Let’s be honest. Yesterday’s Q conference got off to a rocky start—particularly for those from marginalized communities.
Q is one of the few Christian conferences I genuinely like going to. It has none of the flash of Catalyst. It’s not a heavy-handed sales pitch disguised as a conference. You can actually interact with presenters. (One of the highlights for me these year was getting to spend a few moments with Jefferson Bethke.)
Best of all, Q has a track record of bringing together voices from all over the map. They’re not afraid to invite speakers who will challenge their mostly conservative-to-moderate evangelical audience.
But there was also an important lesson in the difference between talking with those on the margins (or better yet, listening to them) and talking about them. At first, this year’s event seemed more interested in the latter than the former.
The culture wars have loomed large over the Q conference this year year, particularly the fight over same-sex marriage.
One of the first presenters, Rod Dreher, proposed a tactical retreat—what he calls the Benedict Option—in response to the advance of gay rights in our culture. His suggestion struck me more like Fundamentalism Redux. “The day is coming,” he said, “when Americans who believe in traditional Christianity [defined in this case as opposition to same-sex marriage] will see our lives involving some degree of separation from the American mainstream.”
Now, I agree we shouldn’t get too cozy with the American mainstream—especially when it comes to our culture’s glorification of violence, its objectification of women, rampant consumerism, etc. But none of these were top of mind as Dreher proposed a withdrawal from society. It was mostly about one thing: same-sex marriage. Near the end, he mentioned the recent uproar over Indiana’s RFRA law, calling it an “apocalypse” for the church.
Dreher assured listeners that the church would continue to “practice Benedictine hospitality to the stranger” while in its self-imposed exile. But this seems to be a passive hospitality—one exercised from a distance and only when pressed upon. Real hospitality—that which seeks and welcomes others, that which listens to and enters into other people’s stories—doesn’t seem to be part of the deal.
“What we are fighting for,” he continued, “is the right to be left alone”—a right Christians are told nowhere in Scripture to fight for. “We have to be prepared to be hated,” Dreher concluded. Fair enough. Jesus said as much. Only, let’s make sure we’re hated for the right reasons. And let’s remember how Jesus told us respond: by doing good to others, even those who hate us. We can’t do that very well from a distance, can we? We can’t do that by talking about those on the margins when we should be talking with them.
Another presenter shared results from a survey measuring public perceptions of the church. It might as well have been titled “Why do they hate us?”
42% of Americans believe religious people are more part of the problem than the solution in our country. Half think that religion is not necessary for our society to do good, that “good works” would continue even without people of faith.
How did we get this reputation? What needs to change? These are the questions we should be asking. Instead, the presenter concluded that “the pendulum has swung against people of faith,” as if we’ve done nothing to deserve our deteriorating reputation.
It’s not easy to talk about our complicity in the growing antipathy toward the church. It’s a lot easier to play the persecution card than to consider those we’ve hurt, those we’ve mistreated, those we’ve pushed to the margins. We’d much rather see ourselves as the victims, as the persecuted minority.
The conversation at Q that morning was almost entirely about gay people and not with them. Whenever this happens, it becomes too easy to see them as the Other. Even, perhaps, as the enemy. Before long, we’re not talking about people anymore but a “dilemma” to be solved.
But something changed that afternoon and the following day.
Real, live actual gay people were invited onto the stage. Julie Rodgers and Matthew Vines shared their experience being gay and Christian. The two have very different beliefs about what their identity means for them. Julie argued for celibacy; Matthew believes the church can affirm monogamous, covenantal unions. Both have experienced rejection at the hands of the church. Both have had friends leave the church and never come back.
Later, David Gushee (a recent convert to the affirming view) and Dan Kimball (a pastor representing the traditional view) debated sexual ethics. The following day, Andrew Sullivan shared the stage with Gordon College president Michael Lindsay.
As the conference wore on—and as marginalized voices were welcomed into the conversation alongside more traditional evangelical voices—something happened. The tenor of the discussion began to change. I don’t think anyone on stage or in the audience changed their minds. Gabe Lyons, the head of Q Ideas, didn’t attempt neutrality as he moderated; he was honest about his own convictions. But as the conversation shifted from one about people to one with people, it became just that—a conversation.
The dignity and humanity of everyone involved was affirmed. Participants treated one another with grace and respect—perhaps none more so than Sullivan and Lindsay. The conversation became less about the supposed persecution of Christians; instead, contributors on all sides began to acknowledge the harmful ways in which the church has treated LGBT people.
The conversation on the first morning was primarily about how LGBT issues affect us. It’s no wonder the presentations drifted so easily into a persecution mindset. But when we start having a conversation with those on the margins, we’re more likely to consider how these issues and debates affect them. We’re able to start seeing beyond ourselves. Convictions may or may not be altered—again, I doubt many people in the auditorium changed their views yesterday or today—but hearts, attitudes, and relationships?
That, I hope, is another matter.