Keep the Church Weird

There is an unofficial motto in the Rose City that you see on bumper stickers and painted on the sides of buildings: "Keep Portland Weird." Truth be told, I'm kind of surprised Portland has embraced the saying. The slogan belonged to Austin, TX first (obviously, it was "Keep Austin Weird") and Portland does not seem like the kind of town to claim some other city's reheated seconds as its own.

But they do pride themselves on their weirdness. In fact, they officially pride themselves on their weirdness. If you go to the website for Portland's tourism bureau, there is a "Keep Portland Weird" section trumpeting many of Bridgetown's odd locations and events. It does make you wonder what "weird" actually means when it is officially commodified as a selling point. In fact, I am sure that conversation is going down in a few of the city's approximately two billion coffeehouses.

Is Portland weird? I guess. Truth be told, I imagine that the weirdness goes many layers deeper than we were able to witness in just a few days. It's certainly different from Spartanburg, SC. Portland is like our bizarro world. But isn't weird just a matter of perspective? If a native Portlander were to venture to suburban, deep red Spartlandia, they would probably find this city highly unusual. One person's weird is another person's normal.

So if weirdness is actually just a matter of perspective, how can it be kept? If you keep a place weird, doesn't it just become normal?

I wonder if the whole idea of "Keep Portland Weird" is more a matter of some sort of radical hospitality. To keep Portland weird is to make space for people to live and express themselves no matter how bizarre they may be. That sounds like anarchy to some, but that would be a reductionist way of looking at things. There is still a societal contract. A person's weirdness is not allowed to infringe on the well being of someone else. At the same time, the diversity is welcomed and celebrated.

I do not think that it is a coincidence that Portland is a very friendly place. Virtually everyone we met showed hospitality to us guests. That makes sense considering the welcoming of the weird that takes place in Portland. How could you not be hospitable to strangers when embracing the strange is built into your city's identity?

The Church could learn so much from this attitude. Or, rather, we would do well to reclaim that attitude because radical hospitality is built into the DNA of the Church. Jesus hung out with those that would have been considered the weird of his day: tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, uneducated fishermen, children, and others. That was a bizarre bunch back in the day.

Yet today the Church does not often present itself as a weird place where everyone is welcome. It's often seen as a club where only a certain type of person is welcome. If you asked most people in the US to describe the typical churchgoer, they would likely describe a white, middle class, middle-aged guy in a suit. As a result, the further a person is away from that norm the more unwelcome they are going to feel. We have homogenized our local churches into oblivion.

For example, when we were boarding our flight to head home, my Twitter feed blew up with reports from the national conference for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public issues arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. The conference this year focused on homosexuality and there were positives that came out of the conference. Speakers acknowledged the damage of reparative therapy on gay and lesbian individuals. The tone of rhetoric was apparently more encouraging, but there was also this:

There were many tweets like this from Christians. This is a hugely complicated issue, but it has to be remembered that people are at the heart of that. So it's not this esoteric idea. It's men and women who have been hurt and wounded and feel like they are being shown the door. Regardless of what one believes concerning gay and lesbian relationships, there is a better way forward. The church needs to acknowledge that they often speak hospitality and hostility from the same mouth. That just does not work. 

The truth of the matter is that there should be something strange, funky, punk rock, and, yes, weird about the Body of Christ. We need to re-embrace our radical hospitality. Is that going to make people uncomfortable? Heck yes. I imagine that there are many uncomfortable moments in Portland. When such a random assortment of people pinball off each other, things are going to get awkward. Faced with that awkwardness, you have two choices: Grow up and embrace the person anyway or cut your losses and head to a place where everyone is more or less the same.

I am not saying that starting tomorrow, every church should contain a cornucopia of diversity, but we need to strive towards being these weird little places where anyone would feel welcome. Weird little places where anyone can hear the message of Jesus and God's grace. This is important for all churches and no just the older suit and tie congregations. To be weird means embracing young and old, rich and poor, every race, every person, and even the people that make us feel uncomfortable. The gospel actually indicates that we should be especially hospitable to the people that make us uncomfortable.

Radical hospitality is not done in an effort to raise the diversity quota. It is hospitality extended in love; just as Christ loved us. That is the Church's legacy and that is the Church's future. So let's follow Portland's lead and strive to keep the Church weird.

Monday Question: Do We Keep Doing This?

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