It was a formal church setting with nine area Christian leaders present, but no formal sermons were given or messages with the Bible cracked open to a particular passage.
Instead, the clergy spoke off the cuff in a Christian “conversation” Wednesday night on issues of faith and belief.
And that led them into some areas of modern-day debate and concern, such as marriage equality, race and the church’s relevance in a digital age.
“We’ll be having a great debate next April about same-sex marriage and transgender (issues),” said the Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, at “Christianity Beyond the Catchphrases,” held at Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville.
“Personally, I just want to cry out, ‘Why can’t we be open? What are we afraid of?’” Walton said. “There is so much energy put in those debates that the real energy for the gospel gets diluted.”
“Amen,” someone said from the 250-plus crowd gathered in the sanctuary for the event.
The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector of Grace Episcopal, has said the event was intended to be a “launching point for a series of conversations around the richness of different denominations.”
Talk didn’t focus so much on denominational differences as it did denominational strengths and challenges.
“We feel constantly compelled … to engage situations we may wish to ignore, to make room in leadership for persons we have kept marginalized and hidden for centuries, whether it’s the voice of women, (disabled) persons or persons who are homosexual or transgender,” said the Rev. Cynthia Park, Grace associate rector.
The Rev. Marshall Bruner, Center Point’s clinical director and a United Methodist minister, agreed with Walton that same-sex marriage was a major issue before the denomination.
“Do we accept people as they are and how did they get to be how they are?” he said. “Did God create them that way or is it a lifestyle?”
And the issue is divisive, with “churches … pulling out of the denomination,” Bruner said.
The Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville, said he believes the church’s theme should be “to do justice to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or anything else, and to love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
“I think Baptists have to fight arrogance.”
The Rev. Stephen Samuel, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville, talked about cultural differences also creating issues. He recalled his meeting with one woman and her response when he invited her to his church.
The woman said, “I’m not going to be the only white person sitting up in that black church.”
“I thought we were talking about Jesus,” Samuel said, “but at some point, a wall was built to where culture, or our differences, became more important. Am I to think she’s the exception or … the general rule?”
Several church leaders also worried about how today’s high-tech society regards Christianity.
“I’m concerned that the digital age of the Generation Zs will come in here and miss meeting God,” Park said.
The Rev. Don Harrison, an Episcopalian and Brenau University chaplain, said he believes the Christian faith in general is struggling.
“There are more mosques in Great Britain than there are Anglican churches,” he said. “About 86 percent of Americans claim that they are God-believing, but only 40 (percent) go to any church of any denomination.
“I think the struggle is how, in the 21st century, do you believe in a tradition that goes back thousands of years and is very slow to change and very slow to adapt?”
Coates encouraged the church leaders on the challenges they face and got the audience’s applause in response.
“If the sky didn’t fall during the Inquisition, it’s not going to fall now,” he said.