligned with traditional denominations, and those who define themselves as “spiritual,” but not “religious.” Doctrinal religion is in bad odor; finger-pointing bedroom police are a distraction from the simple but challenging work of loving God, showing gratitude and caring for one’s neighbors.
Christians have been too willing to surrender control of church treasuries, pulpits, broadcasts and publishing houses to sexual obsessives and hypocrites. So it’s heartening to see this principled rejection by Protestants and Catholics alike of false prophets sowing hatred and division. Community and equality, joy and forgiveness are as urgent and attractive today as on those distant shores of Galilee.