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Former atheist and post-evangelical dives into a ‘Blue Ocean Faith’

“Blue Ocean Faith” and author Dave Schmelzer

(RNS) — Dave Schmelzer is an unlikely evangelist.

An in-your-face atheist until his early 20s, Schmelzer ended up in seminary and, eventually, at the pulpit of Vineyard Christian Fellowship, an evangelical church in Cambridge, Mass. Under his leadership, membership soared despite its location in one of the most secular enclaves in the U.S.

Then something changed. Schmelzer started asking why some Christians focused less on Jesus and more on exclusion, drawing lines between themselves and other people whose sexual orientation or politics they disagreed with. He took his church in another direction, focused on inclusion, eventually formalizing its philosophy as a “Blue Ocean Faith” — because these churches “fish” where others don’t and because blue oceans connect the world.

Today, there are 11 churches in the Blue Ocean Faith Network. Most are in the Northeast, one is in Iowa and two are in California. Schmelzer is now in Santa Monica, organizing a new congregation.

He outlines his philosophy in “Blue Ocean Faith: The Vibrant Connection to Jesus That Opens Up Insanely Great Possibilities in a Secularizing World,” a new book he hopes will start a “New Jesus Movement.” He sat down for an interview with Religion News Service. The following has been edited for clarity.

One of the main tenets of Blue Ocean Faith is “solus Jesus,” Latin for “only Jesus,” and a nod to Martin Luther’s “sola scriptura,” the belief that authority is in the Scriptures only. Why is “solus Jesus” the center of Blue Ocean Faith?

Sola scriptura was a powerful way to call out what Luther saw as the corruption of the church of his day. He substituted the authority of the church with the authority of the Bible. That kicked off a worldwide revival, along with a whole lot of wars, and the spread of Christianity.

However, it seems to me sola scriptura is showing cracks. What I discovered as someone who had been an atheist is that the Bible is powerful to study, think about and live by, but increasingly to me the way it was being used to draw lines between people didn’t connect me to the God that drew me out of atheism.

I spent decades trying to find the misconnection here and it seems the theological difference between sola scriptura and solus Jesus is at the heart of the misfire. Sola scriptura has become a way for some evangelicals to feel safe that God will not judge them, that they have not made a mistake. But it has become a poor substitute for actually knowing God. I wasn’t willing to make that trade.

The idea of solus Jesus comes from (the late Christian thinker) Phyllis Tickle. It makes Jesus the center of our faith. We want to know Jesus more, rather than the Bible more, though the Bible is a crucial and valuable tool. Solus Jesus makes the claim that Jesus is alive and speaking, so if we give him focus he will guide and speak to us. We began to see that is a valuable way to think about faith and was something sola scriptura was missing.

Another tenet of Blue Ocean Faith is adherence to what you call “the Third Way.” What is that?

Over the last few decades, I saw controversial issues come into the evangelical churches of which I was a part. We drew a hard line against the people we thought were “wrong,” like LGBTQ persons. But our church in Cambridge and other Blue Ocean churches were filled with people who had come from secularism and it became obvious to us that treating LGBTQ persons differently than anyone else is not something Jesus would do. So we ended up in controversy with our evangelical friends who felt differently. For them, it was obvious this was a holiness question and the Bible was clear — LGBT people cannot be married or lead in a church. So what do you do?

We needed to strike a deal when we have disagreements in Jesus’ church. And that is the Third Way. Taking its lead from Paul in Romans 14, it says we need to respectfully decide that the issue will resolve itself in time and in the meantime we need to err on the side of inclusion. We need to keep people at the table. What we discover is that the Third Way does favor the people on the liberal side of the issue because the other side customarily draws lines against people and won’t come to the table. However, we found many people who are conservative can hang with us and say “that seems fair.” The Third Way requires goodwill. It requires believing the people on the other side are doing their best to follow Jesus, that they have actually considered the question thoughtfully. The Third Way makes sure nobody is excluded.

How do you answer your critics that this is “Christianity lite” or — worse — “buffet Christianity,” where you pick only the parts of the faith you like?

My experience is that people in a Third Way setting are more invested in their experience of faith than the average congregation in an exclusive rather than inclusive setting. At our church in Cambridge, we had higher levels of giving than any church in our evangelical denomination of 550 churches. People were giving money, planting churches — all the markers of serious Christianity. So the criticism that we were watered down wasn’t based on the evidence.

You say in the book you hope a Blue Ocean Faith can kick off a “New Jesus Movement.” How would such a thing be the same as and different from the original Jesus Movement of 50 years ago?

In the original Jesus Movement, which I experienced the tail end of, you had the feeling you were walking into a grand adventure God created that was happening all over the world. That still seems appealing to me and a great thing.

The original Jesus Movement didn’t last, because all revivals don’t last. But we would love to see a new Jesus Movement with the sense of grand adventure that Jesus is on the move, that miracles can happen. We think that solus Jesus helps in this, that Jesus is alive and at work and drawing us all to himself. It is true to say we in Blue Ocean Churches are revivalists at heart.

Your experience is that Blue Ocean Faith appeals to people who don’t go to church. What does Blue Ocean Faith have to say to them?

It is certainly true in our secular settings that if people were to hear most things associated with evangelicalism right now — the frequent racist rhetoric, the anti-LGBT bias — they would be gone. We are 100 percent sure of that. But we are not an evangelical reform movement, we are just followers of Jesus. We came out of the evangelical church because we distance ourselves from a political and social agenda which we find destructive. That said, we by no means distance ourselves from evangelicals who would enjoy worshipping in our churches. So the only deal anyone would have to make to follow Jesus with us is to welcome anyone else in the room. The Third Way requires that of us all.

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