This post is written by Sarah Ngu, a community member in Forefront Brooklyn
The church was full. I had never see it this packed before. Even the upper balconies were filled.
The crowds were here for Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network. The event was part of Forefront Church's Faith, Culture, Questions 2015 (FCQ) series. It was their first time launching this series, and I, a newcomer to Forefront, noticed that they did not hold back: the first event was on science, the second on race, the third on sexuality.
"This church," I thought to myself as I settled into the left-wing of the upper balcony, "might just be for real."
After spending the past eight years in various churches in New York, I have developed a bit of skepticism about the standard “hip,” “culturally relevant” church that tends to attract people like me. I know the script by now. Pastors in skinny jeans and tattoos proclaim to newcomers, "We welcome everyone," and “we love wrestling with questions.”
The thing is that that once you become a member of the community, the script changes a bit—or rather, it’s dropped. Yes, we welcome your questions, but only to a point because we have most of the answers. And membership is definitely open to you, but you are going to have to stop doing that.
Thus when I showed up at Forefront's first service last summer, I was impatient. I wanted to cut to the chase and have them spell out exactly where they stood on issues A, B, and C, so that I didn't have to go through the typical song-and-dance. So I walked up to Jennifer and said, "You are the community pastor, right? I have a few questions."
Jennifer seemed a bit taken aback and asked, "May I ask where you are coming from on these issues?"
She was probably, I thought, trying to figure out what answers I was looking for. I shrugged off some vague response, "Oh I've been thinking about them for a long time" and punted the ball back to her.
I didn't want to lead the witness, so to speak, but more to the point, I was deeply unsure; I was dissatisfied with all the answers that I had found, and so I was prepared to be displeased with whatever answer she gave me.
Jennifer said, "Our motto is that we are more interested in asking good questions than in having right answers."
The skeptic in my head went silent. Most churches would say out loud, "We are interested in asking questions," but refrain from finishing the rest of the sentence, "but we hope you come around to our answers." But this time she was stating upfront the church’s priority: questions over answers.
I was surprised by her answer because I believed that joining a church meant ticking a bunch of boxes on doctrine and behavior and claiming a side. It never occurred to me that there would be a Christian space, much less a church, that would actually take me as I was -- in flux, up in the air, wielding a sword full of questions and a shield to rebuff any answer that smelled too neat.
But a part of me, of course, still raised an eyebrow. Maybe Jen was just good at bluffing, or maybe they hired a savvy marketing consultant. Yet I was intrigued. So I stuck around. And Forefront showed, over and over again, that it actually meant what it said when I heard it first from Jen's lips. The FCQ series was certainly part of the evidence. Seeing the diversity of the people who showed up and invested in the community was another confirmation.
What I find most admirable about Forefront was the honesty and charity that I glimpsed in Justin Lee. He is an out gay man who, in a way, should feel adamant that the evangelical church march over to his side, and yet who bends over backward, with his self-deprecating charm, to build bridges with those who would tell him, “Love you, but hate your sin.”
The summer that I joined Forefront was, looking back, a kind of crossroads in my life. Over time, I have found some surer footing on my questions. I have dug some stakes in the ground. And, over time, I have witnessed Forefront’s leadership take some risky stands on issues in our culture as well. It has not held back out of fear (of donors, let’s be real), but rather has rigorously leaned into not just the “mystery,” but also the controversy. Yet it does so in a way that strives to be a big tent that includes even those who disagree with it, as it wants to be a place of peace and unity – not uniformity – even over issues that can divide blood and kin. To know that there is a church that would feel welcoming to my ardently secular college friends and my on-fire-for-Jesus missionary parents is, I dare say, an unspeakable comfort.
Join us for Faith, Culture, Questions 2016 this fall featuring David Bazan, Lisa Sharon Harper & Brian McLaren. Tickets are now on sale here.